A few days ago, an Israeli car-carrier vessel headed from Saudi Arabia to Singapore was attacked by rockets in the Gulf of Oman This happened later in the same day that US forces attacked a border outpost maintained by Iranian-back militia on the Syria-Iraq border killing 17. The missiles left several holes above the waterline but did no further damage to the Helios Ray, its cargo or crew. Israel is confident that the attack was mounted by Iranian forces, who have previously attacked shipping in the Gulf in retaliation for hostile acts against Iran by Sunni Gulf states. Bibi Netanyahu ordered air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria in retaliation for the attack.
It is possible the vessel attacked posed a target of opportunity for the Iranians, who didn’t necessarily know who or what they were attacking. But it may be more than coincidental that the ship’s owner, Avraham “Rami” Ungar has deep personal and commercial bonds at the highest level of the Israeli political and military circles. He is also listed by Haaretz as the 22nd richest Israeli (worth $2.1-billion).
In 2014, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was recorded telling his personal secretary that if she went to prison for refusing to implicate him in corruption, Ungar would personally give her $10,000 a month after she completed her sentence.
Over the past decade, Ungar also enjoyed a close relationship with Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen. In fact, Cohen (then deputy director) personally intervened (Hebrew, English here) in a legal dispute between Rami Ungar and another shipping magnate. Michael Levi had held the Middle East contract for shipping Korean Kia new models. After Ungar took over the contract himself, Levi sued. In court, he offered documents secured from Ungar which proved that the latter had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to Kia officials. In response, Ungar complained that Levi had used illegal means to obtain the documents. At that point, Yossi Cohen interceded with a former senior IDF intelligence officer who had obtained the evidence, possibly through means of hacking Ungar’s communications. Cohen and his lawyer persuaded the former IDF officer to switch sides, and the latter then went to work for Ungar against Levi.
Later, Ungar returned the favor: when Yossi Cohen determined to build a synagogue next door to his home, several Israel billionaires made six-figure donations. Among them was Ungar, who made a $300,000 contribution. But he didn’t do so directly. Rather, he used a Panamanian cut-out company in order to conceal the donation. The same company which forwarded the bribe to Kia.
Why would Cohen, one of the nation’s most respected intelligence officials, have become involved in a commercial dispute? By the way, it is illegal under Israeli law for any public official to intercede in such matters on behalf of personal friends.
To answer, one must understand the role that Israeli shipping plays in the nation’s intelligence operations. Mossad agents operate around the world, often in hostile nations. They often need unconventional, off-the-radar means of travel so that their whereabouts will not be tracked. Instead of traveling via typical public transportation modes, ships pose an attractive means of covertly moving personnel and equipment.
Israel’s largest shipping company is owned by the Ofer Brothers. The US government placed one of its companies under sanctions because one of its ships had violated international sanctions against Iran. It had docked there and picked up cargo which it delivered to a destination outside Iran. Haaretz reported that, in fact, 13 ships owned by Ofer Brothers docked at two Iranian ports between 2001-2011.
On the face of it, it might seem odd for an Israeli company to engage in trade with Iran. But it’s makes good sense when you understand the advantage this offers Israeli intelligence. If the Mossad wishes to transport an intelligence asset to or from Iran; if you wish to transport weapons, explosives or surveillance gear to Iran–what better way to do it than by cargo ship? That’s where the Ofers come in.
Investigative reports about the assassination of Hamas weapons dealer Mahmoud al Mabouh traced how the Israeli assassins escaped from Dubai. Three of the killers fled by ship which made a stop in Iran. Though there is no concrete proof that it was one of Ungar’s or Ofer’s ships, such operations are completely in keeping with their previous modus operandi.
When Ofer protested against the US ban, he noted that he had proudly collaborated with Israeli intelligence to advance its operations. Punishing him for offering a vital service in the fight against the Iranian nuclear threat seemed unfair and cruel. The US eventually dropped the sanctions.
Ungar’s Ties to Mossad and UANI
Which brings us to Rami Ungar himself. He advanced Israeli intelligence interests in a different manner. He acted as a middle-man on behalf of the Mossad as it soughtto bully competing shipping interests into compliance with international sanctions against Iran. This more than explains why he and Yossi Cohen have such sterling relations.
Glenn Greenwald believes the Mossad has collaborated with the US anti-Iran NGO, United Against a Nuclear Iran to enforce the sanctions regime:
At the center of it is an anti-Iranian group calling itself “United Against Nuclear Iran” (UANI), which is very likely a front for some combination of the Israeli and U.S. intelligence services.
The NY Times reports that in addition to its a mission of “waging economic and psychological warfare” against Iran, the NGO uses Israeli assets to threaten and extort other shipping owners. One case involved Ungar and Greek shipping magnate Victor Restis:
…The group [UANI]…is best known for its “name and shame” campaigns, which unearth information about Western companies suspected of doing business with Iran. Using news releases, letters, Facebook and its website, the group pressures them to stop.
Companies frequently respond by cutting ties with Iran…But the response was different last year when Mr. Wallace sent a letter to Mr. Restis, accusing him and his company of being “frontmen for the illicit activities of the Iranian regime.” Mr. Restis sued for defamation…
The group said it had uncovered a letter proving there was a plan to do business in Iran. It also accused Mr. Restis of using his ships in support of Iran’s oil industry.
Mr. Restis said the letter was fraudulent [and] the illicit Iranian deal never existed…He accused the group of shaking down companies for donations; the group in turn accused him of being a “master criminal.”
The group said it based its accusations on “valid research, credible documents, distinguished relationships, and pre-eminent sourcing.” In court, Mr. Restis demanded that the group disclose those documents and its relationships.
Soon after that demand, Mr. Restis said he was approached by an Israeli businessman, Rami Ungar, with no direct connection to United Against Nuclear Iran.
According to court documents filed by Mr. Restis’s lawyers, Mr. Ungar knew details about the case and said he was “authorized to try to resolve the issues” on behalf of the group’s supporters.
It was not clear who those supporters were…Mr. Restis’s lawyers said…that they had uncovered information that United Against Nuclear Iran “is being funded by foreign interests.”
Coincidentally, Ungar began his career shipping cargo to and from Iran in the 1970s during the era of the Shah.
A funny thing happened on the way to court. The Obama Justice Department intervened and stopped the proceeding on the grounds that it was likely to damage US intelligence interests. While it’s easy to understand how discovery in this case would have damaged the Mossad’s interests, it’s intriguing to contemplate what US intelligence interests would have been similarly exposed. And how would those interests have been inter-related with the Mossad’s.
Returning to the attack on the Helios Ray: an Iranian hardline newspaper claimed that the ship was attacked because it was on an “espionage” mission. This seems pure speculation, since it offered no proof for the claim. But given the sordid history by which the Mossad exploits such shipping companies, you can’t fault the Iranian press for believing it.