Iran is smuggling upgrades for Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal through Syria in suitcases, two recent reports based on Israeli intelligence reveal.
According to these reports, the upgrades, which are based on satellite navigation systems (GPS), are meant to improve the rockets’ accuracy. The kits are no bigger than a carry-on suitcase and can thus easily be smuggled aboard a plane.
Iran is mainly trying to upgrade Hezbollah’s Zelzal-2 rockets, which have a range of up to 200 kilometers. According to Israeli intelligence, the Lebanese organization has around 14,000 such rockets.
In an article on the American website the Daily Beast, reporter Neri Zilber quoted Israeli intelligence officers who revealed detailed information about the Iranian project. The officers said Israeli air strikes in Syria (of which former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said Israel carried out around 2,000 last year) have forced Iran to stop trying to smuggle containers full of weaponry or even missile parts through Syria.
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Therefore, it is now focusing on smuggling in smaller kits to improve the rockets’ accuracy. These kits are sent from Iran to Lebanon by car, and sometimes even with passengers on commercial flights.
The goal is to convert “dumb” rockets, which can’t be remotely controlled, into smart ones with a GPS and other components that enable it to be controlled until it hits its target. This makes the rockets much more accurate, usually enabling them to land within 10 to 50 meters of the target.
An experienced technical crew can complete the upgrade in two to three hours by replacing the middle section of the rocket that connects the engine to the warhead. They then feed the GPS coordinates into the rocket via a laptop computer, “and it’s fire and forget,” one senior officer told Zilber. “It’s just like Waze,” the navigation app, he added.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly in September, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed the locations of three underground sites near Beirut’s international airport where he said Iranian and Lebanese experts were working on upgrading the missiles. Those sites were vacated within days and the Lebanese government denied their existence.
This speech showed that Israel prefers sending public warnings to attacking sites in Lebanon, as direct attacks could start a new war with Hezbollah.
The intelligence officers told the Daily Beast that describing these sites as “factories” was misleading, as the activity conducted there could also be done in a room the size of an ordinary office. They also described their cat-and-mouse games with Hezbollah and Iranian personnel in their effort to stop the smuggling, adding that Hezbollah was excellent at covering its tracks.
But despite its enemies’ skills and the small size of the targets, Israel has the upper hand, the officers said. “What do you think we’re hitting in Syria?” one officer said. “We’re running after suitcases.”
No hermetic solution
Earlier this week, Britain announced it has decided to list Hezbollah’s political wing as a terrorist organization, and not just its military wing, as had been the policy until now.
A detailed report published last week by the British, pro-Israeli research institute BICOM, which is apparently also based on Israeli intelligence, said Iran’s effort to improve the accuracy of Hezbollah’s rockets has focused on the Lebanese movement’s 14,000 Zelzal-2 models. It added that the cost of upgrading a single rocket ranges from $5,000 to $10,000.
The BICOM document said Hezbollah is currently thought to have only a relatively small number of precision missiles, somewhere between 20 and 200. But even this number, combined with its enormous quantity of “dumb” missiles (which Israel estimates at between 100,000 and 150,000), would be capable of doing damage to Israel’s infrastructure.
In speeches and propaganda videos in recent years, Hezbollah has repeatedly threatened to attack power plants, air bases, the Haifa oil refineries, the nuclear reactor in Dimona and army headquarters in Tel Aviv. Israel has no hermetic solution to such missile strikes, despite having developed three layers of sophisticated missile interception systems – the Arrow (long-range), David’s Sling (medium-range) and Iron Dome (short-range).
The BICOM document said that for Iran, the effort to upgrade Hezbollah’s missiles was a test case that could be replicated if it succeeds. Tehran is already trying to do something similar in Yemen, where it seeks to improve the accuracy of missiles held by the Houthi rebels who are fighting the Saudi-backed government. Precision weaponry in the Houthis’ hands could also endanger American bases in the Persian Gulf.
The Israeli intelligence officers told the Daily Beast that Israel is winning the “shadow war” it is waging against the Iranians led by Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.
Eisenkot told the New York Times in January that Soleimani erred in choosing to confront Israel in Syria, where the IDF enjoys complete aerial and intelligence superiority. He said Israeli strikes have prevented Iran from achieving its goals in Syria, which included deploying a permanent force of about 100,000 Shi’ite militiamen from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; indoctrinating Syrians in the Shi’ite faith; building air, naval and intelligence bases; and deploying weapons systems, including anti-aircraft batteries and drones.
‘A quiet revolution’
Netanyahu recently told the Voice of America’s Persian broadcast that the Iranians are still in Syria, but there would be more of them were it not for Israel’s actions, and their presence has even shrunk a bit. Israeli intelligence says a few hundred members of the Revolutionary Guards have left Syria, as have a few thousand Hezbollah fighters, who have returned to Lebanon.
At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu denied a senior Iranian official’s claim that 90 percent of his country’s goals in Syria had been achieved. “They’re trying, but we’re stopping them,” he said. “The Iranians tell a lot of lies.”
Dr. Shimon Shapira, an expert on Iran and Hezbollah at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said he believes Iran’s ambitions in Syria are bigger than Israel’s intelligence community has yet realized.
Shapira, a reserve brigadier general who served as Netanyahu’s military secretary during the prime minister’s first term, noted that Syrian President Bashar Assad has allowed foreign Shi’ite militiamen to bring their families to Syria. Moreover, he said, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are building institutions for them in Syria – schools, religious institutions and even universities where the language of instruction is Farsi.
As Syria’s civil war has died down, Iran has begun a major effort to increase its influence over civilian affairs in Syria, Shapira continued. This effort is reminiscent of what it did with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“A quiet revolution is taking place here, whose goal is to make Syria Shi’ite by exploiting Iran’s influence over President Bashar Assad’s Alawite government,” he said.