by Alina Dain Sharon
and Sean Savage
While international attention continues to focus on the Iranian nuclear program and diplomatic efforts to address it, the Israeli Navy’s March 5 interception of an Iranian ship full of Syrian-made missiles bound for Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza sheds new light on other dimensions of the Islamic Republic’s strategy.
“The nuclear program is the fast mover in international discussions, but the delivery capabilities are extremely important,” said Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C. “The Iranians are working very diligently on expanding the scope and legality of their missile program, [a delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons].”
In the wake of the interception, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his concern that, while Iran “is conducting these [nuclear] talks, and smiling to the international community, it continues to arm terrorist groups.” But White House Spokesperson Jay Carney said the U.S. plans to continue pursuing a diplomatic resolution with Iran on its nuclear program.
Besides Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, a “third component that a lot of people don’t talk about is the space program,” according to Berman.
According to the Israel Defense Forces, the weaponry on board the seized Iranian ship included dozens of M-302 missiles, which have a range of 100-200 kilometers. The weapons were hidden inside cement containers and flown from Syria to
Iran. From Iran, they were shipped by boat to Iraq.
The shipment was intercepted as it was being moved by boat from Iraq to Sudan, from where the weapons would have been smuggled to Gaza.
During the nuclear talks, the U.S. has attempted to include restrictions on Iran’s missile program as part of a comprehensive deal. But despite that push, Iran has continued to progress on its missile program. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps recently announced that it developed four new advanced ballistic missiles named Qiam, Qadr H1, Fateh-110, and Persian Gulf.
Ayelet Savyon, the director of the Iran Media Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), said Iranian leaders have responded to the ship’s discovery by blaming Israel and claiming the Jewish state fabricated Iran’s role in this incident.
Israel and the U.S. want to step up Western military, security, and political action against Syria and to link any intensification of action against Syria to Russia, in order to pressure Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, said Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian.
Middle East media reports, meanwhile, reveal that Iran’s supplying of weapons to Palestinian terror groups such as Islamic Jihad is an open secret. Islamic Jihad leader Ramadhan Abdallah Shalah admitted to Al Jazeera in 2012 that “the weapons that are fighting the Israeli aggression and arrogance in Palestine come mainly from Iran, as the entire world knows.”
For years, Iran and Syria were Hamas’ main patrons, providing the terror group with financing, training, and weapons to attack Israel. But when protests broke out against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal voiced support for Syrian demonstrators. Mashaal eventually closed the terrorist group’s office in Damascus and relocated to Qatar. As a result, Hamas began growing ties with Sunni Muslim powers such as Turkey, Egypt, and Qatar. Consequently, Iran began limiting funding to Hamas.
According to Itamar Marcus, the director of Palestinian Media Watch, the Palestinian Authority has not yet responded to the Iranian arms shipment because of its complex relationship with Gaza-controlling Hamas.
“Whereas the P.A. instinctively will blame Israel for everything wrong in the world, including the revolutions and internal fighting in the Arab world today, because the P.A. sees its greatest enemy in the world not as Israel – but as Hamas – Iran being caught trying to arm Hamas militarily leaves the P.A. unable to respond. The world sees Hamas being armed and Israel’s concern. The P.A. sees Hamas being armed and worries about itself,” said Marcus.
“Now [Palestinian media outlets] have the dilemma,” he said. “Do they criticize Iran for arming their enemy Hamas or criticize Israel for illegal piracy?
“Their silence so far is an indicator of their dilemma,” he added.
But the situation in the Middle East has changed for Hamas. In July 2013, the Egyptian military ousted former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, who promised close ties with Hamas. Since then, the Egyptian government has threatened Hamas, closing off smuggling tunnels to Gaza and declaring the terror group illegal in Egypt.
“This is flipping back to the status quo because increasingly you see Hamas being squeezed by Egypt. As more doors close in the Sunni world, you’ll see Hamas going back to their traditional patrons in the Shi’a world,” said the American Foreign Policy Council’s Berman.