ISRAELI defence analysts fear that Tehran has opened arms-smuggling routes across Africa to supply Hamas in the blockaded Gaza Strip after a stash of Iranian weapons was intercepted in Nigeria.
The seizure was made in Lagos, one of Africa’s busiest ports, by the Nigerian secret service.
The capture of the arms, which included Katyusha multiple rocket launchers, underlines fears that Iran is developing a global network for moving weapons and people. Israel is concerned that Tehran is exploiting weak points in global security that have previously been used by drug cartels.
In January 2009 Israeli aircraft launched a long-range bombing raid on a convoy transporting Iranian weapons in Sudan, bound for the Gaza Strip via Egypt. The bombing killed 39 smugglers although Israel did not officially confirm or deny its role in the strike. It has imposed a blockade on the coastal enclave since Hamas, another client of Iran, seized full control in June 2007 after driving out their secular rivals Fatah.
The weapons in Nigeria were offloaded into 13 crates in July but had been delayed clearing customs after being shipped under a false cargo declaration.
A spokeswoman for the Nigerian Secret Security Service said that the declaration itemised the contents as “packages of glass wool and pallets of stone”. After a tip-off agents opened the containers and found rocket launchers, grenades and other explosives.
Defence officials said that the largest weapons found were 107mm Katyusha-style rockets of the type used by Hezbollah against Israel in the 2006 summer war. The find led to fears in Israel that Iran is seeking new routes to ship weapons to its Hamas allies to circumvent the sea blockade on Gaza’s southern border. The border with Egypt is known to be riddled with smuggling tunnels.
An Israeli security official said: “Perhaps the Iranians were planning to unload the weapons in Nigeria and transfer them by land to Sudan and Sinai.”
The Iranian embassy in Nigeria refused to comment, saying it wished to avoid adding to the “confusion already existing” around the seizure. It noted, however, that no Iranian had been arrested in connection with the arms haul. Iran has been building up the arsenals of Hezbollah and Hamas, allies who are strategically placed on the northern and southern edges of Israel, which is Tehran’s declared enemy in the region.
Hezbollah started the war in 2006 with a cross-border raid to kill and capture Israeli soldiers. Since then Iran has re-equipped the Lebanese Shia militia, which is believed to have 4,000 missiles capable of launching strikes into Israel. Iran is also believed to have smuggled longer-range missiles to Hamas, which in its 2008 winter war with Israel fired rockets into southern Israel, reaching as far as the cities of Beersheva and Ashdod.
Israeli officials believe there is now capacity to hit Tel Aviv, leaving Israel’s main cities exposed to rocket fire from north and south. While weapons, including increasingly sophisticated Scud missiles, are generally shipped to Lebanon via Syria – another close Iranian ally – Israel and western intelligence agencies have intercepted several large shipments being sent covertly by sea.
In 2009 Israeli naval commandos stormed a ship carrying hundreds of tonnes of weapons from Iran heading to Syria and Lebanon. In September this year another arms shipment, believed to be under way from North Korea to Syria, was caught at an Italian port. A similar cargo was caught at a Greek port days later. Last year Thai authorities stopped an aircraft at Bangkok airport with 35 tonnes of North Korean weapons which Israel later said was bound for Hezbollah.
The French shipping firm that unwittingly transported the latest haul said that Nigeria had not been the final port of call and that the crates had been due to be re-exported to Gambia, Nigerian officials appeared to have been on high alert because militant groups in the Niger Delta have recently carried out deadly bombings in the country. Nigerian media said that a bribe was offered by a clearing agent in charge of offloading the cargo. At that point customs officials alerted security forces.
The scale of Iran-backed networks to smuggle men and arms around the world was demonstrated in July when Mexican police said that they had arrested the head of a Hezbollah cell in Tijuana, on the border with the United States, prompting fears that the militants could use drug and immigrant trafficking routes to infiltrate America.
Iran has made no secret of its intention to expand its global influence, forging strong ties with the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, another rival of the United States and a fellow member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.