JERUSALEM—The interception last week by the Israeli navy of a ship in the Red Sea carrying rockets apparently destined for Gaza was part of an ongoing battle to block Iranian arms shipments that is usually waged out of the public eye, security officials in Tel Aviv said over the weekend.
"Not a week passes without Israel thwarting an Iranian attempt to transmit arms to terrorist entities threatening Israel’s security," a defense official told the Jerusalem Post.
These efforts usually involve non-military means, he said, such as uncovering the name of a company that provides components for Iranian missiles or the name of a bank financing the movement of arms.
However, there are sometimes air or sea strikes hundreds of miles from Israel’s borders to stop actual movements.
"The Iranians are deeply embarrassed, if not in shock," said Amir Rapaport, military correspondent of Yedioth Ahronoth. The fact that the Israeli naval commandos who boarded the ship, the Klos C, were able to quickly uncover the hidden arms shipment would have indicated to them that Israeli intelligence had been aware of virtually every step of a complex plan, Rapaport said.
The tracking began half a year ago when Israeli intelligence learned that a shipment of Syrian rockets with heavy warheads was being flown from Damascus to Iran. This was a reversal of the usual route where Iran sends rockets to its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon via Damascus.
Suspicions aroused, the Mossad and Israeli military intelligence maintained surveillance. Israeli officials say Iran chose Syrian rockets instead of its own in order not to leave fingerprints at a delicate time when Teheran is negotiating over its nuclear program.
Iran’s elite Al Quds Force, responsible for smuggling weapons to clients abroad, was frustrated several times in recent years trying to smuggle weapons to Gaza via Sudan and then through Egypt’s Sinai Desert to Gaza. A large arms convoy in the Sudanese desert was attacked by aircraft in 2009 and another arms shipment was destroyed in a warehouse just after arriving in Sudan in an Iranian aircraft.
The attackers were never identified but are presumed to be Israeli aircraft. There have been other intercepts at sea as well as air attacks on arms shipments in Syria bound for Lebanon.
In the case of the Klos C, military spokesmen said the rockets were loaded aboard the vessel, which flies the Panamanian flag, in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. However, instead of sailing west towards Sudan its dispatchers sought to throw off suspicion by first sending it north to Iraq to load bags of cement.
The United States has confirmed that it assisted Israel in the operation, presumably by keeping track of the Klos C through satellite scanning.
The Israeli navy sent down a small task force 1,000 miles from Eilat to intercept the vessel last Wednesday, one day before it was to dock at Port Sudan. The 17-man crew, of various nationalities, did not attempt to resist boarding. Officials said they were apparently unaware of the nature of the cargo.
The vessel arrived in Eilat Saturday. Israeli officials said the crew and ship will be released Monday after the rockets and other weapons were offloaded.