SSG’s Libyan contacts have forwarded reports of a ship that may be smuggling Iranian weapons to the Misurata faction, which is aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA). This week’s moves by the United States make those reports more plausible and worthy of investigation.
Alarming intelligence this week prompted some major US moves in the Middle East, including the deployment of B-52 bombers and the Carrier Strike Group built around the USS Abraham Lincoln. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo canceled a visit with the German head of government, Angela Merkel, at the last moment so that he could fly to Iraq. The exact contents of the intelligence are of course secret, but a few details have leaked. As the Security Studies Group has been warning the administration since early last year, Iran’s proxy forces in Iraq and Syria are well positioned to do severe harm to our deployed military given its light footprint. The intelligence received apparently warned about such plans. In addition, however, the intelligence reportedly warned that Iran has been moving ballistic missiles by ship.
SSG has been reporting on the deployment of such missiles to Iranian proxies in Yemen for some time. The ability of such forces to close the Bab el-Mandeb strait has been supplemented by the deployment of formal Iranian naval forces in March. Those forces are allegedly in the region to safeguard Iranian vessels, but they can also serve as spotters for proxy forces in Yemen operating Iranian anti-ship missile batteries. The intelligence that Iran may be moving these in quantity by cargo ship is made more plausible by the fact that Israel intercepted one such shipment. That ship carried 40 Syrian-made M-302 missiles, sometimes called the Khaibar-1. The ship was also carrying forty thousand rounds of small arms ammunition.
Iran recently leased a Syrian port on the Mediterranean Sea, giving it direct control that will make smuggling operations more secure. However, the ship in Misurata traveled to Libya from Bulgaria, although its previous ports of call are as yet unknown. This ship is the Sharh E Kord (named after a city in Iran). The GNA reportedly seized the ship once reports became public that it was an Iranian vessel operating in spite of US and EU sanctions. However, the GNA has since claimed that the ship has not been seized, but is merely being held securely while they ‘resolve a dispute’ with Iran. In any case, the ship has been secured by GNA forces.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) spokesman told the media that their intelligence was that the ship was carrying 144 weapon cases. They confirm the ownership of the vessel by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), recently declared a foreign terrorist organization by the United States. Video from a pro-LNA media outlet in Libya shows what is claimed to be large quantities of munitions unloaded at the port in Misurata. The foreign ministry of the interim government supported by the LNA, which is not aligned with the Tripoli-based GNA, condemned what it says is “supporting terrorism” by providing weapons. The government statement claims an unlikely number of missiles — twenty thousand, which is a more likely figure for small arms cartridges than missiles — but the interim government does not have physical control of the cargo, and diplomats rarely understand weaponry well. Their statement likely confuses the types and numbers of munitions their intelligence officers were claiming existed.
This is not the only cargo ship from the IRGC-owned cargo company that has been spotted headed to Misurata lately. The vessel Arzin passed through the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul recently, also bound for Misurata. Its previous port of call was Odessa, Ukraine.