WASHINGTON — The United States blocked an Iranian cargo plane’s flight to Syria last month after intelligence analysts concluded it was carrying sophisticated missiles and launchers to resupply Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, two U.S. intelligence officials say.
Eight days after Hezbollah’s war with Israel began, U.S. diplomats persuaded Turkey and Iraq to deny the plane permission to cross their territory to Damascus, a transfer point for arms to Hezbollah, the officials said.
The episode was detailed by one U.S. intelligence official who saw a report on the incident. It was confirmed by a U.S. official from a second intelligence agency and by a diplomat with a foreign government. They did not want their names used because they were not authorized to discuss the incident.
Their account illustrates the quiet support the United States gave Israel during the 34-day war, even enlisting help from Muslim nations where acting on Israel’s behalf is politically anathema.
Israel and President Bush have accused the Shiite-dominated government of Iran, Hezbollah’s primary supplier, of shipping the Shiite militia increasingly sophisticated weapons by way of Syria.
The Iraq and Turkish governments would not discuss the incident. Iran’s United Nations mission denied trying to send Hezbollah weapons. The intelligence officials did not provide reports, satellite photos or other evidence to corroborate the sequence of events. Their account could not be independently verified.
The officials described this timeline:
“¢July 15: Three days after the war began, a source tipped off U.S. intelligence about an imminent shipment of missiles from Iran to Hezbollah.
“¢July 19: A spy satellite photographed Iranian crews loading three missile launchers and eight crates, each normally used to carry a Chinese-designed C-802 Noor missile, aboard a transport plane at Mehrabad air base near Tehran. Israel says Hezbollah fired a C-802, a precision-guided anti-ship cruise missile, at an Israeli warship off Lebanon’s coast on July 14.
“¢July 20: The Ilyushin Il-76 transport plane left for Damascus, but Iraqi air-traffic controllers denied it permission to enter Iraq’s airspace. The Iranian flight crew then requested permission to fly over Turkey. Turkish controllers granted permission — but only if the plane would land for an inspection. The plane returned to Tehran, where the military cargo was unloaded.
“¢July 22: The plane flew humanitarian aid to Damascus after stopping for inspection in Turkey.
Though the missiles were not visible in the satellite photos, the launchers and specialized crates with distinctive shapes allowed U.S. analysts to identify the missile type, the intelligence officials said.
Asked about the account during an interview Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “We work on these kinds of things all the time.” But she added, “I can’t comment on specific cases.”