When trying to grasp the enormity of the challenge in tracking and intercepting the Gazan-bound Iranian arms ship Klos-C, it is helpful to note that, unlike land masses, which are fastidiously parceled into neat domains of sovereignty, the oceans and seas of the world are anarchic zones, where, in author William Langewiesche’s description, “the resilient pathogens of piracy and terrorism flourish.”

Oceans cover three-quarters of the earth, and are home to 40,000 large merchant vessels bearing nearly 90 percent of all international trade. Those ships, Langewiesche wrote in the The Atlantic in 2003, “truly embody the anarchy of the open ocean: they are possibly the most independent objects on earth, many of them without allegiances of any kind, frequently changing their identity, and assuming whatever nationality, or “flag,” allows them to sail as they please.”

Panama, a country of 3 million people, he noted, is the largest maritime nation on earth. It was also the flag on the Klos-C, packed with missiles from Iran according to the Israeli military, before it was intercepted about 100 nautical miles southeast of Port Sudan.

From the statements of officials, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said a secondary goal of the interception had been to expose Iran’s true face, it seems the operation was about more than stopping missiles, it was about painting Iran and Hamas in as harsh a light as possible, not unlike was done to Yasser Arafat in 2002, after the Karine-A arms shipment was uncovered.

Maj. Gen. (res) Amos Yadlin, the former head of military intelligence, called the intelligence work, the operational capacity and the decision-making that went into the raid “fantastic,” noting on Army Radio Wednesday that thousands of ships sail across the Red Sea daily and that it would be “embarrassing” had Israeli troops intercepted an innocent vessel in international waters.

Once in Gaza, the missiles, an IDF spokesperson said, “were meant for all terror organizations, including Hamas.” This seemed unusual considering the deep rift between Iran and Hamas and the ongoing fighting in Syria, pitting Hamas-like Sunni fighters against Hezbollah and other Iran-backed fighters.

Head of IDF Military Intelligence Directorate Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, left, with IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon during Operation Full Disclosure (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/ Ministry of Defense)

Head of IDF Military Intelligence Directorate Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, left, with IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon during Operation Full Disclosure (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/ Ministry of Defense)

However, whether or not Hamas ordered the missiles, it would have been nearly impossible to get them into Gaza without the terror group knowing.

“The Iranians knew well that this sort of shipment, this scope and this size missiles, would require the authorization of Hamas,” said Dr. Shaul Shay, a reserves colonel in military intelligence and a lecturer at the IDC Herzliya’s Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy.

Shay said that Hamas control of the few remaining tunnels linking Sinai and Gaza meant that Islamic Jihad, a group still close to Iran, would have had to give Hamas “at least a tithe.”

The rockets themselves, according to Yadlin, do not represent a “fundamental qualitative shift.” They likely have a 120-km range, he said, and carry a warhead in the 100 kilogram range. This is similar to the Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets fired at the Gush Dan region during the November 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense. Damaging, yes, but likely not the game-changer it has been made out to be.

In Israel, though, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and others were hoping that the seizure of the ship, amid ongoing talks with Iran, would, like Yasser Arafat’s Karine-A arms boat, serve as a a different kind of game changer.

In 2001, President George Bush said that the “world ought to applaud” Arafat for his efforts in trying to restrain “radical elements.” Two weeks after the January 3, 2002 seizure of the Karine-A, which carried Iranian arms toward the coast of Gaza – and which senior Israeli intelligence officials could, and did, trace to Arafat – Bush said that the Palestinian leader was “enhancing terror.” Two weeks after that, in his State of the Union address, he included Iran in the “axis of evil.”

Ya’alon, speaking of the US administration and the other five world powers immersed in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, said in a press conference that the countries, which have not addressed Iran’s widespread export of terror, “could still come to their senses.” In this context, Ya’alon was indicating, the “Klos-C” shipment is an Iranian smoking gun.

Ya’alon, Netanyahu and co would not have had this argument to make had it not been for the heavy intelligence and operational work that went into uncovering and stopping the shipment.

Before the Naval Commandos boarded the ship early Wednesday morning, the Mossad, the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate and the Navy’s intelligence wing all conducted what IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz called “very vigorous intelligence work.”

The first stage was to locate the M-302 missiles in Damascus International Airport. This could have come from an injudicious telephone call, a human source on the ground, or a combatant or asset capable of marking the relevant shipping containers for further surveillance. 

IDF Navy commander Maj. Gen. Ram Rothberg, center, is seen on board the Klos-C as he inspects a cargo container carrying concealed Iranian weaponry, March 5, 2014 (Photo credit: IDF)

IDF Navy commander Maj. Gen. Ram Rothberg, center, is seen on board the Klos-C as he inspects a cargo container carrying concealed Iranian weaponry, March 5, 2014 (Photo credit: IDF)

Netanyahu took care to congratulate the Mossad Wednesday, which would indicate that its operatives and agents played a role in locating the cargo at an early stage, before it reached Tehran.

From there the missiles were tracked, overland for hundreds of miles, to the Bandar Abbas port in south Iran.

“The route from there is well known,” said Maj. (res.) Yoaz Hendel, a former company commander in the Naval Commandos and ex-head of the Prime Minister’s Office press branch.

Hendel said that the port is heavily used by Iran’s elite Quds Force and that, over the years, components of Iran’s nuclear program have been brought into the country through that port and weapons for terror organizations have left from there.

The Klos-C though, perhaps in an attempt to disguise the nature of the cargo, turned northwest, up the Persian Gulf to Iraq, loaded thousands of pounds of dry Iranian-made concrete on board and only then set sail for the Red Sea, curling around Yemen and Eritrea en route to Sudan.

Hendel suggested that the operational force that intercepted the ship – in international waters, nearly 1,000 miles from Israel’s shores – would have been kept in the loop for weeks. “You don’t just wake up one day and, boom, there’s a weapons ship in Port Sudan,” he said.

Instead, as the Mossad, military intelligence and naval intelligence gathered information, it was passed on to the operational force on a need-to-know basis, including the number of people on board, the maritime route chosen, and the likelihood of the sailors being armed.