TUNIS - Western intelligence sources say Iran is using commercial aircraft to ship weapons systems to its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, in Beirut.
News reports indicate that Tehran is using the civil Qeshm Air to supply Hezbollah with the equipment to upgrade its standard rocket arsenal to precision-guided missiles that could prove decisive in any future conflict.
US broadcaster Fox News used Flightradar24 to track Qeshm flight QFZ-9950 as it left Tehran. The plane landed in Damascus before proceeding to Lebanon several hours later, the network reported.
Western intelligence sources told Fox News the Iranian cargo plane carried weapons components, including GPS devices, to convert missiles to precision-guided weapons at Iranian factories in Lebanon.
Iran’s Qeshm Air has faced long-standing accusations of transporting arms for the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the elite al-Quds force, both the subject of US sanctions.
Officially, the airline ceased operations in 2013, ostensibly due to poor management. However, operations recommenced under new management in March 2017. Three IRGC officials — Ali Naghi Gol Parsta, Hamid Reza Pahlvani and Gholamreza Qhasemi — were reported to play instrumental roles in the airlines’ operation of its fleet of two Boeing 747s.
“It seems Iran/Hezbollah’s priority at this point is to continue converting their missiles,” said Hanin Ghaddar, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “since it is no longer safe to continue doing it in Syria (Israel is bombing them constantly), they are starting to move them to Lebanon, thinking that Israel will think twice before moving its operations against Iran/Hezbollah to Lebanon.”
Israel has struck several Hezbollah and Iran-aligned targets in Syria over the last year. Most recently, Israeli fighters struck a military facility in Latakia, where they claimed precision weapons were being developed for transfer to Hezbollah.
That strike resulted in the downing of a Russian transport plane operating over Syria and the subsequent deployment of Russia’s S-300 air defence system to Damascus.
That Hezbollah had access to precision-guided weaponry was all but admitted by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in September. Nasrallah told supporters that Israeli efforts to prevent the group from obtaining precision weaponry had failed as that had “already been achieved.”
“No matter what you do to cut the route, the matter is over and the resistance possesses precision and non-precision rockets and weapons capabilities,” he said. “If Israel imposes a war on Lebanon, Israel will face a fate and a reality it has never expected on any day.”
Hezbollah’s arsenal is thought to be formidable. Speaking at a conference hosted by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies on October 21, Israeli Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan claimed Hezbollah possessed about 150,000 missiles and rockets.
“Iran’s goal is to deepen the Israeli dilemma of whether to strike Iran while it is opening more and more fronts against us — fronts that will be used to extract from us a high price if we think about attacking the Iranian nuclear programmes,” Israel Hayom reported Erdan as saying.
While Ghaddar conceded that Israel was not interested in seeking a war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the development of weapons facilities in the country could prove to be Israel’s main red line.
“There are many options, (or) scenarios, that might or might not lead to a war but I also believe that Israel will not sit back and watch Hezbollah continue converting these missiles,” she said.
That much was largely made clear during Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s address to the United Nations in September when he accused Hezbollah of establishing three “secret sites” near Beirut’s international airport, where rockets could be converted into precision-guided missiles capable of striking deep inside Israel “within an accuracy of 10 metres.”
Hezbollah was designated a terrorist organisation by the US State Department in 1997. The group is expected to be subjected to additional sanctions in the coming weeks, with two bills awaiting signature by US President Donald Trump. The new measures target foreign nationals and companies providing financial, material or technological support to Hezbollah and its affiliates in the region.
Simon Speakman Cordall is a section editor with The Arab Weekly.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.