For Israel, Warming U.S.-Iran Ties Are Just as Dangerous as Smuggled Missiles

Despite ongoing security and intelligence coordination with Israel, Washington sees rational partners among the new Iranian leadership.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The interception of the Iranian weapons ship Klos C by the Shayetet 13 elite naval commando unit in the Red Sea came amid a growing dispute between Jerusalem and Washington. That discord is the almost unavoidable result of the interim agreement that was signed by Tehran and the world powers last November in Geneva, with the aim of restraining Iran’s nuclear program.

Even though the security and intelligence coordination between the United States and Israel is continuing as usual (the White House confirmed on Wednesday evening that joint Israeli-American intelligence led to the identification of the Iranian ship), a discussion is developing in Jerusalem about Iran’s intentions and the kind of action that needs to be taken to thwart them.

Israel objected to what it perceived as the inordinate concessions made by Washington in the interim agreement, without a sufficient quid pro quo from Iran. But that is not Jerusalem’s only beef: It is concerned not only that the U.S. administration will be ready to make more concessions down the road, but also that President Barack Obama and his aides have convinced themselves that the charm offensive by Iranian President Hassan Rohani reflects a genuine change in Tehran’s approach, and that it will be possible, in the future, to ease the sanctions on Iran to allow it to reenter the club of law-abiding states via the back door. Indeed, the United States is already apparently looking actively for areas of a convergence of interests with Iran, in the hope of recruiting it to its side in realms where it serves American interests.

The Israeli doubts began immediately after the signing of the Geneva agreement. The administration’s hyperactivity in torpedoing the renewed legislative initiative led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Congress (supported tacitly by Israel) to prepare a new bundle of sanctions against Iran, might reflect commitments that Washington made to the Iranians ahead of the signing of the agreement. Jerusalem is equally skeptical over Washington’s persistent, tough declarations about the need to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons.

A good example of this was provided this week by Secretary of State John Kerry in his speech to the AIPAC conference. Kerry stated that “no deal [with Iran] is better than a bad deal,” but in the same breath he explained to the audience the probable harm that would ensue from a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In any case, an American military option, if it ever existed, has long since been forgotten. Obama will stand by his promise: He will ensure that Iran does not attain nuclear weapons on his watch, namely until January 2017. No less, but certainly also no more.

America dropped its “axis of evil” rhetoric long ago, and now talks about complex maneuvering among the many rival camps in the Middle East. Washington sees rational partners among the new Iranian leadership, notably Rohani, with whom cooperation will be possible if necessary. The United States can draw on the Iranians’ help in a large number of regional issues on which Tehran can wield influence. Iran might, for example, be able to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan after the departure of the American forces from that country at the end of this year. Tehran also wields the greatest influence on the Shi’ite government in neighboring Iraq.

Above all, Iran is a player to be reckoned with in Syria. Without the support of both Tehran and Moscow for President Bashar Assad, the Syrian president would long since have surrendered to the hundreds of rebel groups that are now actively trying to topple him. Consideration was given to the possibility of coopting Iran to the talks that were held recently – also in Switzerland – about the future of Syria.
The signs of the inklings of a change in the American approach to Syria are connected primarily to the rising power of the two main rebel groups that are identified with Al-Qaida: Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra. The director of U.S. National Intelligence, Gen. James Clapper, stated recently in congressional testimony that organizations operating under the aegis of Al-Qaida in Syria are concocting plans to launch terrorist attacks in the United States.

The Americans, like other Western countries, have lately been asking themselves which is preferable in the Syrian civil war: a victory of the murderous Assad-Iran-Hezbollah alliance, or a victory by the opposition, which is liable to impose an extreme Sunni Islamist regime on the country, in direct continuation of what is now happening in parts of southern Iraq.

If the second possibility is worse, then maybe Iran is no longer anathema. Against this background, we have already seen reports to the effect that intelligence is being exchanged between Hezbollah, which is a member of the Shi’ite camp, and Western operatives. If an even larger Satan is suddenly cropping up, Washington will not necessarily rule out point-specific cooperation with yesterday’s enemies. In Israeli eyes, this all looks like a foolish attempt to come up with the lesser of evils: For Jerusalem, both camps are equally unacceptable.

