Tehran-Beirut cargo flight sparks concerns Iran arming Hezbollah more easily

Tehran-Beirut cargo flight sparks concerns Iran arming Hezbollah more easily

Israeli, western officials suspect ostensibly civilian airlines, which once used Syria as a conduit, are bringing advanced military equipment into Lebanon for use against Israel

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative image of a Fars Air Qeshm cargo plane (Wikimedia Commons)
Illustrative image of a Fars Air Qeshm cargo plane (Wikimedia Commons)

An Iranian cargo plane allegedly transporting advanced weaponry to the Hezbollah terror group was spotted flying directly from Tehran to Beirut on Thursday morning, hours before Israel allegedly conducted airstrikes on pro-Iranian targets in Syria.

Israeli and American security officials have long claimed that Iran has been supplying Lebanon’s Hezbollah with advanced munitions by shipping them through ostensibly civilian airlines, including the one that flew into Lebanon on Thursday: Fars Air Qeshm.

However, these cargo planes typically unload their materiel in Syria or stop there en route to Beirut, rather than flying directly into Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based.

According to publicly available flight data, Fars Air Qeshm flight No. QFZ-9964 left Tehran shortly after 8:00 a.m., flew over Iraq, cut northwest into Syria and then landed in Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport some two hours later.

Later, the Boeing 747 jet flew to Doha in Qatar before returning to Tehran.

Iran’s Fars Air Qeshm flight No. QFZ-9964 travels directly from Tehran to Beirut on November 29, 2018. (Screen capture: FlightRadar24)

On Thursday evening, the Israel Defense Forces indicated that the plane had been carrying weapons into Beirut.

Without specifically mentioning the flight, the army’s Arabic-language spokesperson Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee tweeted that Lebanon should stop allowing Iranian planes to bring war materiel into the country, along with a black-and-white satellite photograph of Rafik Hariri International Airport.

US special representative for Iran Brian Hook said Thursday that Washington has “evidence that Iran is helping Hezbollah build missile production facilities” in Lebanon, without elaborating.

He accused Iran of brazenly exporting missiles to Afghanistan and Yemen, in violation of UN arms bans, including at least one with Persian writing on it.

“The conspicuous Farsi markings is Iran’s way of saying they don’t mind being caught violating UN arms restrictions,” he said.

Brian Hook, US special representative for Iran, walks past fragments of Iranian short-range ballistic missiles (Qiam) at the Iranian Materiel Display (IMD) at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, in Washington, November 29, 2018. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Hook called for increased world pressure on Iran and told journalists at a briefing that the intercepted Iranian weapons presented “irrefutable evidence” that Iran’s destabilizing activity in the region “is a problem that’s not getting better, it’s getting worse.”

When asked for data that would support administration claims that Iran is increasing support for destabilizing activities in the region, Hook said Iran has spent over $16 billion since 2013 supporting militia forces in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but did not specify if that spending has increased in recent years.

“Iran must stop testing and proliferating missiles, stop launching and developing nuclear-capable missiles, and stop supporting militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen,” he said.

Reported airstrikes on pro-Iran sites in Syria

The Tehran-Beirut flight came hours before Israel reportedly launched a series of airstrikes against Iranian and pro-Iranian sites in Syria on Thursday night.

According to media reports and claims by the Syrian military, missiles were fired at targets in and around Damascus, in southern Syrian near the Israeli border and along the Damascus-Beirut highway, which runs to Lebanon.

It was not immediately clear if the two incidents were related to each other.

Fars Air Qeshm has previously been identified as one of several airlines allegedly acting as transporters of weapons systems for the Iranian military. Some of these have been targeted by US sanctions, though Fars Air Qeshm has not.

Last month, the airline reportedly transferred advanced GPS components to Hezbollah that would allow the terrorist group to turn previously unguided rockets into precision guided-missiles, thus increasing the threat to Israel.

A Fars Air Qeshm airplane was also reportedly bombed in an Israeli strike in September, the target of which was machinery used in the production of the precision missiles, which was en route to Hezbollah, The Times of Israel learned at the time.

The remains of a suspected Iranian aircraft, which was hit in an Israeli airstrike, Damascus, September 18, 2018. (ImageSat International (ISI/Ynet)

During the Israeli air raid, a Russian spy plane was inadvertently shot down by Syrian air defenses, which Moscow blames on Israel.

Israeli officials have repeatedly expressed concern about Hezbollah acquiring precision-guided missiles.

The Iran-backed terrorist militia, with whom Israel fought a punishing war in 2006, maintains an arsenal of over 100,000 rockets and missiles — a larger stock than some European armies, with the capacity to strike anywhere in Israel.

Screenshot from a video released on July 22, 2017, and provided by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media, shows Hezbollah fighters firing a missile at positions of al-Qaeda-linked militants in an area on the Lebanon-Syria border. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

“The difference is accuracy. Missiles are much more accurate, and now there is a tendency [for Iran] to give precision strike capability to its proxies or clients,” Brig. Gen. Ram Yavne, the head of the army’s strategy division, said earlier this month.

“They are far, far from there, but just imagine that they can launch not a rocket that — when you look at the chances — only a few of them would hit an urban area or strategic site, but a very precise missile that can hit, much more directly, a strategic site in Israel,” he said.

In September, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brandished pictures of what he said were Hezbollah missile facilities inside Beirut, including near the airport. Lebanon denied the claim, taking media and diplomats on a tour of some of the sites days later.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, holding up a placard detailing alleged Hezbollah missile sites in Beirut, addresses the General Assembly at the UN in New York on September 27, 2018. (AFP/Timothy A. Clary)

In recent years, Israel has acknowledged conducting hundreds of airstrikes in Syria, which it says were aimed at both preventing Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria and blocking the transfer of advanced munitions to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Israeli Air Force has largely abstained from conducting raids inside Lebanon itself, though it has indicated that it was prepared to do so.

Earlier this year, IAF chief Amiram Norkin showed visiting generals a picture of an Israeli F-35 stealth fighter flying next to Beirut’s airport, in what was seen as a direct message to Hezbollah.

Times of Israel staff and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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