From an IPS Correspondent in Germany

HAMBURG (GERMANY) 29 Aug. (IPS) An Israeli cargo ship transporting Israeli-made military equipments for the Islamic Republic of Iran was stopped by customs officials at the German port of Hamburg, German and Israeli officials confirmed Thursday.

The ship, "Zim Antwerp I", sailing under a Thai flag and carrying some 3,000 chains, rubber treads for armored personnel carriers and other spare parts for tanks, manufactured by an Israeli firm, had reached Hamburg, coming from Israel and en route for Thailand, Hamburg custom officials said, adding that the shipment was to be transboarded in this port.

"The consignment was authorised for export by Israeli authorities on the premise that the cargo was headed for Thailand", a statement from Israeli Defence Ministry confirmed.

"The Defense Ministry prohibits the sale of military equipment or spare parts for weapons of any kind to Iran", the ministry said, adding that the incident will be turned over to the police for investigation.

"German customs authorities informed the Defense Ministry that the final destination [of the ship's cargo] was Iran", the statement said, meaning that they were probably informed about the cargo’s final destination, contrary to the Israeli Defence Ministry’s declarations.

Hamburg shipping authorities said the "Zim Antwerp I" was in the city's harbor at an inaccessible terminal, and AP Television News photographed the ship anchored at the harbor with a police car alongside, Israel’s independent newspaper "ha’aretz" reported on the incident.

"German officials said the ship was stopped two weeks ago, after custom authorities became aware that the two containers of tank chains and rubber treads were destined for the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, on the Persian Gulf, not Thailand, as the the ship's documents claimed", reported Mr. Morteza Ra’isi, a correspondent for the Persian service of the BBC.

German authorities sent the load back to Israel Thursday aboard a "Zim" vessel, Israel’s largest shipping company, he added.

The cargo was due to be transferred in Hamburg to a Malaysian ship that would carry it on to Thailand. But the German authorities had apparently received information even before the ship docked, indicating that the cargo was really due to be transferred to an Iranian ship bound for Iran, and therefore inspected the papers of both the Israeli and the Malaysian ships more closely than usual, custom officials at Hamburg, Germany’s and one of Europe’s largest ports said.

Both Israeli and German authorities said it was something in the Malaysian ship's documents that confirmed the German authorities' suspicions, but it is not yet known precisely what.

"The German Defense Ministry informed its Israeli counterpart of the affair, and the ministry's top brass held a hasty discussion that resulted in the press release. It later emerged, however, that the ship had not yet docked at the time", Ha’aretz further reported.

A Defense Ministry spokeswoman noted that the Israeli company that sent the shipment - a Netanya-based firm called "PAD", headed by Avichai Weinstein - may not have known the cargo was eventually to arrive in Iran.

This is not the first time that Weinstein, 34, has been involved in a suspected sale of military equipment to Iran. Two years ago, he and his brother-in-law and partner at the time, Eli Cohen, were arrested on suspicion of selling surplus Canadian military equipment to Iran via third parties - specifically, via shipments to Holland and Belgium that were transferred to Singapore and thence to Iran.

This equipment included engines and spare parts for APCs. The two were even remanded for several days. However, the case was eventually closed without an indictment, after the prosecution concluded that it would be difficult to prove the charges. Their lawyer had claimed that the equipment, which had been stored for years in a Dutch warehouse, had been dismantled and converted to civilian uses, and that the two were in any case only serving as middlemen for a British firm.

In 1997, Cohen was indicted on similar charges but ultimately acquitted. In 1998, Israeli businessman Nachum Manbar was sentenced to 16 years in jail for arranging to sell Iran materials for making poison gas.

An Israeli security source said that because the shipment involved rubber treads, which can be used for civilian purposes, rather than actual weaponry, the export permit was approved without much investigation.

Attorney Haim Misgav, who is representing Weinstein, said that his client was unaware of the final destination of the shipment.

As usual, the Iranian government "categorically" denied Thursday any connection to the affair, saying it was "another joke from Israeli propaganda against the Islamic Republic.

"We have no ties - diplomatic, economic, and certainly not military - with Israel, a regime that we do not recognise", said Mr. Hamid Reza Asefi, the senior spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry.

"This new story comes in the wake of other similar ones, such as claims that Iran is giving shelter to al Qa’ida members, which are intended to harm Iran", he added.

Iran cut off all relations with the Jewish State after the victory of the Islamic revolution in 1979. However, covert relations, especially in arms sales, between Tehran and Tel Aviv never stopped and Grand Ayatollah Roohollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic authorized Iranian military to seek assistance from Israel in buying badly needed weapons and spare parts for Iranian armies after Iraq attacked Iran in 1980.

These ties were maintained despite the international sanctions imposed on Iran, despite the ban on selling it weapons, and despite the rift they caused more than once in the relations with the United States.

Israel also played a major role in the 1986 "Irangate" saga, in which CIA and Mosad would provide Iran with weapons and the money going to fund the "Contras" fighting the then left-wing regime of Nicaragua.

During the trial of Iran-born Israeli businessman Nahum Manbar, who was sentenced in 1998 to 16 years in prison for selling to Iran chemicals and providing it with know-how and equipment to set up plants for chemical warfare, the judges rejected his claim that he was not alone in trading with Iran, and that Israeli companies were also selling arms to the Islamic Republic. ENDS ISRAEL ARMS FOR IRAN 29802