By Nitzan Nuriel & Adam Wolfson

By Brig. Gen. (Res.) Nitzan Nuriel, Director Counter Terrorism Bureau, Israel

Mr. Adam Wolfson. Legal Department, National Security Council, Israel

ICT (Institute for Counter-Terrorism)


Iran has been transferring in recent years large amounts of weapons to well-known terrorist groups in Lebanon and Gaza by various means. One of the ways Iran has found to be very effective is using maritime containers which ship through intermediate ports on their way to their final destinations. Iran exploits the fact that those containers, which are also known as “transit containers,” almost never have their content screened at the intermediate ports. In this article we propose a global solution for the problem, one that will increase substantially local authorities’ chances of apprehending Iranian weapons at the intermediate ports before they reach terrorist organizations.

The Iranian Threat

The global economy is greatly influenced by its trade and transportation capacity. A large percentage of international commerce depends on container transportation. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the most critical component of global trade today is transportation of goods by containers through seaports around the world: almost 90 percent of the world’s manufactured goods move by container (about 40 percent arrive by ship), and each year, about 108 million cargo containers are transported through seaports.

However, the threat to global trade posed by the potential terrorist use of a maritime container has not been sufficiently addressed in many countries around the world. The same applies to the usage of maritime containers by states that sponsor terrorism, such as Iran, to transfer weapons to terrorist organizations.

Even though the threat is very real, as will be shown below, authorities around the world are finding it increasingly hard – due to budget and other constraints – to screen every container passing through their ports. This is especially true with transit containers.

The Francop affair sheds light on the convoluted path Iranian weapons take on their way to terrorists groups, such as Hezbollah. In November 2009, Iran loaded at one of its local ports 36 containers of weapons onto a ship which sailed to Egypt. There, the containers were transferred, without any inspection or screening, to the cargo vessel Francop, which is German owned, but was leased at the time to a Cypriot freight delivery company, and Antiguan flagged. Francop was supposed to dock at a second intermediate port in Cyprus on its way to its final destination in Syria. From Syria the weapons were intended to be transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Fortunately, the ship was intercepted by Israeli naval forces before arriving in Cyprus.

Prior intelligence about Francop helped the Israeli Authorities to stop the transferring of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah. However that will not always be the case. Therefore, state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran, have been trying relentlessly in past years to exploit this vulnerability to smuggle weapons – using maritime transit containers – to well-known terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. These attempts to transfer weapons to terrorist groups are in direct violation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1835, 1803, 1747 and 1737 that strictly forbid Iran from exporting or trading any forms of weapons.

The Iranian system of transferring weapons by maritime containers, as was shown above, and how it exploits the system works as follows: the “illegal” containers (those with weapons) are usually loaded onto a ship at one of Iran’s local ports, and then shipped with other legitimate containers to one of the many intermediate ports around the world. The intermediate ports are unaware of the real cargo because the shipping documents typically are falsified. After unloading the containers at the intermediate ports, they are bundled with another new set of “clean” containers – which have the same final destination tags as those of the illegal cargo – waiting to be picked up at a later date. Then, a different ship, which will almost always be owned by another country (never by Iran) flying a different flag loads the containers – both the legal and illegal – and sails to its final destination, usually Egypt or Syria. From there the containers carrying the weapons go to the terrorist groups who reside in Lebanon and Gaza. The crews that pick up the containers at the intermediate ports have no knowledge of their cargo – whether legal or illegal – since they are not authorized to screen it. Therefore, unbeknownst to the shipping companies, they constitute a part of the Iranian technique to smuggle weapons to terrorist organizations by maritime containers. The purpose of this intricate Iranian operation, in all of its stages, is to cover any Iranian connection to the illegal cargo by exploiting the lack of sufficient security measures, especially in the intermediate ports.

Transit containers pose an especially significant security risk for every state that has a port due to the fact that these containers are almost never screened for weapons or other illegal goods without prior intelligence. The authorities prefer to allocate their resources to screening containers which are actually entering their country, rather than screening containers in transit, which have not officially entered the country, and which are then shipped elsewhere.

Furthermore, transit containers are sometimes left at the transit port for days and weeks at a time – often unchecked – until they are uploaded onto a ship to their final destination, Iran’s entire operation of smuggling weapons by means of maritime containers is based on the assumption that the illegal containers, which are in transit, will not be checked at the intermediate ports by the local authorities.

In addition to the Francop affair, a number of past incidents demonstrate Iranian efforts to smuggle weapons to terrorist groups in Lebanon and Gaza using maritime containers in transit.

