By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, June 27 (Reuters) - A U.N. expert panel has concluded that a shipment of rockets and other weapons that was seized by Israel came from Iran and represents a violation of the U.N. arms embargo on Tehran, according to a confidential report obtained by Reuters on Friday.
The finding comes just days ahead of the next round of negotiations in Vienna between Iran and six world powers aimed at securing a deal that would gradually lift international sanctions on Tehran -- including the arms embargo -- in exchange for curbs on the controversial Iranian nuclear program.
Despite Israel's public statements that the seized arms were destined for Gaza -- an allegation that Gaza's governing Islamist militant group Hamas dismissed as a fabrication -- the experts said the weapons were being sent to Sudan.
The experts do not speculate in the report about why the arms were being sent to Sudan, a country which Western diplomatic and intelligence sources have told Reuters has in the past been a conduit for Iranian arms shipments to other locations in Africa, as well as the Gaza Strip.
The experts said the Israeli U.N. mission wrote to the U.N. Iran Sanctions Committee on March 13 about "the transfer of rockets, mortars and related materiel from Iran to Sudan."
The 14-page report on the incident by the U.N. Security Council's Panel of Experts on Iran makes no mention of the Gaza Strip as a possible destination for the arms, which were concealed in 20 containers on the Panamanian-flagged vessel Klos C. The weaponry was seized by Israeli authorities in March.
The U.N. experts reached their conclusion after investigating the case and inspecting the seized cargo and documentation related to the shipment, which traveled from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, and from there in the direction of Port Sudan.
The vessel was intercepted by the Israeli navy in the Red Sea before it reached Sudan.
"The Panel finds that the manner of concealment in this case is consistent with several other cases reported to the (Security Council's Iran Sanctions) Committee and investigated by the Panel," the experts said.
"The Panel concludes that the shipment of arms and related materiel found aboard the Klos C is a violation of Iran's obligations under paragraph 5 of resolution 1747," they added, referring to the U.N. arms embargo on Tehran.
Despite Iranian denials, the experts said official seals from Iranian customs authorities on containers that held some of the arms "substantiates the Iranian origin of those containers." Further evidence on the Iranian origin came from the Iranian bill of lading, cargo manifest and the container stowage plan.
Iran's U.N. mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
NO PROOF OF SYRIAN ORIGIN
The report includes details on the arms, which were concealed in a shipment of cement: 40 M302 rockets and fuses, including four different variations of the rockets; 181 120 mm mortar shells; roughly 400,000 pieces of 7.62 caliber ammunition.
The experts could not confirm the Israeli allegation that some of the weapons were made in Syria.
"According to Israeli officials, the rockets were produced in Syria by the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC)," they said. "No markings were identified on the rockets during the Panel's inspection that would have allowed confirmation of the Syrian origin of the rockets."
"One expert notes that the Syrian origin of the rockets cannot be independently established and neither can the movement of the rockets from Syria to Iran," the report added.
It was not clear from the report what, if any, role Iraq could have played in the smuggling of weaponry. The 20 containers that held the illicit arms were part of the 100-container shipment loaded onto the Klos C at Bandar Abbas, Iran.
The 50 containers of cement loaded onto the ship at Umm Qasr in Iraq did not contain weapons, the report said, citing information the experts had received from Israeli authorities.
The experts said the concealment techniques were similar to other cases of alleged sanctions violations by Iran they have investigated -- in Nigeria, arms were shipped amid crates of marble; in other cases reported by Israel arms were hidden in containers with polyethylene pellets, lentils and cotton.
In another case of reported by Italy, Iran allegedly shipped dried explosives among bags of powdered milk, the report said.
At the time that the arms were seized, Israel said the case showed Iran was not negotiating in good faith with the six powers - the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
"At the same time that it is talking to world powers, at the same time that Iran is smiling and saying all kinds of honeyed words, that same Iran is sending lethal weaponry to terrorist organizations and it is doing so in a complex web of covert, worldwide operations," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
The circulation of the Panel of Experts' report to the Iran Sanctions Committee just ahead of a deadline for Iran and the six powers to reach an agreement in the Vienna nuclear talks clearly irritated Russia.
Earlier this week Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, complained that "any information not backed up by concrete facts ... could have a negative impact on the conduct of negotiations of the group of six and Iran."
But Russia was in the minority in its complaints. Other Security Council members, including the chair of the Iran sanctions committee, Australian Ambassador Gary Quinlan, praised the investigative work of the Panel of Experts.
France's deputy U.N. envoy Alexis Lamek said the experts annual report submitted to the sanctions committee last month was a "precise source of information on Iran's illicit programs and its methods of circumventing sanctions."
The panel's annual report said that Tehran's illicit procurement appeared to have slowed during its negotiations with the six powers, though Iranians continued to attempt to bypass sanctions on a regular basis. (Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Leslie Adler)