Iran's New Route to Arm Hamas?

The seizure of Iranian weapons in a Nigerian port triggers alarm.

When Nigerian officials seized 13 containers of weapons smuggled from Iran into the Nigerian port of Lagos on October 26, 2010, Iranian foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki chalked the entire incident up to a complete “misunderstanding.” Unfortunately for Mottaki, the Nigerian government, as a result of its own internal investigation, didn’t believe the incident lacked clarity.

The shipment of weapons, according to the Nigerian State Security Service (SSS), originated from the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas and was hidden in containers marked as building materials. The cache included 107mm rockets, grenades and assorted small arms. The rockets have a killing radius of 5 miles and have been used by insurgents against US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If correct, this act would signal a direct violation by Iran of UN imposed sanctions that expressly prohibit Iran, either directly or indirectly, from selling, supplying or transferring any weapons.

The confirmation of the weapons point of origin has now led Nigeria to forward its findings to the UN Security Council. According to Nigerian Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia, “Following preliminary investigations, our permanent mission in New York has reported the seizure and inspection of the arms shipment from Iran.”

The Iranians, for their part, have steadfastly maintained the incident to be nothing more than a private company’s attempt to sell weapons to another yet unidentified West African nation. According to Mottaki, an Iranian representative of the company had “offered explanations and I believe the misunderstanding has been cleared up.”

With the Nigerians in obvious disagreement, it will be up to the UN Security Council to determine the next steps, if any, to be taken. In fact, it’s starting to become a busy month for that body as in addition to the Nigerian findings, it now awaits the receipt of a UN report on North Korean efforts to supply Iran, among others nations, with nuclear technology.

The timing of the weapons seizure also does not auger well for the six-nation talks on the Iranian nuclear program scheduled to resume in December. Although participants had little hope the talks would produce much progress, news of this latest violation confirms those dour predictions.

Still, the most pertinent question raised from the discovery of the Iranian weapons is not that Iran had been caught exporting arms, but rather who were the intended recipients.

Israeli officials voiced concern the shipment was an attempt by the Iranians to open up a new overland route in which to supply Hamas in Gaza. It led one Israeli defense official to conjecture that “the Iranians were planning to unload the weapons in Nigeria and transfer them by land to Sudan and Sinai,” since a stepped up international presence had slowed down efforts by the Iranians to offload weapons into Sudan via the Red Sea.

While there may be legitimacy to those comments, the timing of the shipment coincides with a renewed outbreak of violence between the Nigerian government and its many militant groups, suggesting a different answer.

As a nation divided between a Muslim-dominated north and a Christian-dominated south, with each region home to violent militant groups, Nigeria is ripe for exploitation by a regime intent on fomenting destabilization.

Adding fuel to this theory has been the renewed outbreak of violence in Nigeria’s southern, oil-rich Niger River Delta. On October 30, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which has long advocated a redistribution of oil wealth and a greater control of the region, broke its on-again, off-again peace with the government by launching a rash of attacks on oil facilities throughout the Delta.

The belief that it would be a contained and limited fight was countered by the group’s most recent communiqué which stated: “In the coming weeks, (MEND) will launch a major operation that will simultaneously affect oil facilities across the Niger Delta."

In addition to grappling with MEND, the Nigerian government has been simultaneously engaged in fighting the northern-based Islamic militant group Boko Haram. This group, which holds links to North Africa’s al-Qaeda branch, has long been fighting to have Sharia law imposed on all northern Nigerian states. In recent days it has threatened: "Any Muslim that goes against the establishment of Sharia (law) will be attacked and killed.”

Even though a dozen states in the north operate under Sharia law, they remain under the control of secular state governments. Still this has not prevented outbreaks of heavy fighting between the sect and government forces, fighting which escalated heavily in July 2009 when Boko Haram leader, Mohammed Yusuf, died in police custody.

All of this fighting comes behind the backdrop of an upcoming January 2011 general election. The election has exacerbated tensions between Nigeria’s Muslims and Christians with the decision of current president, Goodluck Jonathan, to seek reelection.

The cause for controversy is that Jonathan, a southern Nigerian, has gone against the unwritten agreement of the ruling People’s Democratic Party that power be split between a candidate from the north and south every two terms. Jonathan is completing the term of President Umaru Yar’Adua who died in May 2010.

Adding to Western unease over the potential for sectarian violence in Nigeria is its role in already being a staging area for terrorist strikes. This fear announced itself front and center when Nigerian citizen Umar Farouk Abdulmmutaallab was accused of attempting to blow up a Northwest Airliner in Detroit on Christmas day 2009, an action which prompted the US Government to include Nigeria as a “country of interest,” one believed to be a sponsor of state terrorism.

While some believe Iran’s latest sanction violations to just be a case of “tweaking” Western powers in an attempt to demonstrate it is still a global player, others see a darker motive.

Through sponsorship of such terrorist organizations as Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda or the Taliban, Iran has been the prime agent behind sowing international discord since 1979. As “U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once neatly opined, "Iran has been the country that has been in many ways a kind of central banker for terrorism.”

What is not up for debate, however, is that in all the talk over Iran’s nuclear program is the unmistakable fact that Iran doesn’t need nuclear weapons to destabilize the world. Nigeria just may prove to be the latest country to prove that unfortunate point.

Frank Crimi is a freelance writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank's work at his blog, or contact him at [email protected]