On Wednesday, March 5, Israel seized
a cargo vessel carrying high-trajectory weapons from Iran to Gaza. According to
the Guardian, the weapons the Iranian vessel was shuttling came from Syria: "the
weapons were flown from Damascus to Tehran, then shipped from the Iranian port
of Bandar Abbas." Setting aside for the moment the political implications of
this ship's trajectory or the origin of its cargo, the Israeli capture of this freighter is reminiscent of similar
episode -- the seizure of the Karine A in
January 2002, a vessel bound for Palestinian ports carrying weapons for
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat facilitated by Hezbollah and Iran. That
episode would have huge consequences for U.S. policy in the Middle East. It's
unlikely that this week's raid (which took place on the Red Sea "hundreds of miles from Israel") will have as deep an impact as the
seizure of 2002. But it is a cautionary tale, one that illuminates the risks
Washington takes when it conducts business with partners (in this case Iran), who
do not share its interests.
On Jan. 3, 2002 U.S. Gen. Anthony Zinni and I were meeting
with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his Sycamore Ranch in the Negev. Zinni had been selected as Secretary of State Colin
Powell's special envoy and had been given the thankless and impossible task of
trying to negotiate a ceasefire between Arafat and Sharon. As the State Department's
senior advisor on the peace process, I'd
been asked to assist him.
In the middle of the meeting, one of Sharon's advisors interrupted to deliver some
late-breaking news: the Israeli Navy
had taken down the Karine A, a cargo vessel carrying mass amounts of weapons (literally
tons) shipped from Iran bound for the Palestinian Authority. It was a pivotal
moment. Sharon had Arafat (who would later profess he
knew nothing about the arms shipment), right where he wanted him. Sharon asked
Zinni not to break the news to Arafat, until the Israelis announced it -- and
that when he did, he should tell the PLO chairman that the "package" he was
expecting wouldn't be arriving.
As we left, Zinni and I agreed that Sharon had
Arafat "by the balls" and so, incidentally, did the George W. Bush
administration. Karine A marked the
beginning of the end of Jerusalem and Washington's efforts to even consider
Arafat part of the solution. Indeed both had long considered him the problem;
Karine A only validated it.
Twelve years later, it's unlikely that Wednesday's takedown of an Iranian cargo vessel
(which was flying a Panamanian flag) will have as dramatic an impact on the
politics of the Middle East as the
Karine A did in 2002. For Sharon, it only gave him a public explanation for his
private strategy of trying to get rid of Arafat. For the Bush administration,
it also validated the fact that Arafat appeared to be part of a global terror
network. Back then, Israel and
Palestine were locked in the middle of an intifada, Arafat was holed up in his
headquarters in Ramallah, Israel was
debating whether to re-enter the West Bank by force, and the size of the
weapons shipments on the Karine A -- almost 50 tons -- was staggering.
Still, the Israelis, who had been tracking the current vessel
for months, found
Syrian-made M-302 rockets with a range of 100 miles -- the kind that were used
by Hezbollah against Israel in the 2006 Lebanon war to shut down the
northern half of Israel for 33 days. Hamas had never had these
weapons before. And given their range, the Israelis
considered them a significant threat.
The takeaways for Israel and the United States from this week's seizure are clear.
First, despite the breach between Hamas and Iran over the
former's estrangement from Syria's Bashar al-Assad, Tehran still maintains its
Gaza connection and is clearly providing the organization with weapons that
could have significant impact against Israeli cities. (Though
one possible explanation is that the missiles were going to Islamic Jihad, an
organization with much closer ties to Iran.)
Second, the weapons were reportedly flown to Iran from
Damascus, which suggests that despite his own travails, Assad still has the time
and resources to play the Palestinian card with the Iranians. Clearly, Iran
wants this connection and uses its leverage over Syria to keep it alive. Otherwise,
it's hard to see how Assad benefits.
Third, the raid and subsequent weapons seizure validates and
legitimizes Israel's concern that Iran's regional game is still the same: Expand
influence into Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza and compartmentalize the nuclear negotiations with the Americans while they
supply Israel's adversaries with high-trajectory weapons. This hardly comes as
Finally, it should be obvious to the Obama administration by
now that while the Iran may be sending signals that it's ready for some kind of
negotiated solution on the nuclear issue, that hardly means it has changed its spots on other issues. And
that compartmentalizing the two is only going to get harder. It boggles the
mind to believe that the administration would be in a position to lift
comprehensive sanctions if Iran is still backing the murderous Assad and
supplying Hamas with weapons that can target Israeli population centers.
"History," Mark Twain is thought to have said, "doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." And not
surprisingly, the rhythmic patterns from the capture of the Karine A are at
play once again. Washington has elected -- perhaps with the best of intentions
and admirable goals in mind -- to engage with Iran, a country that has proven
itself a very problematic partner. But this episode will harden Israel's opposition
against the process of engagement with Iran and provide additional leverage to
those in Congress who already see U.S.-Iranian negotiations as a road to
nowhere or worse -- Iran with a nuclear breakout capacity. And it will only add to the obvious reality that while the Iranian
nuclear issue is the hottest issue on the agenda, it isn't the only one.
Removing sanctions will not only depend on a resolution of the nuclear issue
but on reformed Iranian behavior.
A few more stunts like this from Iran and Congress will, without a
doubt, seek to impose additional sanctions on Iran. For the Obama
administration to think otherwise or for Iran to feel as though it can continue
to negotiate with the United States while supplying the enemies of its allies
is a fantasy in a region where such illusions are already too common. Let's
just hope such delusions don't take hold in Washington, too.
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