- The Francop arms ship seized by Israel last week was carrying more than 3,000 shells and missiles. The weaponry found would have been sufficient to have sustained Hezbollah in a month of fighting against Israel. The arms were transported in containers bearing the marking of the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL)
- The seizure represents a significant achievement for the Israeli security forces, but it is a single incident which forms part of a much broader picture. As has been apparent for some time, Iran is engaged in an ongoing strategy of attempting to build up proxy forces on Israel’s northern and southern borders.
- Iranian disregard for international borders and support for subversion is not limited to the Israeli-Arab arena. Rather, Tehran offers support for a wide variety of paramilitary organisations and insurgencies in a number of regional flashpoints.
- Iranian regional strategy represents a meeting of ideology with the promotion of the power and influence of the Iranian state and the regime that controls it. The Iranian nuclear programme also has a central role in this strategy. Possession of nuclear weapons would enable Iran to increase its subversive activities across the region with little fear of international repercussion.
The seizure last week by Israeli forces of the Francop ship off the coast of Cyprus offers the latest evidence of a determined Iranian policy to arm and support paramilitary and terror organisations engaged in war with Israel. This Iranian policy is itself part of Iran’s larger regional stance and defiance of the West. Iran, in its attempt to spread its power across the region, is engaged in supporting a variety of insurgent movements. Tehran routinely disregards international norms and international borders. This document will look into the background and implications of the seizure of the Francop, and will seek to place the Iranian practice of support for Hezbollah in Lebanon within the larger context of Iranian regional policy.
The seizure of the ship
On Tuesday, 3 November, IDF forces boarded the Francop cargo ship, as it made its way from the Egyptian port of Diametta, to the Syrian Mediterranean port of Latakia. It was due to make a stop in Beirut before continuing up the coast to the Syrian port. This was the final leg of a journey which had begun in Iran. The ship had made previous stops in Yemen and Sudan. At Diametta, it had loaded containers identified with Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), Iran’s national shipping company. Only last month, the British government unilaterally ordered all UK firms not to do business with IRISL, due to the company’s known involvement in delivering arms supplies to Hezbollah. UN Security Council Resolution 1803 calls on all countries to scrutinise containers bearing IRISL markings closely, and to inspect their content where appropriate. This did not take place in Diametta, however.[i]
The ship had been tracked by Israeli forces for some time. It was thought to be carrying a large consignment of Iranian arms intended for Hezbollah in Lebanon. According to a report in the London-based Asharq Alawsat newspaper, the IRISL containers were transferred at Diametta to the Francop from an IRISL ship, which had arrived from Iran via the Gulf of Oman.[ii] According to the report, this Iranian ship was being tracked by the US and Israel, and the decision to transfer the cargo to the Francop, a German owned ship sailing under the Antiguan flag, was taken in order to avoid the monitoring.
On searching the vessel, Israeli forces discovered that the Francop was indeed bringing arms to Iran’s Shia Islamist client. A massive arms haul was found in the IRISL containers. 320 tons of weaponry were discovered, including thousands of 107mm Katyusha rockets, which have a range of 15 kilometres, 122 mm Katyushas, with a range of 40 km, 9,000 mortar shells, and thousands of Kalashnikov bullets.[iii] Also among the weaponry discovered were 60mm mortar shells, fragmentation grenades, 106 mm recoilless rifle ammunition, and 105mm high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) rounds.
In all, according to Israeli officials, the ship was found to be carrying more than 3,000 shells and missiles – more than ten times the amount discovered on the Karine A arms ship in January 2002, which was delivering arms from Iran to the Palestinian Authority. It was after the Karine A affair that the administration of US President George W. Bush all but severed ties with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat as the Second Intifada surged.
The weaponry found on the ship last week would alone have been sufficient to have sustained Hezbollah in a month of fighting against Israel. Sunday’s Observer quoted a Hezbollah commander who commented, ‘we are rearming, we have even said that we have far more rockets and missiles than we did in 2006 [before the war with Israel].’[iv] The weaponry found on the ship, according to Israeli souces, was new. Most of it appeared to come from Russia and the Far East, while some of it had been made or modified in Iran.
Hezbollah, Syria and Iran were quick to deny any connection to the ship. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told the Iranian news agency Irana: ‘The report is incorrect. The ship was making its way from Syria to Iran carrying goods, not weapons.’[v] Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem blamed ‘piracy’ for the apprehending of the ship. He also said that the ship was carrying only civilian cargo. Hezbollah, for its part, issued a statement on Thursday 5 November saying that it “categorically denies” any connection to the weapons “that the Zionist enemy claims to have confiscated from the ship.’[vi] The denials failed to offer any coherent explanation for the weaponry found on the Francop.
As Israeli officials have been swift to note, the seizure of the Francop represents a significant achievement for the Israeli security forces, but it is a victory in a single incident which itself forms part of a much broader picture. As has been apparent for some time, Iran is conducting an ongoing strategy of attempting to build up proxy forces on Israel’s southern and northern borders.
Hezbollah, which was itself established under the tutelage of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Lebanese Beqa’a valley region in 1982, is Tehran’s most important client organisation. Since August 2006, Iran has been engaged in replacing the weaponry lost by Hezbollah in the war with Israel that year. According to Israeli officials, this task has largely been completed. Israel estimates that Hezbollah now possesses around 80,000 short and medium range rockets and missiles deployed facing Israel in southern Lebanon.[vii]
But Hezbollah is not the only element in Iran’s strategy of building-up proxy forces fighting Israel. Last week, evidence emerged that Hamas has tested an Iranian long-range missile, with a range of 60 km. Such a missile would place Tel Aviv and Israel’s densely populated central area within range of Hamas’s missiles in the event of renewed hostilities between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Israel’s Gaza operation at the turn of 2009 ended with an international agreement to end smuggling into the Strip from Egypt. Some improvements have been made but many tunnels are still in frequent use for bringing in a range of items, including weapons.
