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Dec 14, 2012 | 16:06 GMT

An Alleged Iranian Arms Shipment Tests Egypt's Resolve

An Alleged Iranian Arms Shipment Tests Egypt's Resolve
STR/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

A recent visit by two Iranian warships to Port Sudan on the Red Sea is naturally attracting a great deal of attention from Israel. After all, the November Gaza crisis largely stemmed from the multiple shipments of Iranian-made long-range Fajr-5 rockets to Gaza via Sudan. Stratfor has received indications that the warships carried three containers of arms and munitions bound for Gaza. Though the shipment does not appear to include artillery rockets, Iran looks to be testing Egypt's resolve to secure the Sinai-Gaza border and maintain the shaky cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

The Sudanese navy held an official reception for the Iranian ships, which docked at Port Sudan from Dec. 8 to Dec. 10. According to the Sudanese army, it was a routine tour by the Iranian navy to develop ties between the two nations. However, Israel has a number of reasons to doubt the seemingly benign visit.

Sudan has been a critical logistical hub for Iran to ship weapons northward through the Sinai Peninsula to Gaza. Israel's concern over this supply chain was illustrated Oct. 23 when an airstrike, presumably by the Israeli air force, targeted the Yarmouk weapons facility in Khartoum, which allegedly was being used to stockpile parts for Fajr-5 rockets. 

Stratfor has learned that the two Iranian warships that arrived at Port Sudan recently were carrying arms and munitions, including the Iranian version of the Kornet anti-tank guided missile, the DShK 12.7 mm heavy machine gun and 106 mm recoilless rifles. The shipment allegedly does not include artillery rockets. Instead, it appears that Iran is helping Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, who were at the forefront of the November crisis, replenish their stockpiles of other weapons. The Kornet anti-tank guided missiles carry particular significance, given their relatively effective use by Hezbollah in the 2006 war; by Syrian rebels in the current conflict there; and their reported use by Gaza militants against an Israeli Merkava tank in December 2010, against an Israeli school bus in April 2011 and allegedly against an Israeli army jeep Nov. 10.

The containers will purportedly be shipped to northern Sinai, where they will remain until an opportunity arises to smuggle them into Gaza. Iran would have an interest in getting the shipment into Egyptian territory as soon as possible in order to reduce the risk of Israel eliminating it, as it did in January 2009, when Israeli aircraft destroyed a Gaza-bound weapons convoy northwest of Port Sudan. A discreet attack on Sudanese territory is far more politically manageable for Israel than an attack on Egyptian soil. 

Shipping weapons under the guise of a ceremonious port visit is not the most clandestine means of getting weapons to Gaza militants without interference. It is possible that the information on the three containers was leaked to divert attention from another shipment or that the shipments do not actually carry any weapons but are merely being used to test the Egyptians. Assuming that the information on these weapons shipments is accurate, Egypt's response will be important. The cease-fire agreement struck in November is contingent on Egyptian security guarantees to interdict weapons supplies heading for Gaza. But the Egyptian government, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, is already preoccupied with a domestic crisis over a constitutional referendum and is in no position to handle major tensions with Israel.

Regardless of what is contained in the shipment, Iran is trying to show that it maintains a strong working relationship with Palestinian militants and that its leverage in Gaza has been preserved. It will be interesting to see whether these weapons shipments, coming on the heels of the cease-fire agreement, will reveal any tension between Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas claimed a significant symbolic victory against Israel in the November crisis, and it is using its momentum to build up its political legitimacy in the region through foreign visits. It is also expanding political institutions in the territories to assert its influence. A resumption of hostilities with Israel could greatly disrupt those plans, especially if Israel came to the conclusion that Egypt was either incapable or unwilling to secure the border.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad, on the other hand, does not carry the same political ambitions as Hamas and has a much closer relationship with Iran. So far, the two groups have been coordinating closely and are reportedly discussing the creation of a Gaza defense ministry to formalize the joint command and control structure that they formed during the latest crisis. Such a move would enable Hamas to more tightly control militant movements in Gaza, especially at a time when the presence of rival Salafist-jihadists in the region is growing. Though Hamas is in need of arms replenishments, it is probably not interested in making any provocative moves at the moment that could strain its relationship with Egypt and undermine its claimed victory against Israel. The fate of these three alleged weapons containers in the coming days could thus be a significant test of an already highly fragile cease-fire in Gaza.

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