Day by day last month, US and Arab media padded stories of the attack on Iranian arms trucks heading through Sudan for Hamas in Gaza, blowing it up into a major war event. Israel, it appears, struck the convoys not once but three times in January and February; the assaults were carried out by a combination of Israeli Air force F-16I fighter-bombers and Eitan or Harmes 450 unmanned aerial vehicles. Israel was also said to have sunk an Iranian ship carrying improved Fajr-3 missiles designed to for Hamas attacks on Tel Aviv and the Israeli Nuclear Center in Dimona. The casualties from such attacks ranged wildly from 40 to 1,000.
The most telling of these reports pointed out that to reach the arms trucks in Sudan, Israel warplanes covered the 2,800-km (1,700-mile) journey from Sudan and back without landing, refueling in mid-air over the Red Sea. (The distance from Tel Aviv to Natanz is 1,000 miles, but only as the crow flies).
Tehran would not have missed this point.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Israeli military sources report that Israel only carried out a single attack on an Iranian weapons convoy on January 29, using four Israeli “Eitan” unmanned aircraft. They destroyed 30 trucks – not 17 as Sudan claimed – and the number of casualties was 39.
The freight carried by the trucks did not include long-range Fajr 3 missiles. Furthermore, no Iranian arms ship was sunk, and no other attacks took place.
US president's first decision to employ proxy force against Iran
Another notable feature of this relatively modest operation was the depth of US-Israeli intelligence-sharing on the movements of Iranian arms vessels in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden. Barack Obama approved the Israeli attack only eight days after he took the oath of office; it was his first decision of this kind as president.
Our sources in Washington and Jerusalem describe how this episode unfolded.
American spy satellites began collecting intelligence on Iranian vessels loading arms at their naval bases in the second week of January. The Israeli Defense Forces were still embroiled then in their operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
However, a week earlier, President George W. Bush still at the helm gave the US Navy the go-ahead to board the Iranian Cypriot-flagged Iranian Monchegorsk and search it. This was meant as a warning signal to Iran that its arms shipments to Hamas were being monitored and would be stopped by force if continued.
American warships escorted this weapons ship through the Suez Canal, after which it put into Larnaca port on January 22. By then, decisions in Washington were devolving on a transition team bridging the Bush and Obama administrations, two days after the latter entered the White House.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources reveal that the day after Obama's inauguration, Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, phoned U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, to thank him for the way Washington handled the Monchegorsk affair and to tip him off that a second Iranian ship was heading for Port Sudan.
A reminder from Washington that military option still on the table
In Barak's opinion, Iran's continued arms smuggling to Hamas and refusal to comply with the first US warning left little option but to stop them by force.
Barak offered Gates two options:
1. Israeli aircraft would sink the Iranian arms ship.
2. The arms vessel would be allowed to reach Port Sudan and off-load its war freight trucks, an activity which would be documented by satellites. The trucks would then be struck by air as they headed for Egyptian Sinai and the Gaza Strip.
Our sources report that the US defense secretary ruled out the first option at once lest it ignite a full-blown military conflagration between Israel and Iran. He did not discount the second option and promised to put it before President Obama and bring his answer back to his Israeli colleague.
On January 27, Barak phoned Gates to let him know that the weapons freight had been unloaded at Port Sudan and the trucks would be setting out in 24 hours.
The defense secretary asked Barak to understand that it was Obama's first week as president. But, he said, a decision would be made very shortly. In any case, there were still a few days to go before the arms convoy reached the Sudan-Egyptian border, time enough for an attack before then.
Secretary Gates was back on the line to the Israeli defense minister 36 hours later, the night of Wednesday, January 28, with presidential approval for an Israeli attack on the Iranian arms shipment.
Israel aircraft struck 24 hours later.
This was not only president Obama's first decision to employ proxy military force, but also an indirect stratagem for putting Tehran on notice that the new US administration was willing to okay the deployment of Israel's long aerial arm against an Iranian target.
Without risking a full-blown crisis, Obama was reminding Tehran that neither the American nor the Israeli military options against its military nuclear actions had been taken off the table.