The Iranian weapons shipment intercepted by the Israel Navy in the high seas off Sudan last Wednesday, and placed carefully on display at Eilat port on Monday, would not have drastically changed the balance of power between Israel and the Gaza Strip had it reached its intended destination. But it would have been a game changer of sorts, nonetheless.
The intended recipients of the 40 M-302 missiles and other weaponry on board the Klos-C were not Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas, whose relations with Iran have been deteriorating steadily, but the rival Islamic Jihad, a force that is thoroughly loyal to Iran, which has been funding and training its operatives.
Had the shipment reached its destination, Islamic Jihad would have gained possession of weaponry more sophisticated than the dozens of rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, many of them produced in Gaza, which Hamas is stockpiling for the inevitable next round of conflict.
This would have boosted Islamic Jihad’s prestige in Gaza, and doubtless emboldened it in its ongoing challenges to Hamas. Far more significantly, however, it would have given the Iranians a push-button capacity to wreak havoc all across Israel at a moment of their choosing.
Some of the M-302 missiles on the Klos-C can reach from Gaza to beyond Tel Aviv, all the way to Haifa, Israeli officials said, carrying highly destructive 150 kilogram warheads. And while Hamas, since violently seizing control of Gaza in 2007, must carefully weigh any escalated confrontation with Israel against its need to retain control of the Strip, Islamic Jihad has no such concerns: If Iran were to give the order to fire salvos of the missiles it supplied into Israel, Islamic Jihad would not hesitate.
Across Israel’s northern border, Hezbollah — by far the world’s most heavily armed terrorist organization — holds tens of thousands of rockets capable of reaching anywhere in Israel. It has considerations of its own about drawing Lebanon into renewed conflict, but is ultimately loyal to the Iranian regime that created it. The Klos-C shipment would thus have given Iran the capacity to batter Israel with rocket fire simultaneously from north and south as and when it deemed necessary.
In Washington last week, arguing against President Barack Obama’s willingness to allow Iran a continued uranium enrichment capability, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded the complete dismantling of Iran’s rogue military nuclear program. Otherwise, he warned, Iran would inexorably become a nuclear weapons threshold state, capable of swiftly breaking out to the bomb when the world’s attention was focused elsewhere.
Employing its proxy terror groups — Hezbollah in the north, and/or Islamic Jihad in the south — is just one of the means by which Iran could distract that attention, and cause widespread harm to the Israeli home front.
The identification, tracking and ultimately interception of the Klos-C shipment marks an impressive example of Israeli intelligence-gathering and operational skill. As Netanyahu and his colleagues were detailing the mission, explaining the capabilities of the intercepted weaponry, and pointing the accusatory finger at Iran on Monday afternoon, however, multiple concerns remained.
For one thing, certain sections of the international community may remain willfully disinclined to believe that those newly charming Iranians could have been responsible for dispatching the shipment, and resistant, still, to the wider dangers posed by the regime in Tehran. Netanyahu spoke in Eilat of a “hypocritical” international community that “prefers to ignore” Iran’s ongoing aggression — a stance he branded “morally unacceptable.” He didn’t mention EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton by name, but was presumably thinking of her in particular. Ashton has been visiting Iran in the last few days, and gave no sign of having acceded to Netanyahu’s request at the weekend that she confront her hosts about the intercepted weapons shipment.
More practically, there is the fear that this was not the first shipment sent along its convoluted path toward Gaza, and that it is unlikely to be the last.
And finally, as Netanyahu highlighted in Eilat on Monday afternoon, there is the danger that, if the Iranians do outsmart and outflank the international community, their future covert shipments, headed to any port in the world, could carry weaponry of an entirely more devastating capacity.