On Wednesday morning, the Israeli Navy announced that it had stopped an Iranian cargo vessel with advanced weapons destined for fighters in Gaza. By Wednesday afternoon, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz was telling members of the U.S. Congress that the interception of the sophisticated rockets revealed the “real nature of Iran”—never mind the recent thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran.
The timing of the Steinitz’s briefing to the House Foreign Affairs Committee was fortuitous. Israeli commandos in the Red Sea had only hours before boarded the Klos C, a Panamanian flagged cargo vessel carrying stocks of M-302 surface-to-surface missiles that the Israel Defense Forces said was destined for Gaza.
Israel conducts intelligence and special operations actions frequently, but it does not always publicize these activities. Wednesday’s military action, however, was accompanied by what appeared to be a coordinated public relations campaign as well. The IDF’s official blog for example posted maps and an entry detailing the entire operation.
Steinitz told The Daily Beast that the interdiction “unmasks” Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif’s true nature.
“You see on the one hand there is this charm offensive,” he said, “Rouhani and Zarif are coming with messages of peace and security for all nations and all countries. Iran is a peace seeking government and so on and so forth. This charm offensive did have a serious impact in the west. And now you discover underneath the mask of this charm offensive, that Iran is still the same Iran.”
Since November, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly criticized an interim agreement between Iran, the United States, Russia, China, Germany, the United Kingdom and France as a “deal of the century” for Iran in part because Iran would be allowed to keep some enrichment capabilities after the negotiations have concluded.
The rocket shipment seized on Wednesday, according to an IDF spokesman who briefed reporters, began in Damascus. From the Syrian capital, it was shipped to Tehran and then transported by land to the port of Bandar Abbas. It was then shipped by sea to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr from where it began the journey around the Arabian peninsula to the Red Sea. It’s final port of call was the Red Sea city of Eilat.
U.S. officials immediately confirmed the interdiction. Jay Carney, the White House spokesman said U.S. intelligence agencies assisted the Israelis in the operation. Another Israeli official, however, said the intelligence that led to the interdiction on Wednesday was generated almost entirely by the Mossad and the IDF.
The very public interdiction of the Klos C could put pressure on the delicate negotiations with Iran at the moment. “This will be one more piece of evidence that will legitimately be played by the Israelis and the Congress to suggest that while the Iranians negotiate and portray themselves as peace seekers, they are at the same time continuing to provide weapons for anything by peaceful purposes,” said Aaron David Miller, who was a top State Department peace process negotiator for the George H. W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
Miller, who is now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, has some experience in these matters. In 2002, Miller said, he was meeting with then Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, when he first learned of Israel’s interdiction of the Karine A, an Iranian vessel that contained stores of advanced weapons headed to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.
At the time, the Palestinians were engaged in what is known as the second Intifadah and the State Department was trying its best to negotiate a ceasefire with Arafat and Sharon. That arms shipment sealed Arafat’s fate with the Bush administration, according to Miller. He said “it represented the end of the road for the Bush administration to acquiescing in a process where Arafat would be included. This was January, by March after the Park Hotel attack, IDF troops were back into the West Bank.”
But this time around, things are different. While Carney on Tuesday said, “We will continue to stand up to Iran’s support for destabilizing activities in the region in coordination with our partners and allies,” it’s unlikely that the arms shipment from Damascus through Tehran to Gaza will stop the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
“You’ve got a kind of a dormant crisis right now,” Miller said. “Then you had a hot crisis, which was literally on the cusp of exploding. You have a long fuse on the interim agreement with Iran.”
Steinitz, for his part, sees it differently. “I think this exposes that Iran is still the same old Iran that supplies terrorist groups, it is the same Iran that is still deeply involved with troops on the ground in the civil war in Syria and the same old Iran that still aspires to create nuclear weapons,” he said.