Unlike Hezbollah, Hamas is a Sunni Islamist organisation, with strong ties to Sunni Islamist circles in the Gulf. As such, movement spokesmen are keen to refute claims that Hamas has become a proxy of Iran. But Iranian weaponry, training and support have facilitated Hamas’s ongoing control of Gaza.
Iran’s involvement in what today constitute the two ‘active’ fronts of the Israel-Arab conflict derives from a number of considerations. On the most narrowly practical level, both Hezbollah and Hamas, with their Iranian-supplied missile capabilities, would be likely to form a central part of any Iranian response to military action against the Iranian nuclear facilities.
On a broader level, Iranian promotion of proxy war against Israel is an important legitimating factor for Iran in the Arab world. The Iranian regime seeks to emerge as the dominant power in the region and the Israel-Palestinian conflict remains the most powerful and emotive cause in the regional political culture. So for non-Arab, non-Sunni Iran, sponsoring activity against Israel is a way of presenting itself as an effective ally of the Palestinians, with a model for effective warfare against Israel. As seen in the surge of popular approval for Hezbollah and Iran in the region following the 2006 war with Israel, this engagement brings results.
Iran‘s wider regional strategy
It is also important to note that Iran’s regional strategy is not limited to the Israeli-Arab arena. Rather, Tehran offers support for a wide variety of paramilitary organistions and insurgencies in a number of regional flashpoints. Again, this support is used as a tool of policy. The intention is to undermine and intimidate enemies, and frustrate attempts to build stability.
The list of regional flashpoints in which active Iranian involvement can be discerned is long. In April, 2009, Egyptian authorities publicised the November 2008 arrest of dozens of Hezbollah operatives accused of funnelling arms to Hamas and targeting Israeli tourists and Suez Canal shipping. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah himself confirmed that one of the men arrested was Sami Shihab (Mohammed Mansour), a Hezbollah member. This cell caught was accused of ‘preparing to commit crimes against Egypt.’ This included ‘observing the movement of ships in the Suez Canal, and the tourist villages in the northern and southern Sinai Peninsula, in order to attack them, providing Hamas in Gaza with arms and money,’ and ‘spreading Shi’ite ideas in Egypt and inciting the Egyptians against their government.’[viii]
Furthermore, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh has publicly accused Hezbollah of training al-Houthi Shiite rebels in Yemen. Instability over Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen would threaten the Saudis, and in turn have wider regional repercussions because the Saudi regime is Iran’s greatest regional rival. Yemeni officials have found Iranian munitions in rebel arms caches, and claim the existence of training camps in Eritrea, where rebels are trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah personnel.[ix]
In April, 2007, NATO forces intercepted two convoys carrying Iranian arms to the Taliban. A recent French media report claims the existence of three training camps for Taliban fighters in Iran. British forces in Afghanistan last year reported evidence that Iran has been supplying Taliban fighters with similar sophisticated roadside bomb-making equipment to that given by Tehran to Shia insurgents in southern Iraq. Both US Central Command chief General David Petraeus and NATO spokesman James Appathurai recently confirmed reports of Iranian assistance to the Taliban.[x] According to a State Department report, Iran has arranged frequent shipments of small arms, RPGs, explosives and other weapons to the Taliban since at least 2006.
In Iraq, Iran is maintaining its support for Shia insurgents in the Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) organisation. These forces suffered severe disruption at the hands of US troops in 2007 and 2008, with many militants taking refuge in Iran. Current evidence suggests that their operations are now once again on the increase in Iraq. The Iranians make little effort to conceal their links with the Shia insurgents. Ahl al-Haq militants are armed with Iranian made Fajr-3 missiles and explosive formed projectiles (IEDs) used in roadside bomb attacks.[xi]
The above list is representative rather than exhaustive. It reveals an Iranian regime strategy for making extensive use of proxy forces in order to increase Iranian power and influence across the region.
The capture of the Francop arms ship represents an important achievement for the Israeli military. However, the fight to counter Iranian attempts to strengthen the anti-Western forces that it sponsors is an ongoing one. The Iranian regional strategy represents a meeting of ideology with the promotion of the power and influence of the Iranian state and the regime that controls it. It goes without saying that the Iranian nuclear programme also has a central role in this strategy. Possession of nuclear weapons would further embolden and empower Iran in its regional agenda and long-term quest for greater influence.
[i] Ya’acov Katz, “The haul: 320 tons of Katyushas, other rockets, shells and bullets,” Jerusalem Post, 5 November 2009
[ii] The report also claims that the vessel was discovered due to intelligence cooperation between the US and Israel. For further details (in English), see Roee Nahmias, ‘Report: US informed Israel of arms ship’, 6 November 2009. http://www.ynetnews.com
[iv] Mitchell Prothero and Peter Beaumont, “Hezbollah gears up for new war” The Observer, 8 November 2009
[v] David Bedein, “Syria denies transporting weapons,” The Bulletin, 6 November 2009
[vi] “Israel accused of fabrication over Iran shipment,” Middle East Online, 5 November 2009
[vii] “Peres: Hizbullah has stockpiled 80,000 weapons,” Jerusalem Post, 24 August 2009
[viii] Jonathan Spyer, “The Common Hatred,” Gloria Center, 13 August 2009
[ix] “Saudi Daily: Iran is expanding its activity in the Red Sea,” Middle East Media Research Institute, 4 November 2009
[x] Olivier Guitta, “Tackling the Afghanistan-Pakistan problem,” Middle East Times, 4 June 2009
[xi] Michael Knights, “Iran ramps up proxy war in Iraq,” 13 April 2009