By Jason Patrick
European and Israeli press reported that on 5 March, Israeli Defense Forces interdicted a Panamanian-flagged cargo vessel, which Israel alleges was delivering weapons to Hamas in Gaza. Members of Israeli’s Shayetet 13–a special forces branch that focuses on unconventional warfare and whose skill sets include maritime interdiction–reportedly uncovered dozens of Syrian-made 302mm rockets.
According to Israeli press reports, Iran was behind the shipment, transporting the weapons to an Iranian port to be loaded on the ship. To obfuscate their final destination, the ship reportedly took a circuitous route to several countries along the way to Gaza. Israeli forces interdicted the shipment in the Red Sea. Photos published in the same article indicated Iranian markings on the cargo.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Washington at the time of the event, accused Iran of arming groups intent on attacking Israel, stating: “This is the real Iran, and this country must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons.” The timing of the maritime operation is no coincidence. Tel Aviv likely planned the operation to occur during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to the United States. During his 4 March meeting with US President Obama, Netanyahu reiterated his position that he would not compromise on Israel’s national security, alluding to the failing US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians and expressing further consternation over ongoing negotiations between Iran and the United Nations Security Council’s permanent five member states plus Germany (P5+1) over Tehran’s nuclear program.
The operation also occurred just days after CBS journalist Dan Raviv revealed a report from an alleged source with access to Israeli intelligence that the US is pressuring Israel to cease its campaign of targeting Iranian nuclear scientists. The public display of an Iranian arms shipment to Palestinian militants deftly punctuated Netanyahu’s contention that neither Hamas nor Iran is a dependable actor. The state of distrust between Tel Aviv and Tehran is based on decades of tit-for-tat direct and proxy warfare targeting each country’s interests at home and abroad. Israeli officials are concerned that a nuclear capability would embolden Iran to use its proxies to launch a wave of attacks against Israel—using weapons such as those recovered from the 4 March operations, or others that Israeli airstrikes have reportedly prevented from being transferred to Hezbollah in 2013 and 2014—without fear of large-scale retaliation.*
Iranian armament of anti-Israeli groups will do nothing to assuage their deep-seated fears of Tehran’s intention to destroy the Jewish state. Nevertheless, Washington is unlikely to criticize Tehran for its actions. While publicity of the arms shipment will likely have minimal impact on the P5+1-Iran negotiations, it will most certainly galvanize Israel’s official position against them. Although the credibility of Mr. Raviv’s source is unknown, the message serves a dual purpose. It provides the US with plausible deniability for any potential connections it may have had in the assassinations. It also signals to Iran that the US is willing to take at least some measures to mitigate Israeli action and accept Tel Aviv’s criticism in order to avoid derailing the talks.
* Pollack, Kenneth M., “Unthinkable: Ira, the Bomb, and American Strategy”, New York, 2013, p. 207.