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Cargo Containers in Transit – The Iranian Threat

By Brig. Gen. (Res.) Nitzan Nuriel and Mr. Adam Wolfson.


Iran has been transferring in recent years large amounts of weapons to well-known terrorist groups in Lebanon and Gaza by various means. One of the ways Iran has found to be very effective is using maritime containers which ship through intermediate ports on their way to their final destinations. Iran exploits the fact that those containers, which are also known as “transit containers,” almost never have their content screened at the intermediate ports. In this article we propose a global solution for the problem, one that will increase substantially local authorities’ chances of apprehending Iranian weapons at the intermediate ports before they reach terrorist organizations.

The Iranian Threat

The global economy is greatly influenced by its trade and transportation capacity. A large percentage of international commerce depends on container transportation. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the most critical component of global trade today is transportation of goods by containers through seaports around the world: almost 90 percent of the world’s manufactured goods move by container (about 40 percent arrive by ship), and each year, about 108 million cargo containers are transported through seaports.

However, the threat to global trade posed by the potential terrorist use of a maritime container has not been sufficiently addressed in many countries around the world. The same applies to the usage of maritime containers by states that sponsor terrorism, such as Iran, to transfer weapons to terrorist organizations.

Even though the threat is very real, as will be shown below, authorities around the world are finding it increasingly hard – due to budget and other constraints – to screen every container passing through their ports. This is especially true with transit containers.

The Francop affair sheds light on the convoluted path Iranian weapons take on their way to terrorists groups, such as Hezbollah. In November 2009, Iran loaded at one of its local ports 36 containers of weapons onto a ship which sailed to Egypt. There, the containers were transferred, without any inspection or screening, to the cargo vessel Francop, which is German owned, but was leased at the time to a Cypriot freight delivery company, and Antiguan flagged. Francop was supposed to dock at a second intermediate port in Cyprus on its way to its final destination in Syria. From Syria the weapons were intended to be transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Fortunately, the ship was intercepted by Israeli naval forces before arriving in Cyprus.

Prior intelligence about Francop helped the Israeli Authorities to stop the transferring of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah. However that will not always be the case. Therefore, state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran, have been trying relentlessly in past years to exploit this vulnerability to smuggle weapons – using maritime transit containers – to well-known terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. These attempts to transfer weapons to terrorist groups are in direct violation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1835, 1803, 1747 and 1737 that strictly forbid Iran from exporting or trading any forms of weapons.

The Iranian system of transferring weapons by maritime containers, as was shown above, and how it exploits the system works as follows: the “illegal” containers (those with weapons) are usually loaded onto a ship at one of Iran’s local ports, and then shipped with other legitimate containers to one of the many intermediate ports around the world. The intermediate ports are unaware of the real cargo because the shipping documents typically are falsified. After unloading the containers at the intermediate ports, they are bundled with another new set of “clean” containers – which have the same final destination tags as those of the illegal cargo – waiting to be picked up at a later date. Then, a different ship, which will almost always be owned by another country (never by Iran) flying a different flag loads the containers – both the legal and illegal – and sails to its final destination, usually Egypt or Syria. From there the containers carrying the weapons go to the terrorist groups who reside in Lebanon and Gaza. The crews that pick up the containers at the intermediate ports have no knowledge of their cargo – whether legal or illegal – since they are not authorized to screen it. Therefore, unbeknownst to the shipping companies, they constitute a part of the Iranian technique to smuggle weapons to terrorist organizations by maritime containers. The purpose of this intricate Iranian operation, in all of its stages, is to cover any Iranian connection to the illegal cargo by exploiting the lack of sufficient security measures, especially in the intermediate ports.

Transit containers pose an especially significant security risk for every state that has a port due to the fact that these containers are almost never screened for weapons or other illegal goods without prior intelligence. The authorities prefer to allocate their resources to screening containers which are actually entering their country, rather than screening containers in transit, which have not officially entered the country, and which are then shipped elsewhere.
Furthermore, transit containers are sometimes left at the transit port for days and weeks at a time – often unchecked – until they are uploaded onto a ship to their final destination, Iran’s entire operation of smuggling weapons by means of maritime containers is based on the assumption that the illegal containers, which are in transit, will not be checked at the intermediate ports by the local authorities.

In addition to the Francop affair, a number of past incidents demonstrate Iranian efforts to smuggle weapons to terrorist groups in Lebanon and Gaza using maritime containers in transit.

The incidents


In March 2011 Israeli naval commandos boarded and seized a German owned cargo vessel, Victoria, which was flying a Liberian flag, but operated by a French shipping company. Victoria was on its way from Turkey to Egypt, unknowingly concealing 39 containers of weapons intended to reach Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza. Turkey, which had no ties to the incident, constituted an intermediate port for the cargo’s travel route from Syria to Egypt. According to Israeli officials, the weapons shipment originated in Iran. One month before the interception, two Iranian warships visited the same Syrian port from which the intercepted vessel departed.