Israel's seizure of arms shipment highlights rising unease about Iran

Israel's naval commander said the shipment, seized on a merchant ship 200 miles off Israel's coast, contained missiles of 'strategic importance' to Gaza and accompanying Farsi-language manuals.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
An Israeli naval vessel approaches the port of Ashdod on Tuesday. Israeli naval commandos seized a cargo ship in the Mediterranean carrying what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said were Iranian-supplied weapons intended for Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Israel today seized the merchant ship "Victoria" 200 miles off its coast, asserting that it had a "solid basis’’ of suspicion that the vessel was ferrying arms shipments from Iran to Hamas in the Gaza Strip that were "intended to hit Israel."

The ship, which originated in Syria and was sailing to the Egyptian port of Alexandria, was diverted to the Israeli port of Ashdod following the takeover, which was met with no resistance from the crew. Israel's naval commander said that the shipment contained land-to-sea missiles of "strategic importance" to Gaza and accompanying Farsi-language manuals.

Though not the first time Israel has commandeered a weapons shipment to block arms to the Palestinians, the seizure comes amid rising unease in Israel that the turmoil sweeping the Middle East – especially Egypt – is creating an opportunity for Iran to widen its influence.

"The fact that Iran wanted to use an Egyptian port to unload the weapons is yet another clear indication that Tehran is trying to take advantage [of] the recent developments in the region, and Egypt in particular," says Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian expert based in Tel Aviv. "To Iran’s leadership, the changes in Egypt have now made it into a new land of strategic opportunities in many areas, including Iran’s support for Hamas."

The ship, which was flying under a Liberian flag, is German-owned and is operated by a French company, Israel said. Israel’s army spokesman released a picture of what it said was weapons crates, but did not immediately provide details about the amount or type of weapons on the ship.

'Iranians are more confident now'

The fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak a month ago removed one of Israel’s quiet allies in trying to block Iran’s growing prominence.

In recent days, Saudi Arabia has dispatched troops to Bahrain in an effort to stabilize its island neighbor following democracy demonstrations by the Shiite majority there. Mr. Javedanfar said the Shiite unrest presents Iran with another opportunity to present itself as regional patron.

Even before the turmoil, Israel has watched warily as Iran gained footholds on its borders. Tehran sponsors Hezbollah, which is poised to take a lead role in Lebanon's new government, and has struck up an alliance with Hamas. It also cooperates with Syria.

"The Iranians are more confident now. The upheavals in the Arab world are very good for them," says Dan Schueftan, a political science professor at Haifa University and a former adviser to Israel’s foreign ministry. "The Iranians are trying every way to arm the region, and except for Israel, nobody is trying to stop them. When Egypt is weakened, even if Egypt wants to help Israel, I don’t think there is anyone in Egypt who can do it.’’

Iranian regime's strength less certain at home

In the days after Mubarak’s Feb. 11 resignation, Iran sent two frigates through the Suez canal en route to Syria. It was the first crossing of the water bridge between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean by Iranian ships in decades.

Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman called it a provocation.

However, former Mossad director Ephraim Halevy cautioned against knee-jerk reactions. Speaking to reporters last week, he called the Iranian ships "benign."

"You can only carry out an act of provocation if you let them be provoked," he said.

But while Iran may be taking a more aggressive approach regionally with Egypt cast into uncertainty, its improved strategic position outside its borders doesn't necessarily mean more power at home, says Javedanfar. That will depend on how effectively the Iranian regime handles the opposition movement that has been revived by regional protests.

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