An arms cache said by Israel to have been sent from Iran and intercepted by Israeli forces would have placed millions of Israelis in the line of fire had it fallen into the hands of Gazan terror groups, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Wednesday evening.

“This operation thwarted a significant threat to Israeli citizens,” Ya’alon said. “Those missiles that have been uncovered would certainly have threatened millions of Israelis had they reached the Gaza Strip.”

Israeli naval commandos from the elite Shayetet 13 unit boarded and took control of the “Klos-C” merchant ship, sailing under the Panama flag, at around 5 a.m on Wednesday morning.

On board, the army, said soldiers found several dozen advanced Syrian M-302 missiles, with a range of up to 200 kilometers (125 miles) and a payload of up to 170 kilograms (375 pounds). The missiles were hidden in shipping containers also carrying sacks of concrete.

Aside from stopping a major threat, officials said the operation had also helped expose covert Iranian activities at a time when much of the world was beginning to soften toward the regime in Tehran.

Speaking at a press conference in Tel Aviv alongside IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Ya’alon praised the troops for their efficiency, and warned that the arms shipment attests to Iran’s continued endorsement of terror.

“Iran is the number one exporter of terror in the world,” Ya’alon said.

Iran was supplying arms to terror groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Asia, and South America, the defense minister charged.

“It must be known that despite the smiles, the Iranian regime has not changed, nor have its actions changed,” he added.

Those who believe the Iranian regime underwent a reformation with the election of President Hassan Rouhani will “learn a lesson” from the findings, Ya’alon said. The discovery not only incriminates the Islamic Republic, he charged, but it also proves once again that Gaza is a “terrorist entity, an Iranian branch, that is financed, armed and trained by Iran.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres made similar statements Wednesday.

One of the primary reasons for the mission was to “reveal Iran’s true face, that it blatantly violated international law,”  the prime minister said. He added that new details about the shipment would be revealed once the ship had been towed to Eilat, which could take several days.

President Shimon Peres called on Iran to “stop bluffing.”

“This operation exposes the true face of Iran which says one thing but does the opposite. They put on an innocent face and send the most dangerous missiles to a terror organization that kills innocents, in violation of international law,” he said in a statement. “Iran must make up its mind either to tell the truth and respect international law or admit that it is all camouflage and we cannot trust their policy or declaration. The same is true for Hamas.”

Gantz said the intercept operation had been a long-term plan, deftly carried out by Israeli forces.

“We tracked this shipment for a long time through impressive intelligence efforts that today bore fruit,” Gantz said. “We prevented the transfer of weapons to Gaza and simultaneously exposed the truth about Iran.”

The incident took place 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) from Israel’s coast, in the Red Sea, off the Sudanese-Eritrean border. Israel had been tailing the ship for several days before the operation was launched.

The ship had a crew of 17, who were being interrogated by Israeli security forces. Ya’alon said crew members were apparently unaware of the ship’s secret cargo.

IDF soldiers inspect a missile found on board Klos-C in a commando operation Wednesday morning. The military says the ship was carrying an Iranian arms shipment headed for Gaza (Photo credit: IDF)

IDF soldiers inspect a missile found on board ‘Klos-C’ in a commando operation Wednesday morning. The military says the ship was carrying an Iranian arms shipment headed for Gaza (Photo credit: IDF)

The vessel had reportedly set sail from Iran 10 days ago and was set to reach Sudan on Thursday. From there, the weaponry would have been smuggled into Gaza.

The military said the interception operation originated several months ago, when IDF intelligence identified the transfer of Syrian M-302 rockets from Damascus to Tehran through Damascus International Airport. Intelligence officials found the move odd, as arms are usually transferred from Iran to Syria, not vice versa.

The shipment was then moved to Iran’s Bandar Abbas port and loaded onto the “Klos-C.” The ship initially sailed to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, where it was loaded with containers carrying bags of cement to help conceal the weaponry and blur its Iranian origin.

When questioned about the curious origin in Syria, Ya’alon said the purpose of the detour was to obfuscate “Iranian fingerprints” on the shipment.