Western Fleets Can't Choke off Iran's Arms Routes for Hizballah

The American, German and Israeli navies cannot hermetically stop every single Iranian arms shipment from reaching the Shiite Hizballah organization in Lebanon. In this battle of wits, an unknown number are bound to slip through the net even after Israeli naval commandoes managed to seize the German-owned Antigua-flagged Francop on the high seas near Cyprus Wednesday, Nov. 4, and impound 36 containers packed with illicit arms. The freight included 2,500 122mm and 107mm caliber Katyusha rockets, thousands of which were fired against northern Israel in 2006, as well hundreds of mortar shells, armor-piercing missiles and ammunition.

This episode was instructive in that it demonstrated Iran's resourcefulness in the pursuit of its goals – in this case, arming its surrogate, Hizballah, and demonstrating its unrivaled superiority as regional power.

1. By one means or another, Tehran has beaten down every diplomatic, military and intelligence effort to stem the flow of Iranian weapons to Hizballah and the Palestinian Jihad Islami in the Gaza Strip.

Armed with thousands of brand-new, high-quality rockets and assorted war materiel, the Lebanese Shiite group has grown into the strongest military force in Lebanon, fast overtaking Syria as the most powerful armed organization in the Levant.

2. Although this is contrary to his own interests, the Syrian ruler Bashar Assad has let Tehran twist his arm to make his country the main overland route for smuggling arms to Hizballah. Overlord of his small neighbor not too long ago, the Syrian president must now defer to Hizballah leaders on his Lebanese policies.

This reversal is partly due to Syria's military weakness; in a war, Damascus would have to rely on the Iran-backed Lebanese Hizballah as its first line of defense against Israeli armored columns.

Because Assad is so deeply beholden to Tehran, the Obama administration's efforts to bring Syria into its fold, loosen its bonds with Iran, draw on its help for restarting the Israel-Palestinian peace process – much less peace negotiations with Israel – have hit a blank wall. The Syrian ruler today is too fearful of and dependent on his closest ally to extricate himself from their alliance.

Dangerous by land? So do it by sea!

3. Tehran has found a hundred ways to bypass any sanctions the Americans may persuade their fellow powers to help impose in the future – especially with China on its side.

4. This week's Francop arms ship episode showed how helpless the West is to block arms traffic, including even nuclear weapons, to terrorist organizations. It also exposed the hole in its defenses against international terrorist attack. The way Iran makes free of the world's shipping lanes to transfer any quantity it chooses to destinations under the eyes of international fleets was an object lesson for organized terror and an invitation to follow suit.

International air and maritime routes are no better secured today than they were after 2001, DEBKA-NetWeekly counter-terrorism sources say. What has improved are the methods of terrorist sponsors for smuggling prohibited arms and even nuclear materials, as the case of the Francop demonstrated this week.

A well-trodden smuggling route became too dangerous last January after Israeli fighter-bombers backed by drones struck a 23-truck convoy carrying arms to Gaza through the Sudanese desert. Iranian strategists turned their attention to finding alternative, less exposed routes for sending arms to their allies.

The solution they hit on was simple: The “feeder vessels” which carry containers from point to point on regular circuits around the Mediterranean and West Europe. To send a shipment to, say, Hamburg, Germany, a client can commission one of these freighters whose regular ports of call include Hamburg to pick up the cargo at another point on its circuit.

The containers are not examined at those ports and no security measures enforced when they are unloaded from, say an Iranian ship, and later collected by a feeder ship like the Francop.

Right under everyone's nose

For the last ten months, therefore, Tehran has exploited this gaping loophole in Western security.

Merchant ships of the Islamic Republic of Iran's Shipping Company (IRIS) have been carrying containers of weapons from Port Bandar Abbas or Port Bandar Imam Hussein to Damietta Port in northern Egypt and Limassol, Cyprus – both regular stops for the “feeder vessels,” which then collect the freights and deliver them to the destinations specified by Tehran.

At this moment, hundreds of these arms containers may be on their way to Middle East or European ports aboard vessels like the Francop.

The American guided missile squadron USS Anzio, the command ship of Task Force 151, which is headed by Rear Adm. Scott Sanders, is in charge of combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden and arms smuggling to and from Iran. Neither this force nor US intelligence agencies in the Persian Gulf were aware of the massive Iranian arms sealift running right under their noses month after month.

Israel's Mossad and military intelligence sensed the Iranians had turned to using sea routes to smuggle arms to Hizballah as they counted the weapons piling up in its South Lebanon storehouses which could not be accounted for by the smuggling routes through Syria.

But they too were baffled, as were the German Militarischer Abschirmdienst -Military Counterintelligence (MAD) and BND intelligence service, which do monitor the feeder vessels in the Mediterranean and the ports of Europe.

Even the German fleet vessels, stationed off Lebanon and entrusted under UN SC resolution 1701 with keeping illegal arms shipments from entering the country through its seaports, never intercepted a single Iranian arms shipment.

An Iranian official blunder

As in so many cases of this kind, the West rumbled Iran's latest smuggling method only last month thanks to a blunder by Iranian officials, DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources reveal.

In October 2009, the German-flagged Hansa India was commissioned to collect a container freight from Iran for offloading in Egypt. It was the only time Tehran is known to have used a foreign carrier to transport weapons, apparently because their delivery to Syria was urgent. That was a bad mistake, because the ship's captain became suspicious of eight of the containers and notified German intelligence.

He was ordered to skip the Egyptian port and head straight for Malta. There, the cargo was searched and a load of ammunition and machinery for fabricating weapons discovered and impounded.

Berlin passed the word to Washington and Jerusalem advising them to focus surveillance on even the most innocuous-looking shipping. It took the US and Israel a month to set the trap for the next Iranian arms shipment for Hizballah. The jaws snapped shut on the Francop on Nov. 4, providing Israel with its biggest haul ever of enemy hardware.

From now on, the feeder ships will come under close scrutiny, but an alert is also out for Iran's next smuggling tricks.

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