JERUSALEM — Israel announced Wednesday that navy commandos had intercepted a ship in the Red Sea carrying a concealed cargo of long-range rockets from Iran that were destined for militants in the Gaza Strip, averting a potential threat to major Israeli population centers.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on a visit to the United States, said the discovery of the arms belied Iranian attempts to project a more moderate image as Tehran negotiates an agreement with world powers on the future of its nuclear program.
“While Iran is conducting these talks, smiling to the international community, it continues to arm terrorist groups, continues to perpetrate terrorism around the world,” Netanyahu said in a video released by his office while he was in Los Angeles. “Such an outlaw regime must not be allowed to have the means to make atomic bombs.”
Iran, which has denied that it is trying to build a nuclear weapon, dismissed the Israeli announcement. “We completely deny this report, which is totally without foundation,” an unnamed military official was quoted as saying on Iranian television’s Arabic-language channel, Al-Alam.
In Gaza, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the militant group Hamas called the Israeli statement “a new Israeli lie aimed to justify and prolong the blockade of Gaza.”
The announcement of the arms seizure during Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S., where he has urged tightening sanctions on Iran despite the ongoing nuclear talks, led some Israeli commentators to suggest that it was timed to bolster the prime minister’s assertions that Tehran cannot be trusted.
Netanyahu said the naval action was meant to protect Israelis and “expose the true face of Iran.”
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told a news conference that the missiles seized would have “threatened millions of Israelis had they reached the Gaza Strip” and showed that Iran was “the number one exporter of terror in the world.”
The interception was announced hours after it took place and well before the operation, which unfolded more than 900 miles from Israel, was complete. As Israeli defense chiefs praised the commandos’ performance in a series of public statements, the captured ship’s cargo was still being probed. Israeli missile boats were escorting the intercepted vessel to the southern Israeli port of Eilat, a journey expected to take three days.
Israeli defense and military officials said that the captured ship, the Panamanian-flagged KLOS C, was stopped and boarded by a naval force as it neared Port Sudan in the Red Sea.
The military said that the ship was carrying dozens of Syrian-made M-302 rockets flown several months ago from Damascus to Iran in an operation organized by the Quds Force, a special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard responsible for overseas operations. The ship had sailed from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and had made a stop to take on containers of cement at the port of Umm Qasr in Iraq, the army said.
Yaalon said the ship’s international crew was apparently unaware of the weapons cargo concealed by the bags of cement, which were labeled as made in Iran. He said the arms transfer, intended to follow a previously used route through Sudan and Egypt and then by tunnel to Gaza, was meant “not to leave Iranian fingerprints.”
The Israeli military said that the rockets found on board had substantially heavier warheads and longer ranges than rockets fired previously by militants from the Gaza Strip.
“Armed with the M-302 rockets, terror groups in Gaza (would have) had the means to threaten millions of Israeli citizens, as well as strategic locations such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Israel’s coastal gas fields,” an army statement said.
The base model of the M-302 has a range of about 55 miles, and upgraded versions can reach 125 miles. During an eight-day conflict in Gaza in 2012, militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which is closely linked to Iran, fired rockets that fell near Tel Aviv and in West Bank areas south of Jerusalem but did not hit those cities.
Since 2001, Israel has intercepted a number of vessels that it said were carrying arms to Gaza, and in recent years several airstrikes in Sudan attributed to Israel have reportedly targeted weapons convoys and an arms factory said to be manufacturing arms for Gaza militants.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.