The incidents


In March 2011 Israeli naval commandos boarded and seized a German owned cargo vessel, Victoria, which was flying a Liberian flag, but operated by a French shipping company. Victoria was on its way from Turkey to Egypt, unknowingly concealing 39 containers of weapons intended to reach Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza. Turkey, which had no ties to the incident, constituted an intermediate port for the cargo’s travel route from Syria to Egypt. According to Israeli officials, the weapons shipment originated in Iran. One month before the interception, two Iranian warships visited the same Syrian port from which the intercepted vessel departed.

Photo: Israel Government Press Office Iranian Weapons seized on the Victoria ship.


In October 2010 Nigerian security agents discovered at the port of Lagos 13 containers of Iranian weapons. Three months earlier Iran had shipped those containers to a port in Nigeria with instructions to leave the cargo at the port for pick-up by a different ship at a later date. As in the Victoria incident, the Nigerian port was supposed to act as an intermediate port for the cargo on its way to its final destination, Gaza. Indeed, after the cargo was left at the port untouched for some time, Iran issued a request for the containers to be loaded on to a ship headed for Namibia with the intention of transferring the weapons through land routes in Africa to Hamas in Gaza. After receiving intelligence about the content of the cargo, Nigerian security forces were able to confiscate the containers, thus thwarting the Iranian operation before it was completed.


In January 2009 the Cypriot authorities intercepted the Russian owned cargo vessel’ Monchegorsk – which was flying a Cypriot flag, but was leased by an Iranian shipping company – en route from Iran to Syria. The authorities found 98 containers of arms. The containers were subsequently unloaded from the ship and were placed under supervision at a local naval base. In July 2011, an explosion originating from the confiscated cargo occurred at the naval base, killing the commander of the Cyprus navy and 11 other men; dozens more were injured. In addition, many cars, houses and government facilities in the vicinity of base were severely damaged, including a major power station, causing blackouts to some areas of the country. The incident had immediate and significant political ramifications – the defense minister and the country’s top military official resigned from their posts.

Photo: AFP The Explosion damages in Cyprus. Iranian Containers that have been stopped and delayed by the Cypriot authorities.

Photo: IDF Spokesperson's Unit Iranian containers that were seized on the Francop ship. The containers spent three weeks in transit in Port Said.

Possible Solutions to the Iranian Threat

As was illustrated above, a container explosion could have an enormous negative impact not only in terms of loss of live and damage to the port and its surrounding areas, but also to the nation’s economy as a whole. Further incidents like the one that occurred in Cyprus could paralyze the global economy and severely undermine freedom of movement (as has occurred in the past with air travel). In addition, we have seen that intermediate ports have been used as unwitting hosts for the transfer of weapons from Iran to terrorist organizations in Lebanon and Gaza.

Therefore, we suggest that containers shipped by states, like Iran, that in the past have been caught undermining the system by falsifying documents and smuggling weapons to terrorist organizations, be subjected to a 100% inspection regime. As a result, each state will take the steps necessary to protect its own ports, economy and citizens. The intermediate ports would no longer act as unwitting hosts for the transfer of weapons from Iran to terrorist organizations because every container originally shipped from Iran to their ports would be screened. Not only would such a regime increase port safety and security, but Iran will have one less way to transfer weapons to terrorist organizations.

We recognize that budget and other constraints pose a challenge to the authorities responsible for checking all incoming container shipments from states like Iran. For that reason, the cost of inspection should be borne by the shipping country; this would be the cost of Iran’s repeated exploitation and deception of host ports.

If our proposals were implemented during the time the aforementioned incidents occurred, it would have obviated the Israeli naval operations on the high seas that ended the Francop and Victoria affairs, since the illegal cargo would have been screened and subsequently confiscated at the intermediate port. The same applies with the Nigerian case. The local Nigerian security forces would have seized the illegal cargo soon after the Iranian shipment arrived.

We must recognize that sometimes intelligence about illegal cargo shipments does not arrive in time for it to be used by the security forces, as were the cases during the Francop and the Victoria affairs. Our proposal will virtually guarantee that containers loaded with weapons which were shipped from Iran and arrive at intermediate ports will be caught – regardless of prior intelligence – due to the 100% inspection regime.

In conclusion, the threat posed by the potential terrorist use of a maritime container and the smuggling of weapons by the same means is a global concern affecting all nations since – as the DHS put it – all trading nations depend on containerized shipping for the transportation of manufactured goods. We will not be able to achieve effective deterrence, take essential security steps, or close the gaps in the system without full international cooperation.