Syrians as camouflage

The statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon after the seizure of the weapons ship played up Iran’s role in the affair. Syria is only a secondary player. True, Damascus supplied the missiles which, after a long and winding journey, were intended to reach the Gaza Strip, but Israeli Military Intelligence suspects that the Syrians were recruited mainly for camouflage purposes. The idea was to conceal the real hands behind the shipment, just as the cement in the containers onboard was intended to conceal the M-302 rockets underneath.

The Israel Defense Forces’ impressive operational and intelligence success in the Red Sea, with the aid of the Mossad, is now being recast as a political narrative. The interception of the ship with its rockets is being used by Jerusalem to explain to the West that the Iranians cannot be trusted: Just as they are continuing to support terrorism and to develop long-range missiles, so too they will not hesitate to deceive the world’s powers in order to pursue their nuclear project.

Washington knew about the maritime operation even as it was being prepared. But in the period ahead, Israeli intelligence personnel will present the information about the weapons that were seized – and about who was behind the smuggling effort – to other Western states as well. Iran and Syria will undoubtedly deny any connection to the ship, but their denials will not enjoy high credibility in the international community.

Ya’alon intimated that the final destination of the weapons was the Islamic Jihad organization in Gaza. That’s a reasonable assessment, given the rift between Hamas and Syria, and, to a lesser degree, between Hamas and Iran over the civil war in Syria and the Assad regime’s slaughter of its Shi’ite adversaries.

In any event, with the pressure Egypt is exerting at Rafah and its activity to uncover the tunnels in that area, the smugglers would probably have had a hard time getting the weapons into the Gaza Strip. Just this week, a Cairo court outlawed Hamas in Egypt – further evidence of the tremendous tension between Egypt and the Gaza regime. The pressure of the generals’ government in Cairo is keeping Hamas off balance – and that, too, is a sensitive front, despite the relative quiet that has prevailed there of late.

The ship’s interception off the coast of Sudan is a complementary operation to the series of aerial attacks attributed to the Israeli Air Force on the Syria-Lebanon border over the past year or more. In both regions, Israel has operated far from its borders to scuttle weapons transfers that could have had serious consequences, from Israel’s point of view. Its policy is to intervene when an attempt is discovered to infiltrate items from a select list of advanced (mainly long-range) munitions to bases close to its territory. That is the nature of the campaign the IDF devised even before the advent of the Arab Spring. Initial attacks in Sudan were reported already at the beginning of 2009, but have apparently been extended since then, under cover of the general regional chaos.

Border bombing scuttled

Israel got another reminder about the complexity of the new situation the same day the Klos C was captured this week, when it scuttled an attempt to plant a bomb on the border with Syria. The IDF attributes that attempted terrorist attack to the Assad regime, apparently working with Hezbollah’s aid. It’s being interpreted as part of the effort to settle accounts for the aerial attack a week and a half ago in the Lebanese Bekaa, which has been attributed by foreign sources to Israel. Hezbollah declared it would avenge the attack, and Israel wondered whether the Islamist organization’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, would feel more obliged to act than President Assad, who has done nothing in response to a lengthy series of aerial attacks.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said last month that the warning bells about the deterioration of the situation on the Syrian border first began to ring for Israel in mid-2011, when Palestinian and Syrian demonstrators tried twice to cross the fence into the Golan Heights, on Nakba Day (when Palestinians mark what they call the “catastrophe” of the establishment of Israel in 1948) and Naksa Day (marking the 1967 war).

The army has greatly upgraded its deployment along the northern border since then. The IDF rebuilt the old fence, stationed high-quality, reinforced forces there and recently also established a new local territorial brigade, specializing in routine-security activity. That effort proved its worth this week, though it has to be assumed that there will more attempts to perpetrate terrorist attacks, both by the Syrian regime and by the rebel organizations, which now control 80 percent of the area east of the border with Israel.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny GantzCredit: AFP

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