By Alina Dain Sharon and Sean Savage/JNS.org
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,” Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC, told JNS.org. “The Iranians are working very diligently on expanding the scope and lethality 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.
“We continue to have enormous issues with Iran, its sponsorship of terrorist organizations, its bad behavior in the region that manifests itself in many ways. And we continue to take all the necessary steps to address those challenges,” Carney said.
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. In fact, Iran is the Muslim world’s first spacefaring nation, putting satellites into low Earth orbit and even orbiting a chimpanzee. Furthermore, the Iranian space program can easily be converted to the missile program.
“The reality is that the engineering mechanics of it, a space launch vehicle that you would use to put commercial cargo into low Earth orbit, is the same technology you’d use to attach to a medium range missile to make it an intercontinental missile,” Berman said.
“While Iran has not made the strategic decision to marry all three programs (nuclear, missile, space) together yet, what we do see is progress on each of these three fronts,” he said.
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 (62-124 miles). The weapons were hidden inside cement containers. They were originally 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), told JNS.org that Iranian leaders have responded to the ship’s discovery by blaming Israel and claiming the Jewish state fabricated Iran’s role in this incident.
When Israel attributes an operation to Iran, such as the assassination attempts against Israeli diplomats last year in response to the alleged Israeli assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, the Iranians “don’t take responsibility,” Savyon said.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian, reacting to the IDF’s interception of the ship, told the Iranian Fars News Agency March 6 that the West, in blaming Iran for the incident, intended to create an internal schism in Iran by cultivating an atmosphere against Iranian security forces, depicting those armed forces as worth of blame for any new congressional sanctions against Iran.
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, Abdollahian added.
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.”
“This is no secret. These are either Iranian weapons or weapons financed by Iran,” said Shalah.
The seizure of the missiles destined for Gaza may also signal a return to closer relations between Hamas and its Shi’a Muslim patrons, Iran and Syria.
For years, Iran and Syria were Hamas’s 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 terror 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 (PA) has not yet responded to the Iranian arms ship because of its complex relationship with Gaza-controlling Hamas.
“Whereas the PA instinctively will blame Israel for everything wrong in the world, including the revolutions and internal fighting in the Arab world today, because the PA sees its greatest enemy in the world not as Israel—but as Hamas—Iran being caught trying to arm Hamas militarily leaves the PA unable to respond. The world sees Hamas being armed and Israel’s concern. The PA sees Hamas being armed and worries about itself,” Marcus told JNS.org.
“Now [Palestinian media outlets] have the dilemma. 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. If Iran continues in its denial that it was their arms and that it was intended for Gaza—the PA may eventually condemn Israel—as they can’t afford to alienate Hamas,” Marcus 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 patron in the Shi’a world,” said the American Foreign Policy Council’s Berman.
Berman isn’t convinced the massive arms seizure will play a huge role in the nuclear talks.
“Iranian behavior is more consistent than different than it was prior to the outbreak of negotiations,” he said. “The Iranians are still the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and they are doing all sorts of things to destabilize the region. … The United States and other world leaders, in pursuit of a deal, have been willing to overlook some pretty significant deformities on the part of the Iranians.”
Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that while the international community “has chosen to believe that the crisis in Syria can be solved following a diplomatic path,” some “genuinely believe that Iran—despite its unflinching support for the Assad regime and their contribution to the brutality—could help solve the crisis.”
“It is because of this that we see a great reluctance to confront Iran on the matter of Syria or on Iran’s support for terror activities and sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas,” Ottolenghi told JNS.org.