The NY Times reports that the Israeli Navy captured a shipment of Iranian weapons on a ship in international waters near a Sudanese port. Israel is claiming the Syrian-made advanced rockets were sent by Iran and destined for shipment to Gaza. The commander of the Navy, Ram Rothenberg, led the operation himself, indicating how important the interception was both militarily, but even more importantly, politically.
Israel was quick to make unproven claims that the shipment represents the official political position of the Iranian government, meaning that it may not be trusted either with nuclear weapons or even in the negotiations about its nuclear program:
The apparent intelligence and operational coup provided Israel’s leaders with an opportunity to underscore their arguments about the true nature of the Iranian government at a time when the jworld powers are engaged in talks with Iran to curb its nuclear program.
“At a time when it is talking to the major powers, Iran smiles and says all sorts of nice things,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu…said in a statement. “The same Iran is sending deadly weapons to terrorist organizations.”
Iran is doing so, he said, “via a ramified network of secret operations in order to send rockets, missiles and other deadly weapons that will be used to harm innocent citizens.”
He continued: “This is the true Iran, and this state cannot possess nuclear weapons. We will continue to do whatever is necessary in order to defend Israel’s citizens.”
This, of course, is nonsense. This is no more the official policy of the Iranian political echelon than saying that Israeli arms shipments to Syria rebels in the Golan represent Israel’s official position regarding the Syrian civil war. Further, this sort of statement disregards the political situation within Iran. Because of decades of military threat from Israel, the U.S. and other Gulf States, Iran has ceded massive amounts of power to its military arm, the Revolutionary Guards. They are an autonomous center of power in much the same way that the Egyptian army, which wrested civilian control in a coup, is.
Here is how Prof. Muhammad Sahimi characterized the incident:
It is either fabrication, or carried out by hardliners in Tehran in order to scuttle the negotiations. They are opposed to the nuclear agreement and know that if a permanent agreement is signed, they will lose their economic and political power.
We have had at least two other similar operations by the hardliners in the past, in order to disrupt rapprochement between Iran and the West, one during Rafsanjani[‘s rule] and one during Khatami…
So, if the ship is from Iran, it was sent by rouge elements within IRGC without authorization even from Khamenei. That is what happened with the Karin-1 incident.
This is why people like me have been urging the West to be realistic with Iran, and recognize that with a reasonable agreement, Rouhani will be able to largely neutralize Tehran’s hardliners, but if the West demands too much, the hardliners will eventually remove him or neutralize him, in which case we will have war.
Alex Fishman, one of Israel’s best security reporters confirms the likelihood that the shipment is intended to undermine Iran’s political leadership:
Knowledgable sources in Israel concede that it is possible that that the civilian leadership, which is seeking to restrain the power of the Revolutionary Guards and impose its more conciliatory policies upon them, wasn’t aware of the arms shipment. This may’ve been an act of defiance against Pres. Rouhani, and something which could lead to an overt break between him and the IRG.
The latter portion of this quotation sounds a bit too much like Mossad machinations to divide and conquer Iran as it has the Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians. Israeli intelligence might remember that a showdown between Iran’s civilian leadership and the IRG could lead to a military coup in which the hardliners assume control of the political apparatus as well. Though this eventuality too might be attractive to Israel’s Machiavellian strategists since it would drive Iran farther into international isolation.
What I so object to regardingly Israel’s policy toward Iran is that it is like the bettor at the track who bets on all the horses to lose, rather than betting on one horse to win. Israel doesn’t want any Iranian “horse” to win. It wants them all to be weak and/or lose. This sort of policy is essentially nihilistic, value-free, and almost rudderless.
Returning to Pres. Rouhani, he no more sent those weapons to Sudan than Bibi Netanyahu armed the former IDF soldiers who are fighting today in Ukraine. My own confidential Israeli source has offered important information about the raid not reported elsewhere, which provides needed context. This was an operation of the Revolutionary Guards. The shipment was meant for the Islamic Jihad in Gaza. The IRG, after dumping Hamas during the Syrian civil war, has embraced IJ as its new ally in Gaza.
What is most interesting and ironic about this if what Prof. Sahimi says is true, is that both the current Israeli government and Iranian hardliners have a common interest in scuttling the negotiations. The IRG sent the shipment to sabotage the moderate political leadership and their happy collaborator in exposing the shipment was the Israeli government, which also wants the same thing. It makes you wonder…
The State Department has taken the unusual step of taking credit for U.S. intelligence involvement in tracking the shipment and its interception. This too appears to be an attempt by the U.S. to minimize the amount of hay Bibi can make from this incident. If we knew about the shipment all along, we also presumably would’ve known the Iranian political echelon had no idea of what was happening. Were this not the case, I’m certain we would be publicly denouncing Rouhani and Khamenei right now.
Israel gleaned the intelligence for this operation through two agents it had turned, one inside the IRG headquarters in Teheran and another in the IJ military wing. According to my source, these double agents have been directed to leave Gaza and Iran, respectively, which is why Israel can expose the operation now. Israeli SIGINT (Unit 8200) also was used in determining what the Iranians had planned and when to intercept them.
My source also confirms that while the timing of the operation itself was not political (they timed it for the moment when the ship was nearest Eilat, where the Navy’s operational base is), the timing of the release of the information is definitely political. It was intended for maximum impact during Bibi’s visit to Washington and the day after his speech to Aipac, during which he excoriated Iran. It is also meant to damage (though it’s questionable just how much it will) the P5+1 talks with Iran. The Navy would have preferred not announcing the operation now, because its forces are still at sea and not back on Israeli territory. But political considerations trumped the safety of Israeli personnel.
This incident raises several important issues which no U.S. or Israeli leader will address. One is that the Syrian civil war is a tinder box that must be extinguished through negotiation with Iran and Syria’s other allies. The longer we allow Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Gulf States to turn that country into a proxy war, the more likely a huge regional explosion will occur. Second, the failure to address the problems of Gaza including Israel’s siege there, is causing massive disruption to regional stability. Even the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have intentionally refused to include Gaza: a major mistake. You cannot truly resolve this conflict without a comprehensive solution that addresses Palestine as a single entity. Another reason why ultimately, these talks must fail and why continued instability, exemplified by this arms shipment, will plague the region.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.