Is Washington Wriggling out of Rice-Livni Anti-Smuggling Pact?
Two days before Israel halted its military action against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, foreign minister Tzipi Livni and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – on her last day of office – signed a memorandum of understanding for a joint effort to curb the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.
The two-and-a-half page document was signed in Washington Friday, Jan. 16.
It provided for the boosting of intelligence cooperation, with the US committing certain assets, including detection and surveillance equipment as well as logistical help and training, to Israel, Egypt and other nations to be involved in monitoring Gaza's land and sea borders.
Rice and State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said president-elect Barack Obama, still four days away from the presidency, and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton had been consulted on the details of the document.
Although this was not embodied in the memorandum, Lvini learned from briefings at the National Security Council that its teeth would come from the mission assigned US Combined Task Force 151 cruising in the Gulf of Aden to intercept Iranian vessels bound for the Gaza Strip with weapons for Hamas.
Wednesday, Jan. 21, five days after the memo was signed – and one day after Obama was sworn in – an Iranian ship called Iran Hedayt was intercepted by a US warship and boarded by US Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment 405. A consignment of light arms was discovered.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that Jerusalem tipped off Washington to a steel compartment concealed under the Iranian ship's hold containing ground-to-ground rockets bound for the Gaza Strip. The compartment was welded shut.
Scud missiles for Saddam Hussein confiscated by US Navy in 2002
The US Navy's handling of the arms consignment was watched avidly from Jerusalem and Cairo, the third partner in the action to prevent Hamas from rearming after the 22-day conflict. Israel officials hoped for the same sort of treatment as American warships meted out on December 2, 2002, when they helped two Spanish warships halt a North Korean cargo vessel and discovered Scud missiles bound for Saddam Hussein hidden beneath sacks of cement.
Then, the US Navy confiscated the shipment. This time, they did not.
American naval officers first ordered the Iranian ship's captain to drop anchor at an Egyptian Red Sea port.
He refused. After checking with Iranian Revolutionary Guards command headquarters at Bandar Abbas, the skipper allowed a US team to board the ship, informing them his destination was the Syrian port of Latakia with arms purchased by a Syrian buyer.
At this point, Washington told the American boarding party to disembark and let the ship continue its voyage. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that, when the Iranian ship entered the Canal on Jan. 23, Egyptian naval vessels took over its escort from the US Navy. But Sunday, Jan. 25, when the Iran Hedayt sailed out into the Mediterranean, it met three new minders – two Israeli missile ships, a US Sixth Fleet warship and the Russian Admiral Chabanenko missile destroyer.
Tuesday, Jan. 27, the Iranian arms ship put into Latakia. So far, it has not been seen unloading its weapons cargo. Tehran would not want satellites or reconnaissance planes to spot incriminating shipments.
But no legal authority for US warship to confiscate rockets for Hamas
The next day Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that a Cypriot-flagged ship intercepted in the Red Sea last week was carrying Iranian arms suspected by the US to be ultimately bound for the Gaza Strip. He was answering reporters' questions in Washington.
“The United states did as much as we could do legally,” said Mullen, adding he would like more authority to act in such cases. “We were not authorized to seize weapons or do anything like that,” he said.
He made no reference to the incident of seven years ago. He did not explain why it was legitimate for the US Navy to confiscate North Korean missile bound for Saddam Hussein in 2002, but not Iranian arms bound for Hamas in 2009.
Regarding Iran, Mullen said he had long favored approaches to Tehran that would be of strategic benefit to the United States. Stability in Afghanistan is in both nations' interests, he said. “To the degree that we are able to dialogue with them, find some mutual interests, there is potential there for moving ahead together.”
But the admiral injected a word of caution.
“Iran is unhelpful in many, many ways in many, many areas, and so I wouldn't be over-optimistic at this point,” he said.
Asked if an anti-smuggling conference was planned on the Gaza Strip, Mullen replied: I'm not sure. I just don't know.
Anti-smuggling memo fades into run-of-the-mill conference
A few hours later, President Obama announced the US would convene an international conference to stem the arms flow to Gaza. He said that representatives from the US, the EU, Israel and possibly Egypt would meet in Copenhagen for an in-depth discussion of arms smuggling from Sinai into Gaza, organized by the president.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly/s military and intelligence sources report that the Iran Hedayt's expedition was in fact Tehran's way of testing US resolve to halt the flow of arms to Gaza. When it was boarded by a US coast guard team, Tehran feared the consignment or even the vessel might be seized. The incident would then blow up into its first confrontation with the Obama administration. However when the vessel, complete with weapons cargo, was allowed to continue its voyage, and the top US soldier affirmed that the Navy had “done as much as we could do legally,” Iranian officials breathed a sigh of relief.
The test had gone by smoothly and the Iranians felt they could safely open up a sea route to replenish Hamas' depleted stocks of rockets and other weapons.
Jerusalem and Cairo are wondering what happened between Jan. 21, when the US Navy intercepted the Iranian arms vessel, and Jan. 25, when it was allowed to enter the Suez Canal and proceed to Syria.
Most of all, they are asking how trilateral understandings on practical measures to curb the smuggling of weapons into Gaza – by boosting intelligence-sharing and joint monitoring of Gaza's sea and land borders – came to be whittled down to just another low-level dime-a-dozen diplomatic conference.