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by David Rosenberg
When the MSC Finland pulled into the Italian port of Giola Tauro, it aroused the suspicions of the authorities.
The freighter had started its journey from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and was on its way to Syria's Lattakia, two countries on the world's watch list of weapons smuggling. But the MSC Finland was listed as carrying milk powder in its containers and the ship itself was owned by a Greek company, operated by a Swiss-Italian firm and flew a Liberian flag.
Giola Tauro is the Mediterranean's biggest transshipment port. Countless, anonymous containers - the giant steel crates used to transport most of the world's cargo - pass through it every day. There are far too many to inspect each one, and both law and custom discourage it.
But when the authorities pried opened the ship's containers, they found that hidden behind bags of milk powder were others containing another white crystalline substance - RDX, an explosive more powerful than TNT that is used in missile warheads. The vessel was carrying seven tons of the stuff. Experts said the shipment's ultimate destination was probably Lebanon, where Hizbullah, the Shiite militant group allied with Tehran, uses RDX in its vast rocket arsenal.
Led by Iran and North Korea, which are both subject to comprehensive United Nations arms trade embargos, arms smugglers have adopted the tactics honed over the years by the world's drug traffickers to carry on their illicit trade, according to a new study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
"It's a good business model and that's why it's been copied. There are lower risks involved, you get more of your product delivered by using foreign-flagged ships and in containers," Hugh Griffiths, the head of SIPRI's Countering Illicit Trafficking - Mechanism Assessment Projects, told The Media Line.
If anything, SIPRI notes, arms smugglers have an easier time shipping their goods than drug dealers. Military equipment and dual-use technology is not illegal to produce or trade in. Few countries effectively monitor where weapons passing through their ports are ultimately destined or make violating a United Nations arms embargo a crime.
The new smuggling tactics present a serious challenge to the United States and its allies in the Middle East seeking to contain Iran. That country has increasingly onerous international sanctions placed on it to contain its nuclear ambitions. Among the ways it can fight back is by stirring up trouble in places like Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip by sending them arms.
At the heart of the new arms-smuggling strategy is the intermodal container. It is nothing more than a huge steel box, but it is the basis for shipping everything from wing nuts to wastepaper cheaply and easily. Drug dealers learned the advantages of using containers for moving their cocaine and heroine in the 1990s. So did organized crime groups, which have even stuffed dollars earned illicitly into their bowels.
Some 17 million containers used by shippers globally, making any one hard to trace. Containers move from ship to ship nearly anonymously, rarely opened or inspected once they have been officially sealed. Smugglers can split up shipments, reducing the risk that all the contraband will be found. The way maritime law is structured, the responsibility for their contents ordinarily lies with the shipping agent, not with the captain of the ship carrying it.
Arms smugglers also learned some other tricks of the trade, such as shipping their goods on circuitous voyages and using transshipment ports to complicate tracing the origin of their goods. They also make false declarations of manifests and bills of lading. Typically, the smugglers will hide the proscribed cargo deep inside the container behind the declared contents.
The Iranian shipment of RDX employed nearly all these tactics and it was not untypical. Of 11 cases of smuggled arms being seized since 2009, all involved ships not owned by either Iran or North Korea. None of the ships' owners is believed to have been aware they were carrying contraband, according to SIPRI.
The problem for intelligence officials and others monitoring illicit traffic in weapons is that the kind of tactics used by smugglers - shell companies, fake ownership and complicated methods of payment - are commonplace in the maritime industry where paying taxes is as welcome as a powerful nor'easter.
"We don't know what is truly suspect behavior linked to arms trafficking and what is quite common practice limiting tax liability," said Griffiths. "There is a lot of white noise out there created by the desire to limit tax liabilities."
The Stockholm report traces the new tactics to the 2008 United Nations Security Council resolution that called for member states to inspect shipments carried into and out of Iran on vessels belonging to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line (IRISL).
As a result, Iran has moved much of its trade, including legal commerce, onto foreign vessels. Some of those ships are indeed foreign owned and operated, but in many cases IRISL simply renamed and reflagged its ships and sometimes re-registered ownership under a different name even if IRISL continues to effectively control them. That is enough, said the SIPRI researchers, to enable Iran to avoid inspectors.
Some 90 of IRISL's 123 ships have effectively been given new identities, according to data compiled by the U.N. and SIPRI. In fact, the re-branding of IRISL is so complete that the company, once the world's 23rd-largest container line, was no longer in the top 100 as of last April.
Griffiths said Iran faces a new challenge to its arms trade now that increasing numbers of overseas shipping companies refuse to call on Iranian ports. Denmark's A.P. Moller-Maersk/Maersk suspended business with Iran last June and others have followed.
"Any cargo coming out of Iran has to be moved through the United Arab Emirates and it is scanned there. All the containers are scanned," Griffiths said. "These are really interesting developments. It shows the willingness on part of international shipping industry to cooperate."
But, he warned, the weapons trade is so important politically and economically to countries like Iran and North Korea that they have every incentive to find new ways to circumvent the new restrictions. "These measures don't stop the flow - they merely cause it to adapt," he said.
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