Inevitably, Iran and Syria are gaming international maritime communications. Both nations are under sanctions. Both appear to be faking registry in Tanzania. And Iran is transmitting false signals to hide the operations of Syrian cargo ships.
The fakery by the two countries’ merchant fleets has Tanzania in common – apparently as a victim – but it also has Libya. Twenty years of peace dividends for the West, combined with the Arab Spring of 2011, have changed the security picture on Africa’s perimeter, and the direction in some segments of it is backward, to an age of little surveillance and expanding lawlessness. Libya’s coast is one such segment. Even if the surveillance forces of NATO are watching in the central Mediterranean, it’s not clear that the focus is there to ensure useful intelligence collection, or that there’s an organized will to do much about tankers or cargo vessels that head, on the sly, into and out of Libya.
And so, this fall, Iranian ships have been transmitting fake signals that make it appear as if they are operating in both the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, to cover the tracks of Syrian ships going back and forth between Syria and Libya. In a tracking system, this looks like an error of some kind. The ship in the Mediterranean is actually the Syrian ship, but in global tracking systems, there is no record of the Syrian ship making the voyage.
Meanwhile, actual Iranian tankers are shutting off their automated reporting systems as they approach Libya, and leaving them off until they have departed Libyan ports. Peripheral evidence of this has been noted by journalists like Claudia Rosett (I wrote about it here), but the analysis reported by Reuters on 7 December provides the first specific confirmation that Iranian ships are shutting their Automated Information Systems (AIS) off to avoid being tracked into and out of Libyan ports.
The likelihood that arms have been shipped from Libya to Syria by this method is high enough to be considered a certainty – and, of course, the arms would have gone to Bashar al-Assad. He is Iran’s protégé, and Iranian solicitude for Syrian shipping is devoted to bolstering his chances. The irony here is obvious, as there have also been plenty of reports of arms shipments from Libya to the Syrian rebels, some of which may have been facilitated by the US mission in Benghazi. The possibility that arms for Libya also got packed off to Assad himself cannot be discounted.
Beyond the arms route to Syria, however, the behavior of the Iranian ships is worth highlighting. As discussed in October, several Iranian ships have made a habit for some months now of lingering off Libya’s coast. (My own searches on ship-tracking websites show that they have been there since at least April 2012, and probably longer.) The ships’ tracks don’t show visits to Libyan ports, but as the Reuters report indicates, the ships are making such visits. They simply aren’t letting the visits be recorded via their AIS.
Given the arms-intensive nature of the cargo flow through Benghazi, in particular, we should keep in mind that there’s more than one way to deliver arms – and more than one customer to deliver them to. Coastal freighters, yachts, and other small ships do cargo business at sea with larger ships the world over. Egypt, Libya, and Algeria have long coastlines and poorly funded maritime security forces. A ship could prowl one of their coasts for a long time, loading and offloading small cargo at sea.
This kind of primitive, under-the-radar method might not be the most effective way to arm Assad, but Iran has other clients, and Hezbollah is the one that would most obviously benefit from operating this way. When the Israelis get wind of a big shipment to Lebanon, they interdict it. But, operating with a very low profile, Hezbollah could get cargo piecemeal into Beirut.
The Mediterranean is not constantly patrolled by NATO anymore. Even if it were, the will to lock it down may not be there. Sanctions on Saddam’s Iraq gave the world a good example of how these things go when the Western nations don’t perceive an immediate threat to themselves. Sanctions are put in place, and there is some effort made to enforce them, but little is done about the ingenious methods of sanctions evasion that promptly spring up.
Oh, and Iran played a major role in evading the sanctions on Saddam. She made a lot of money off of it. Iran was happy to see Saddam being sanctioned, but equally happy to take a cut from the sanctions-evasion traffic through her territorial waters.
One of the key lessons from a career in Naval Intelligence is that if you can imagine it, someone is trying to do it. But we don’t need to “imagine” that Iran and her clients might be sneaking arms through the Mediterranean. Sneaking arms to one’s clients is S.O.P for terror- and insurrection-sponsoring states, and doing it via a maritime route is as old as man and the sea. Nothing is likelier.
Photo of M/V Lady Rasha courtesy of Flags of Convenience blog.