International media reported that an Iranian-owned merchant vessel flying a Cypriot flag was boarded early last week by US Navy personnel who discovered artillery shells on board.
The ship was initially suspected of being en route to delivering its cargo to smugglers in Sinai who would transfer the ammunition to Hamas in Gaza, but the US Navy became uncertain over the identity of the intended recipient since "Hamas is not known to use artillery," The Associated Press cited a defense official as saying.
It was then allowed to sail toward the Suez Canal, where Egyptian authorities have been asked to conduct another search of the vessel, according to the report.
In an e-mail to the Post, Lt.-Col. Patrick Ryder of the US Air Force, who is a spokesman for the Defense Department, said the US military was "aware of the media reports and are looking into them, but we have nothing to provide at this time."
Prof. Raymond Tanter, president of the Washington-based Iran Policy Committee, said, "It is not surprising that the US Navy is reluctant to acknowledge the operation, which may have been covert," adding that maritime law posed challenges when it came to intercepting ships that fly the flag of a sovereign country.
"The navy generally uses special forces, sometimes including Navy Seals, to conduct interceptions on the high seas," Tanter said.
Maritime law provides a basis for the interception of suspicious vessels not flying a country's flag (called "stateless vessels"), such as the North Korean ship carrying Scud missiles intercepted in the Arabian Sea by the American and Spanish navies in 2002. However, in last week's incident, "it was a Cypriot-flagged, Iranian-owned commercial vessel, and the maritime law is less able to justify stop and search operations against such ships," Tanter said.
Iranian arms smuggling ships are not subject to the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), launched by the US in 2003 to "stop trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, and related materials to and from states and non-state actors of proliferation concern," he noted.
"Indeed, there is a need for international institutions like the PSI to interdict rockets from Iran to Hamas, but it is unlikely for such a multilateral regime will be established in the near-term," he said. "Without such international legitimacy, the United States has to act publicly alone to interdict suspected January Iranian shipments to Hamas."
Legalities aside, however, the US interception was likely helped by "intelligence provided by friendly states, such as Egypt," Tanter added. "Because of fear in intelligence circles that a 'dirty bomb' might make it into Gaza, there is some thought to apply the PSI to interdict ships en route to Hamas," he added.
For the time being, the interceptions and searches are being carried out on the basis of the memorandum of understanding signed between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on January 16, which is "aimed at halting arms smuggling into Gaza as part of efforts to clinch the cease-fire," Tanter said.
"I suspect that the 19-20 January interception stemmed from that deal. Moreover, having the US Navy intercept the suspect ship would have significantly better prospects for unopposed boarding than if Israeli commandos took it down. Were this ship to be operated by Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guards Corps or Quds force, and Israelis came aboard, it would not be a pretty scene, to say the least," he said.
Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute of National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Teheran would do its utmost to replenish Hamas weapons stocks in the coming months.
"Iran has a very strong interest in terms of its regional hegemonic designs to continue to support its two proxies in our part of the Middle East," Landau said. "I think the result of the war and the obvious poor performance of Hamas will also have implications on Iran's regional standing. Iran hoped Hamas could have declared victory - this would give Iran more bargaining chips when it came to nuclear negotiations with the US," she said.
At the same time, "Iran is not looking for an armed confrontation [with the US Navy] at this point," Landau said. "An armed confrontation would start a whole different set of dynamics that could have implications for what Iran could achieve."
Iran's arms-smuggling and nuclear program "all tie in to the same agenda. Iran wants to be the leading power in the Middle East and to call the shots," she said.