The presenter of the First Edition program broadcast by the privately-owned Egyptian satellite TV Dream brought the news to his listeners on Sunday March 13 that the Egyptian army had shelled seven vehicles laden with arms and ammunition on the Sudanese border and used every means to destroy them.
He did not say when this happened.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report the incident occurred Wednesday, March 9. When shelling failed to halt the moving convoy, the Egyptian air force was called in to wipe it out.
Although it deserved attention as a landmark event, the incident hardly raised a ripple in the flood of events at the time, swallowed up by the war in Libya, Bahraini street battles with protesters, rioting in Sana, Yemen and the vicious knifing of five Israeli family members at the West Bank Itamar community Friday, March 11, the day Japan suffered one of the worst earthquakes ever recorded.
But that incident did leave a mark on Middle East history. Egyptian intelligence had picked up the trail of a supply route through which Iran had begun arming the Muslim Brotherhood for a bid for power. That route moreover elevated the Palestinian Hamas from recipient of Iranian military largesse to strategic partner in Iran's push for a foothold in the most populous Arab state.
The Palestinian extremists have undergone a transformation in the two years since January 2009, when Israeli warplanes bombed a convoy smuggling Iranian arms for Hamas in the Gaza Strip as it moved through a desert region near the Mount Al-Sha'anoon northwest of Port Sudan city in eastern Sudan. Today, Tehran has made Hamas an important vehicle for carrying Iranian influence into the heart of the popular uprisings overtaking the Arab world, especially in Egypt.
Iran arms pro-democracy protesters to seize power
Iran sees in the Arab unrest promoted by Washington and the West in the name of democratic reform its big chance to plant its influence in Sunni Muslim capitals – although this window of opportunity may be narrowing as Arab incumbents start shooting down the popular movements bent on ousting them. Iran is fast-forwarding its push for potential military power bases in the Middle East and North Africa – a process it carried out in slow motion over eight years in Iraq.
The pro-democracy unrest serves Tehran doubly for masking its surreptitious hijack of the movements and as the catalyst for momentum, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report.
So while President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates talk loftily about the peoples of the region deserving a share in government, democratic reforms and human rights – all sorely absent in Arab governance – Iran is busy with the practicalities of power-building: prospective allies in the up-and-coming leadership are given the weapons and funding to expedite their grab for power.
Iran has polished its expansionist skills since its early attempts to seize a foothold in Iraq in the first three years of the American military presence there (2003-2006). Then, its revolutionary strategists were still raw and experienced. Post-Saddam Hussein Baghdad also posed two major obstacles: One was the strong US presence, which unduly impressed Iran in the first half-decade of the millennium; the other was Iraq's powerful Shiite community and its charismatic Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, who entrenched in the shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf stood fast against Iranian domination.
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood – Iran's pet protégé
Tehran has since lost its fear of the United States – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad now calls America a paper tiger. The Shiite Iranians have moreover discovered that radical Sunni leaders, especially in the Muslim Brotherhood which sprawls across most Arab countries, are more than ready to do business with their erstwhile Shiite rivals in Tehran and even accept them as their logistical mainstay.
The two are moving ever closer together. Radical Islam is evolving into a Shiite-Sunni amalgam.
It has not been lost on the Muslim Brotherhood that Tehran's staunchest allies are Sunnis: Turkish Prime Minister Tayiip Erdogan, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal have no inhibitions about drawing their political strength, and in the case of Syria, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, their military resources, from working hand in glove with Tehran.
Therefore, although the process is still in its infancy, the Egyptian Brotherhood sees no reason why it should not lean on Tehran's arm as it take its first steps on the arguably free and democratic political stage created by the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
In DEBKA-Net-Weekly 485 of last week, we reported exclusively (Iranian Dollars Oil Radical Muslim Fomented Mayhem in Egypt) that Tehran was investing part of the profits netted from skyrocketing oil prices in setting up an organizational and propaganda infrastructure for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Since then, our military sources report Tehran has set up two staging posts in Sudan to the south and the Sinai Peninsula to the north, from which to pump arms to the Muslim Brotherhood. There, too, Iranian instructors are setting up courses to teach Brotherhood adherents how to form militias for dissident operations in Egypt.
Our sources report that in Khartoum and Port Sudan on the Red Sea, joint cells of Iranian intelligence and the Al Qods Brigades take delivery of arms shipments dropped there by Iranian cargo ships, then organize the overland convoys carrying them into Egypt, like the one discovered and bombed on March 9.
Hamas hired to help smuggle arms, train Brotherhood militias
The Sinai setup is much more precarious.
Egypt's military rulers have lost control of the vast, mountainous interior of the strategic peninsula, retaining only toeholds in narrow strips along the Mediterranean coast in the west, the Gulf of Aqaba shore in the east and the Sharm el Sheikh pocket. Field Marshall Mohammed Tantawi and Chief of Staff Gen. Sami Anan admitted as much to Obama administration officials before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Cairo Wednesday, March 16.
Sinai inland has been commandeered by three lawless elements: Hamas special forces pouring across the border from the Gaza Strip; thousands of the prisoners who broke out of Egyptian jails in early January, most of them Muslim Brotherhood activists; and thousands more of indigenous Bedouin felons who escaped Egyptian prisons at the same time.
Heads of the Supreme Military Council in Cairo also admitted that new militias were being whipped up in the rugged strongholds of Sinai under Hamas military instructors.
According to our sources, Tehran timed the voyage of the German Liberian-flagged ship A.S. Victoria with a large arms cargo aboard with an eye on Clinton's arrival in Cairo.
The Iranians wanted to show Washington, Jerusalem and Cairo that they would not be stopped from doing what they wanted. Just as no one could prevent the two Iranian warships from passing through the Suez Canal for the first time in 30 years on Feb. 22 and reaching Syria's Mediterranean port of Latakia, so too they would not stop the arms shipment carried by one of those warships, the Kharg, being delivered from Latakia to any destination Tehran chose. In this case, Tehran had decided had decided to deliver arms to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tehran's current pet protégé.
After the first part of their plan sailed through without a hitch, the Iranians did not reckon on the ship's interception by Israeli commandos 320 kilometers west of the Sinai coast Tuesday, March 15.
Foreign visits as power ploys
Iran is nonetheless riding high. On the day it lost 50 tons of military hardware to the Israel Defense Forces, an American visa was issued to Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's bureau chief, who is also his son-in-law and often cited as his successor. Mashei asked for permission to visit the US to participate in the New Year festivities of Iranian ex-pats living there.
Washington saw no reason to apply International sanctions on travel to this prominent official of the Islamic regime of Iran, whose many tasks no doubt includes high-level planning of such operations as Tehran's grab for control of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Iranian hubris is such that it has turned down a request by Jordan's King Abdullah to visit Tehran, when such a visit would have been seen only three months ago as a feather in the ayatollah's turban. Not these days. Now, the Hashemite king badly needs to trade in his US umbrella, punched full of holes by the uprisings engulfing the Arab world, for a safer one.
At one time, the Iranians would have seized on the chance of winning a US asset. Today, Iran's hand is strong enough for it to pick and choose its friends and turn away small fry like the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.