In an exceptional political signal, a senior Israeli official contacted Mark Landler of the New York Times and explained that the Israeli government was determined to continue to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hizbullah. The official, who remained anonymous throughout the report, added that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reacts to this policy by attacking Israel – either directly or indirectly through a proxy force – he will “risk forfeiting his regime, for Israel will retaliate.”
Israel’s policy of preventing the supply of advanced weapons to Hizbullah has been in place for some time, but in the past was primarily the responsibility of the Israeli Navy which intercepted Iranian weapons ships in the Mediterranean. According to U.S. sources, Israel has more recently concentrated this effort in Syrian territory. The Syrians may have had an interest in assuring that some of their more advanced weaponry not fall into the hands of the Sunni extremist groups they have been fighting that are linked to al-Qaeda, like Jabhat al-Nusra. Should the Assad regime retreat to Alawite areas near the coast, it would not want to see those advanced weapons in the hands of the Sunni forces, with whom it may be fighting for years to come.
But a new motive appears to have become far more predominant in recent weeks. Iran appears to have decided that it must prevent a situation arising in which it loses its grip on Syria, which has been characterized by an Iranian institute tied to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the “35th district of Iran.”1 As a result, Iran appears to be providing itself with an option to take over Syria, if Assad falls. It has not only directly intervened by itself and deployed its own Revolutionary Guard forces on Syrian soil, but it has also sought to build up an expeditionary army made up of Lebanese Hizbullah and other Shiite militias from Iraq as well.2 Iran is training and equipping these forces. It is also providing Hizbullah with state-of-the-art weapons, partly as a reward for the services the organization is providing.
In the past, Israeli defense officials have said the supply of “game-changing weaponry” will not be tolerated and they have focused in their briefings on several specific types of arms transfers to Hizbullah:
a. Chemical weapons.
b. Iranian surface-to-surface missiles equipped with heavy warheads, like the Fateh 110, which has a highly destructive 600 kg. warhead as compared to the 30 kg. warhead on Hizbullah’s Katyusha rockets that it launched against Israel in the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
c. Long-range anti-aircraft missiles, like the Russian-manufactured SA-17, which can limit the freedom of action of the Israeli Air Force if deployed by Hizbullah in southern Lebanon. The SA-17 uses a mobile launcher. Israeli diplomacy has been especially concerned with the Russian sale of even more robust S-300 anti-aircraft missiles by Russia to Syria, though there are no indications that Hizbullah is a potential recipient of this system.
d. Long-range anti-ship missiles, like the Russian supersonic Yakhont cruise missile, that has a range of 300 km. and can strike at Israeli offshore gas rigs in the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia recently sent a shipment of the missiles which will be added to an initial inventory of 72 missiles received first in 2011.3
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2012, Lt.-Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, pointed to the Yakhont as a threat to the U.S. Navy as well: “DIA remains concerned with the proliferation of advanced cruise missiles, such as Russia’s supersonic Yakhont anti-ship cruise missile which Moscow sold to Syria and Vietnam. The 300-km.-range Yakhont poses a major threat to naval operations particularly in the eastern Mediterranean.”4
There is another international context to Israel’s position on Iran’s weapons shipments to Hizbullah. At the end of the Second Lebanon War, the U.S. and France drafted the text of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which was adopted unanimously on August 11, 2006, with Russian and Chinese support. Article 15 states that the resolution prohibits all UN member states from allowing their nationals to engage in “the sale or supply to any entity or individual in Lebanon of arms and related material of all types.” In short, Iranian weapons transfers to Hizbullah are a violation of a decision of the UN Security Council. Several years earlier, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1559, which also called for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias on the soil of Lebanon.
Those who recall the UN Security Council resolutions that were adopted against Iran’s nuclear program might not recall that they entailed an arms embargo on Iranian weapons exports as well. Thus, UN Security Council Resolution 1747, adopted on March 24, 2007, specifically stated in paragraph 5: “Iran shall not supply, sell or transfer directly or indirectly from its territory or by its nationals or using its flag vessels or aircraft any arms or related materiel, and that all States shall prohibit the procurement of such items from Iran by their nationals, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in the territory of Iran.” While Resolution 1747 was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and hence is regarded as the most severe resolution in the UN’s legal arsenal, Iran ignored it just like the resolutions that were adopted after the Second Lebanon War.
Israel, in taking measures against this activity, is not only acting in accordance with its own security interests, but in a manner consistent with the repeated decisions of the international community. Unfortunately, since the UN never effectively implemented its own resolutions, Israel was left with no choice but to act in its own self-defense.
Iran continues to ignore these UN resolutions and flagrantly violates them. Israel is receiving strong international support from the U.S. and Britain for the stance it is taking against Iranian weapons supplies to Hizbullah. But clearly, should Israel come under criticism in the future, it can point to the fact of the failure of the international community to halt Iran’s airlift to its proxy forces like Hizbullah.
1. Shimon Shapira, “Iran’s Plans to Take Over Syria,” Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 13, No. 10 May 5, 2013, http://jcpa.org/article/irans-plans-to-take-over-syria/.
2. Testimony of U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, May 15, 2013, http://www.state.gov/p/us/rm/2013/202684.htm.
3. Michael Gordon and Eric Smith, “Russia Send more Advanced Missiles to Aid Assad in Syria,” New York Times, May 17, 2013.