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The curious case of the Gaza-bound Iranian weapons ship

By James Spencer - 08 March 2014

It hasn’t been the best of weeks for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. First, the International Atomic Energy Agency rebuffed Israeli requests to publish a report that the organisation had withheld last year, understood to contain information from the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MeK) about suspicious activity related to Iran’s nuclear programme, information believed to have been provided to the MeK by Israel. Then came a hard-nosed interview with American President Barack Obama who discussed the Middle East Peace Process and the need for Israel to make tough choices or risk existential failure. The rapturous applause from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee must have felt like thin pickings in comparison.

But suddenly, as if by divine providence, the storm clouds parted, and the rays of the sun (or rather Shayetet 13 naval commandos) revealed a ship full of Iranian weapons destined for Gaza. As Jennifer Rubin swiftly noted, this proves “Iran is a fundamentalist Islamic state that employs terror [...] to accomplish its aims, [… and] hopes to lift sanctions while keeping its sponsorship of terror going full tilt and its nuclear weapons program intact.” Case closed.

Except that there are numerous loose ends to this narrative that threaten to unravel it.

Why are the weapons coming from Syria? Not only are they Syrian-made and marked as such (so deniability is rather difficult), but in the midst of a vicious three-year war during which the Syrian regime has been actively buying weapons from abroad, and has resorted to using homemade “barrel bombs”, why would it export large amounts of materiel?

Also, why would Iran risk involvement in such an issue at this moment? The gains are few (Hamas has become disenchanted with Syria – and by extension Iran – as a result of the sectarian strife in Syria; there are also reports that Hamas is actively policing the truce) and the blowback is great. The case becomes even more curious when one considers that relations between Syria and Hamas have deteriorated so much that Hamas has chosen to side with the rebels in Syria against Bashar al-Assad.

Furthermore, why did Iran ship the weapons via the Horn of Africa, where the Combined Joint Task Force 150 (CTF-150) has been monitoring shipping for over a decade and often seizes weapons and contraband? Strangely “the US said on Wednesday that it had worked with Israel to track the arms shipment, and was prepared to take action itself if needed.” So why the CTF-150 did not intercept it – ultimately risking the lives of Israeli Defence Forces personnel in hostile territory – is unclear.

For that matter, why would the Iranians use exactly the same route – overland via Sudan – that has been interdicted twice already? As Hamas itself said, “Hamas knows that Gaza's maritime zone is under Israeli surveillance and that any ship that attempts to pass through would be stopped and that Gaza resistance forces are not so naïve as to send a large arms shipment via the sea.”

A senior Israeli officer stated, “they intended to unload the rockets in Port Sudan and transfer them to Gaza from there, presumably through Sinai”. Yet, had the weapons reached Egypt intact, there would have been no way to transport them as many of the tunnels into Gaza have been destroyed by the military-backed government in Egypt, where Hamas itself was proscribed recently.

Given the huge quantities of weapons that have been flooding the region since the fall of Muammar al-Gaddafi, it would have been far simpler for Iran to buy weapons in Libya (or provide the money to do so) and send the weapons to Gaza from Libya, thus reducing the risk of interdiction.

So what is going on?

It is possible – despite sundry politicians’ lips moving – that what is reported is true.

It is also possible that the weapons shipment may be a ploy by hard-line spoilers within Iran who wish to undermine the negotiations and the reformist government.

It may also be that this is a purely commercial undertaking (as Iran has done in Africa before), with the weapons destined to make an appearance in South Sudan’s civil strife, or in Somalia, where al-Shabaab are buying weapons.

Who knows? But the timing does look suspiciously convenient for Prime Minister Netanyahu and inconvenient for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s “charm offensive”.

James Spencer is a London-based independent consultant specialising in the political and security issues of the Middle East.

 

 

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