Iran, Syria, and sanctions-busting fakery

Oldest trick in the book.

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. 

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online.

She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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12 thoughts on “Iran, Syria, and sanctions-busting fakery”

      1. It’s certainly going to be both more difficult and more circuitous.

        Iran has been shipping weapons overland through Northern Africa for years ….and it IS much easier to track and to disrupt.

  1. Iranian subterfuge in getting arms to Assad pales in comparison to Iran’s pursuit of nukes. It’s also a futile tactic if the goal is an attempt to continue Assad’s regime. Assad and his Alawite minority regime are doomed. And use of chemical weapons will only accelerate his demise.

    If however, the primary purpose of temporarily sustaining Assad is to facilitate the transfer of Assad’s chemical weapons to Iran, it makes perfect sense. What cargo those ships hold when they leave Syria may be of far more importance than what they bring to Assad’s forces.

    1. GB, Does Assad have a cache of chemical weapons of the sort that Iran doesn’t have – and wants? I think that if I were Tehran, transporting chemical weapons from Syria to Iran would be a highly risky ploy. If it ever became known, the Iranians would risk a lot of bad PR at a time when they don’t want to force the Western nations to get ever tougher on them for their soon to be online nuke program.

      1. I doubt that anyone but the Iranians really know what they have, it’s all semi-educated guesses and so Iran might make the judgement that they don’t need Assad’s weapons. But even if not needed, I don’t know why the Iranians wouldn’t take the view that the more the potential for mayhem…the better.

        I also don’t think that bad PR concerns them or that the possibility of it would lead Iran to conclude that it is too risky a ploy. IMO the Iranians have concluded (correctly) that the Western nations aren’t going to get tougher on them, no matter what the provocation.

        I’ll be shocked and delightedly so, if the Iranians don’t achieve nuclear capability. It would also force me to revisit my basic assumptions and conclusions about the region, current US policy and a number of geo-political factors.

        Of course, if (when) they do get nukes it will be a step toward confirming my views… Time will tell.

  2. Just some food for thought here…

    If this keeps up, as stated months ago, sooner or later, all parties (local and international) involved will have to accept the de facto partition of Syria. They should be spending their time trying harder to cut a deal. Of course they are not. Common sense seldom reigns when there is even a sliver of selfish gain to be wrought But, on the other hand, they are all gouging each others eyes out, quite effectively,, weakening their collective selves to predators (seen and unseen) quite nicely indeed…..

    Toppling Assad will not be the end of this Syrian mess. Bloody, dynamic stalemate this is, I say.

    No party (foreign power or local) is strong enough to impose its will and positions decisively in Syria without risking an uncontrollably wider and escalating regional conflict. All competing powers for influence have the capability to instigate trouble in and retaliate in other areas near, and not so near Syria.

    Iran will continue to score points. The lack of coordination between DC and Moscow on regional policy guarantees this outcome. Game out every scenario where the US and Russia don’t have a common regional understanding. Result, Iran wins, (and Israel loses).

    I’m sure they are sweating in the Kremlin now that Hillary, increasing the (empty) rhetoric, stated that the US would take “action” to thwart “re-Sovietizing” Russia’s neighbors. Maybe someone should ask the Russian neighbors in question how they feel about closer cooperation with Moscow.

    Personally I think Hillary is full of “Hot Air”. My instincts tell me this is a lot of bluster before they pleasantly surprise us and collaborate with the Ruskies (hopefully on Iran). Presenting it as some kind of victory no doubt..

    I enjoyed the hiatus Optcon. Thanks for more of your interesting articles 🙂

    1. While partition is a real possibility and perhaps the most likely, Iran took over Lebanon through its Hezbollah proxies, so there is precedent for Iran emerging down the road as the dominant player. But regardless of whether partition happens or Iran or the Sunni rebels dominate, the larger issue will remain.

      Syria is going to end up in the camp of terror supporting states. Assad’s departure won’t change that. The entire ME is starting to slide off the cliff into Islamist/jihadist nation states. Afghanistan will be next with the return to power of the Taliban. Pakistan will follow shortly thereafter and once Saudi Arabia goes, a de facto Caliphate will exist. It is starting to emerge as we speak. All that will remain is a formal alliance with a rotating Presidency. And the birth of a new, nuclear armed Caliphate will be complete.

      1. I guess that’s all the more reason to assist them in slaughtering each other on their equivalent of the “federal, state and local” level for as long as possible GB….

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