DEBKAfile's military sources report that a US Navy Coast Guard team this week boarded an Iranian arms ship flying a Cypriot flag in the Red Sea and found weapons in its hold.
This was the first time an America warship had ever intercepted an Iranian vessel in international water. The incident activated the Memo of Understanding the former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice signed with Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni a week ago on actions to halt the flow of Iranian arms to Hamas as part of the Gaza ceasefire.
The Iranian ship's captain showed the US boarding team documents recording the Syrian port of Latakia as its cargo's destination. DEBKAfile reports that both US and Israeli intelligence are certain the arms were bound for Hamas. But according to international law, the US Navy's Combined Task Force (CTF) 151, set up last week to combat piracy, was not authorized to confiscate the cargo or stop the ship because no enforcement mechanism was yet in place.
After a few hours, therefore, the US force released the Iranian vessel and two warships escorted it out of Red Sea waters. The ship and its escort are due to enter the Suez Canal heading north Saturday night, Jan. 23, after being prevented from unloading its arms freight on the coast of Sinai or Gaza.
Tehran has so far not reacted to the incident.
DEBKAfile revealed last week that the new US task force policing the waters of the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Red Sea, under the command of Rear Adm. Terry McKnight, had been additionally assigned with intercepting Iranian ships smuggling arms for Hamas, often in conjunction with Somali pirates and Sinai Bedouin militias.
Massed on the lead ship San Antonio is a helicopter detachment, a "surgical team" for dealing with small speedboats trying to hem the ship in and 14 Navy VBSS members, including two Navy boarding officers. The Coast Guard detachment is made up of eight members, all of them qualified as boarding officers.