Last month, Israeli intelligence tracked the Iranian military ships Alvand and Kharg, on a journey through the Suez Canal to the port of Latakia in Syria – a place the Russian navy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps both operate. The cargo was offloaded and then picked up by the A.S. Victoria. The Victoria then sailed to Mersin, Turkey, waited a few days and set sail toward its destination in Alexandria, Egypt. But before it got there, Israeli commandos boarded it and directed it to Israel. More than 50 tons of weapons were off-loaded before the ship and crew were allowed to continue their journey.
Among the weapons was an Iranian-produced version of the Chinese C-704 anti-ship missile, called a “strategic threat,” by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The missile poses a threat to Israel’s naval installations and the vessels that protect the 80 percent of the Israeli population that lives in the coastal plain as well as its ports, the power plant at Ashkelon and offshore natural gas facilities.
The missile operators need radar to acquire and fix targets, and two British Kelvin Hughes radars were also found by the IDF. The radars, which come in both civilian and military versions, have to be integrated with the missiles. The integration itself is a military function, making the distinction between the civilian and the military versions immaterial. Someone did the job. In addition, it can be assumed this is the same radar the Iranian Navy is using for its ships equipped with C-704 missiles; it wouldn’t make sense for Iran to be acquiring them just for Hamas. Whoever is integrating for the Hamas export-version is also integrating for Iran.
With this seizure, the Victoria joins a long line of ships large and small that have been foiled by Israel as they attempted to bring Iranian arms to Hamas. But the Victoria is particularly noteworthy for two reasons: the cargo itself, which included the British radars, and the ship on which it was traveling, a French-operated vessel. Both indicate the disturbing possibility that Western European firms like CMA-CGM, which has offices in Iran and operates the Victoria, are engaged in activities that violate UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting the transfer of military equipment and technology to Iran, and from Iran to any other place. Complicity of the interim Egyptian government in the ship’s passage through the Suez Canal is also worrisome.
This is not the first time CMA-CGM has been found with Iranian-related weapons aboard one of its ships. In October 2010, the company admitted that a shipment of arms seized by Nigerian officials came from Iran. Israel said the arms were destined for Gaza, while Senegalese authorities thought they were going to West Africa. On the import side, in July 2009 the UAE seized a shipment of weapons from North Korea headed for Iran on a CMA-CGM vessel. Diplomatic sources said it contained components for an Iranian test launch of a North Korean intermediate-range ballistic missile.
Equally jarring is the possibility of Egyptian complicity. The interim Egyptian government claimed it was powerless to stop a vessel from a country with which it is not at war. However, this was the first Iranian military passage through the Suez Canal since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 because Egypt has considered Iran to be hostile. Egypt is, in any event, bound by the Security Council to ensure that passing ships comply with the terms of the embargo. According to some reports, the two Iranian naval ships were “routinely” inspected by Egyptian authorities; according to others, Iranian diplomats simply “assured” the Egyptians the ships were not carrying weapons. If the Egyptians did not actually inspect the ship’s cargo, they were snookered. If inspectors checked, found the weapons but still authorized the passage, then an entirely new challenge to sanctions enforcement may be emerging. It is not reasonable to think the inspectors checked and didn’t see the weapons.
To skirt sanctions, Iran has used various countries and mechanisms in its efforts to supply Hamas in its war against Israel as well as to add to its nuclear-related capabilities, and the international community has been working to stop the smuggling at both ends. Sudan has been a transit point for air and land shipments, some of which have been stopped by Egypt. Turkey, despite its political pique with Israel, last week stopped an Iranian plane suspected of carrying weapons. The U.S. Navy has used its pirate-searching assets to track Iranian arms shipments as well. And just this past Friday, Malaysia revealed that two cargo containers it recently seized were bound for Iran filled with nuclear-related technology from China.
The issue remains whether countries of the West are still providing Iran with weapons, weapon-related technology and embargo-busting capabilities that allow the Islamic Republic to wage war by proxy. After this latest, failed, attempt, at least the British and French governments know where to start looking. And everyone should be looking at the interim government of Egypt.
Shoshana Bryen is JINSA’s Senior Director for Security Policy