Red Sea Déjà Vu

Israel's seizure of an Iranian cargo ship carrying weapons this week should be a wake-up call. It's the same, old bad behavior.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

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 a shocker.

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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