Points To Consider: Recent Iranian Efforts to Smuggle Arms
Security and intelligence-sharing between Israel, Egypt and Turkey evidently remains in a healthier state than is generally acknowledged. In fact, it has been widely assumed that given the deterioration in relations between Israel and Turkey (especially following the Mavi Mamara incident in May/June 2010), and since the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, security cooperation and intelligence-sharing with Israel would be negatively impacted in both cases.
However, in a most unusual three-day period, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey all intercepted cargo thought to include Iranian-supplied arms or arms-related material. In the cases of Egypt and Israel, these were weapons meant to be smuggled to Hamas in Gaza. In the case of Turkey, special nuclear-related material is suspected of being destined for Syria. All seizures required intelligence-sharing which some analysts attribute to information provided by Israel, and possibly involving a coordinating role from the U.S.
The Background Events:
On March 13, Egypt's military shelled seven vehicles carrying arms, likely Iranian-supplied, from Sudan over the border into Egypt. Several vehicles were destroyed and the weapons – intended for Hamas in Gaza – were seized.
On March 15, Israeli naval commandos seized a German-registered cargo ship, Victoria, in the Mediterranean, 320km off the Israeli coast. The Victoria, with 50 tons of Iranian weapons hidden aboard, had set out from the Syrian port of Latakia, stopped in Turkey, and was headed for Alexandria, Egypt. From there, the weapons were to be smuggled to Hamas in Gaza. According to Israeli officials, Turkey was not involved; the stop at a Turkish port is seen as an Iranian diversionary tactic. Among the weapons were a number of sophisticated radar-guided "C-704" anti-ship missiles made in Iran, based on a Chinese design. It has been reported that Israel intends to file an official complaint with the UN Security Council's sanctions committee over the incident, which represents a serious violation of UNSC Resolution 1747 prohibiting Iranian arms exports. The committee is likely to review Iranian arms smuggling efforts as a whole since, during the last six months alone, at least five such shipments have been seized (in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Italy, the Mediterranean, and Southeast Asia).
On March 16, Turkey forced an Iranian cargo plane en route from Tehran to Syria to land at a Turkish airfield on suspicion it was carrying illicit nuclear material. According to Turkey's Anatolia news agency, the anti-nuclear, biological and chemical unit of the country's civil defence department took part in the inspection of the plane, lasting several hours. Following the search, Turkish officials said that no “material contrary to international standards,” had been found and allowed the plane to leave. While Turkey's foreign ministry downplayed the affair, the assumption is that Turkey, which has recently been drawing closer to Iran in some other respects, would not force an Iranian plane to land unless it had solid intelligence that highly sensitive materiel was aboard.
While much of the Middle East, from North Africa to the Gulf Arab states, is undergoing upheavals, it appears that Iran is determined to exploit the situation and exacerbate the instability to its advantage. Egypt and Turkey, in addition to Israel, appear equally determined to counter the threat Iran poses to the region. While this appears encouraging, we have every reason to believe Iran will only escalate its efforts to funnel weapons into the hands of its extremist regional partners, including Hamas and Hezbollah, and may possibly be involved in aiding Syria's undeclared nuclear program.