March 10, 2014 | Forbes
The Amazing Coincidences of Iran’s Javad Zarif
On Wednesday, in the Red Sea, Israeli commandos intercepted a freighter carrying a secret cargo of munitions loaded in Iran and hidden under bags of cement. The weaponry included dozens of Syrian-made M-302 rockets which Israeli authorities say were bound for terrorists in Gaza, and from there would have been capable of striking almost anywhere in Israel, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The next day, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif ridiculed the munitions seizure, implying it was a public relations stunt tied to the annual meeting in Washington of a pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, at which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a speaker.
Sending out a sarcastic note on Twitter, Zarif wrote” “An Iranian ship carrying arms for Gaza. Captured just in time for annual AIPAC anti Iran campaign. Amazing Coincidence! Or same failed lies.”
If Zarif is troubled by the timing, his real quarrel ought to be with his Iranian cohorts who dispatched the weapons. Instead, he’s trying to cover for them — turning the arms seizure into a game of they-said we-said. That’s a dark portent for the Iran nuclear talks, at which Zarif is serving as Iran’s chief negotiator, pledging Iran’s “good faith.”
But Zarif does have one thing right. The time lines surrounding this shipment are intriguing. Not least, they provide a rich context for the recent diplomatic activities of Zarif himself, including his smiling presence at last month’s round of nuclear talks in Vienna. From details of this latest Iranian munitions-smuggling saga, it can be gleaned that while Zarif was in Vienna, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, reading a statement to the press about their “very productive” nuclear talks, the freighter, secretly stuffed with weapons, was already enroute from Iran toward the Red Sea.
If Zarif knew anything about this, that’s damning. If he was clueless, that’s alarming. Which is it?
Here are some things we do know. Israeli authorities have released a statement, accompanied by video footage, in which they describe an elaborate smuggling scheme, meant to escape detection via a circuitous route — an approach in which Iran’s terror-sponsoring regime is well versed. The Israelis say that “several months ago” the Syrian-made rockets were flown from Damascus to Tehran, then transported to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. There, crates containing the rockets, concealed under bags of cement marked as made in Iran, were loaded along with other cargo into a Panama-flagged freighter named the Klos C. The Israelis say the crew did not know the ship was carrying munitions.
The Klos C then sailed further up the Gulf to take on more cargo at the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, a move that Israel says was designed to “obscure the Iranian connection.” From Iraq, the freighter set out for Port Sudan, on the Red Sea, whence the munitions could be smuggled overland through Egypt to Palestinian-terrorist-controlled Gaza.
Apart from specifying that the ship was boarded and taken into Israeli custody on March 5, the Israeli account does not provide dates. But shipping data on the Klos C helps sketch in some of the picture, including the timing of the ship’s course as signaled by her live onboard transponder, or Automatic Identification System.
Some context: According to Lloyd’s List Intelligence shipping database, the Klos C was built in the mid-1990s in St. Petersburg, Russia, and for years sailed under the Dutch flag. In mid-2012, the ship changed hands, and was reflagged to Panama. Her current registered owner, according to Lloyd’s, is a company called Whitesea Shipping & Trading Company Limited, which was incorporated in the Marshall Islands a month before acquiring, as its entire fleet, in July, 2012, the Klos C.
The beneficial owners of Whitesea Shipping & Trading are listed by Lloyd’s as “unknown.” The Marshall Islands corporate registry, which is housed not on the shores of the North Pacific island nation, but under U.S. jurisdiction, in Reston, Virginia, does not disclose the identities of corporate shareholders or directors. A spokeswoman for the registry says that all parties are vetted, and nothing in this case triggered any alarm.
Under Whitesea ownership, the Klos C at first operated mainly in the Persian Gulf. Last June, however, the Klos C called at Pakistan, then sailed on via Egypt, Greece and Turkey to the Black Sea, where for more than four months she shuttled around among ports in Georgia, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine. Even before Russia’s grab for Ukrainian turf in Crimea, Russia was casting a long shadow over some of these ports, such as Ukraine’s Oktyabrsk, which has drawn scrutiny in recent years as a major transshipment point for Russian weapons flowing to Syria’s Assad regime. No one has accused the Klos C of taking part in this traffic, or of any wrong-doing.
Late last December, the Klos C headed back through Suez to the Persian Gulf. Destination: Iran. Her signals, logged by Lloyd’s, show her arriving at Iran’s Bandar Abbas Anchorage about Jan. 23, lingering there for almost a fortnight — the window for the weapons to be stashed onboard — and departing about Feb. 3. The ship then meandered up the Gulf arriving at Iraq’s Umm Qasr for a brief stay, Feb. 16-17. By Feb. 18, she was steaming back out of the Gulf, transiting the Strait of Hormuz around Feb. 22, sailing on for about another 10 days around Yemen and into the Red Sea, where she was intercepted by Israeli forces.
During this late December-early March interval in which the rocket smuggling operation was coming together, Zarif was making his own rounds. As it happened, he met with top bosses in many of the same hot spots that turn up in connection with this smuggling saga. From Jan. 12-17, as the Klos C was closing on Bandar Abbas, Zarif set out on a high-speed diplomatic tour that took him to Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Russia. The focus was presumed to be the conflict in Syria, though Iranian press accounts made broad mention of other areas of “mutual interest.”
In Beirut, not only did Zarif make headlines by laying a wreath on the grave of notorious Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mugniyah. He also met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose terrorist forces introduced an earlier version of Syria’s M-302 rockets by firing them at Haifa during the 2006 summer war with Israel. Zarif then flew to Baghdad, where according to Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency he met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
Via Amman, Zarif then went to Damascus. There he met with President Bashar al-Assad, then shared a flight to Moscow with Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem. In Moscow, Zarif met with foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and with President Vladimir Putin, to whom he extended an invitation from Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani to visit Tehran. Iranian news services reported that Putin welcomed the invitation, saying he hoped to come “very soon.”
A week later, on Jan. 24 — as the rockets were being stashed aboard the Klos C in Iran — Zarif along with Rouhani was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, telling an audience “We can prepare for a better future by opening our minds and our hearts, and avoiding old stereotypes.” By Feb. 2 — as the rocket-stuffed Klos C prepared to make its diversionary trip to Iraq — Zarif was meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in Munich, where Zarif declared: “If we remain prisoners of the past we will never be capable of solving future issues.”
As the Klos C, having exited the Gulf, began her run toward Sudan, Zarif had just wrapped up a round of Feb. 18-20 nuclear talks in Vienna, where along with Ashton he told the press, “we have made a good start.” On March 5, as Israeli commandos boarded the Klos C and began opening crates packed with rockets, Zarif was in Tokyo, soliciting investment in Iran’s nuclear program, which he told reporters is “nothing but peaceful.”
Perhaps Zarif had no idea that while he was shilling for “peace,” Iran was shipping Syrian missiles via Iraq toward Gaza — the latest in a long series of Iranian weapons shipments to terrorists. Perhaps Zarif’s Iranian colleagues waved him off to meet with Assad in Damascus without a word about the Syrian rocket shipment transiting Iran. Perhaps Iran felt no need to alert the Iraqi authorities not to look too closely at the cargo aboard the Klos C. Perhaps Putin, international overlord of Syrian weapons deals, had no idea such smuggling was still going on. Perhaps, by amazing coincidence, Zarif knows less than do the Israelis about the regime he serves. That would leave America and its diplomatic cohorts negotiating over a nuclear weapons program with an Iranian foreign minister who is so far out of the loop that he believes his own lies. But should we?
Claudia Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.