November 5, 2009
The Israeli navy's seizure of a ship carrying 300 tons of Iranian arms supposedly bound for Hezbollah capped an intelligence operation that tracked the shipment for 2,500 miles from Iran's Gulf port of Bandar Abbas. That's a key base of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which these days pretty much controls Hezbollah.
The timing of the seizure just before dawn Wednesday raised speculation that it was intended to deflect attention from a U.N. debate on alleged war crimes committed by Israel in the Gaza Strip in an offensive almost a year ago.
Those allegations were given immense international weight by a scathing U.N. report released Sept. 15.
With the intent to rebut the charges and justify its actions in Gaza, Israel has been waging a strident propaganda campaign claiming Iran arms Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas faction that controls Gaza with rockets capable of blasting Tel Aviv.
The seizure of the German-owned, Antiguan-flagged freighter Francop in international waters off Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean by naval commandos of the elite Flotilla 13 unit was the biggest haul Israel has made in its drive to cut off arms supplies to its enemies.
Israel's navy commander said the intercept occurred on a routine patrol, but all the signs are that it was the result of a complex intelligence operation.
According to various sources in Israel, Lebanon and Cyprus, the arms were shipped from Bandar Abbas Oct. 14 aboard the Iranian cargo ship Visea. It is owned by the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines Group.
The arms shipment was under surveillance from the moment it left Bandar Abbas in a complex intelligence operation involving Israel, the United States and several NATO members. The Visea sailed into the Arabian Sea and then north up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean. It docked at the Egyptian port of Damietta on Oct. 26.
Thirty-six olive green containers holding, by Israeli count, 3,000 107mm and 122mm Katyusha rockets, along with large quantities of armor-piercing artillery shells, hand grenades and Kalashnikov ammunition, were offloaded. The Israelis estimated that was enough to keep Hezbollah fighting for a month.
The containers remained at Damietta for a week until they were loaded onto the 8,622-ton Francop. From there, the Israelis say, the ship was due to go to Limassol, Cyprus, then to the Syrian port of Latakia from where the weapons would be delivered overland to Hezbollah.
The Israelis said cargo certificates proved the containers were bound for Syria, but they have not yet produced the documents.
Syria and Iran deny the Francop carried Iranian arms destined for Syria. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem even claimed the vessel was sailing in the opposite direction carrying "imported goods" from Syria to Iran.
The Israelis say the Francop's crew, along with the ship's owners, Gerd Bartels of Hamburg, did not know the freighter was carrying weapons. Most of the arms were hidden behind stacked bags of polyethylene labeled in English "NPC National Petrochemical Company" with a flame logo used by the company and Iran's Oil Ministry. Some of the containers were marked IRISL.
When the Israelis boarded the Francop Wednesday they found the arms very quickly, suggesting they knew exactly what they were looking for.
The Israelis clearly were alerted about the arms shipment even before it left Iran, indicating that they may have agents on the ground there or even inside Hezbollah.
Dozens of suspected Israeli agents have been rounded up in Lebanon over the last year, and it can be presumed that others may remain in place.
According to Ronen Bergman, an Israeli security expert and author of the 2008 book "The Secret War with Iran," Israeli intelligence "has been watching weapons deliveries to Hezbollah for some time now." However, he says the Israelis have not moved to stop them, probably to protect their clandestine sources.
Reported attacks on Iranian arms shipments destined for Hamas that were destroyed in air and naval attacks in the Red Sea region earlier this year remain shrouded in mystery.
Israel has made no official comment, but the raids are widely considered to have been the work of Israel's military.
This time the Israelis have gone public in a spectacular manner, possibly to counter the war crimes allegations by bolstering their claim that Iran supports terrorism and cannot be trusted to abandon its nuclear ambitions.