For Iran’s foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif, it had to be an awkward moment. There he is, the “moderate” face of Iran, fluent in English, educated in the U.S., jetting around the world telling everyone that Iran will never give up its nuclear facilities — but don’t worry because Iran’s nuclear program is “nothing but peaceful.”
And then the Israelis go and fracture Zarif’s “nothing but peaceful” narrative by interdicting yet another of those big illicit Iranian weapons shipments. On March 5, Israeli commandos board a freighter in the Red Sea, which is heading for Port Sudan after taking on cargo at ports including Iran’s Bandar Abbas.
Onboard they find crates of Syrian-made M-302 rockets, hidden by bags of made-in-Iran cement. They release statements and videos, showing the rockets and explaining that they had been tracking this shipment for months — as the rockets were flown from Damascus to Tehran, transported to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, and loaded onto the freighter, a Panama-flagged ship called the Klos C. The Israelis say these rockets were meant to be smuggled overland from Sudan across Sinai and into Gaza, where they would have provided Palestinian terrorists with a game-changing range covering almost all of Israel.
That doesn’t sound peaceful at all. Even worse for Zarif, it comes just as AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is wrapping up its annual meeting in Washington — where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just given a speech warning about the dangerous, aggressive agenda of Iran (read Bridget Johnson’s report here). It illustrates the point.
So, what does Zarif do? He does what any adept and loyal servant of a despotic, predatory and terror-sponsoring regime would do. He sets a propaganda backfire. He sends out a snide message over Twitter, in which he implies that the weapons seizure is fiction, saying: “An Iranian ship carrying arms for Gaza. Captured just in time for the annual AIPAC anti Iran campaign. Amazing Coincidence! Or same failed lies.”
This is agitprop so raw that it’s worthy of North Korea. But it has the intended effect. The BBC jumps right on it, with an article headlined, “Iran’s Zarif says Israel lying about Gaza rocket ship.” In Beirut, The Daily Star hangs a story on it. Agence France-Presse trumpets it: “Iran says Israel fabricated Gaza claim” — adding yet more statements from Zarif that the story of a weapons shipment “is a lie.”
The real issue here is that Zarif, erstwhile moderate, is telling a bald lie in order to deflect attention from a real Iranian shipment of deadly weapons — as well as distract from such matters as whether he knew anything about this smuggling operation (having met with Syria’s President Assad and others in Damascus while this weapons smuggling operation was underway). Or is he a foreign minister and nuclear negotiator who is so out of touch with the realities of his own regime that he believes his own propaganda?
Zarif’s glib inversion of truth and lies ought to give great pause to the U.S. and its European bargaining partners, who are haggling with Zarif over Iran’s nuclear program. For more on that, on Zarif’s fascinating itinerary these past few months, and on the weapons-carrying ship itself (which is quite real), here’s my column on “The Amazing Coincidences of Javad Zarif.”
A few more items on this weapons seizure. First, about the timing. It was the Iranians who dispatched that illicit cargo of weaponry on a timetable that put it square in Israel’s sights just as the AIPAC meeting was wrapping up in Washington. Presumably the Iranians did not expect to get caught. Hard luck.
Second, it was not only Israel which had that Iranian weapons shipment in its sights.The U.S. was also tracking those Syrian-made Iranian-smuggled rockets, working with the Israelis. In a talk with the press on the evening of March 5, after the news broke about the Israeli intercept of the Klos C, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters: “The United States and Israel have had routine communications about this issue through intelligence and military channels, as well as through our national security advisors…. Throughout this time, our intelligence and military activities were closely coordinated with our Israeli counterparts who ultimately chose to take the lead in interdicting the shipment of illicit arms.”
A reporter then asked the real question — the big question — about Zarif and his Tehran bosses: “How can you continue to have nuclear negotiations with them when it looks like they’re actively continuing to sponsor terrorism against Israel?”
Unfortunately, it seems the Obama administration finds that no obstacle to trying to cut a nuclear deal with an Iranian regime whose chief negotiator is either grossly mendacious or utterly delusional (take your pick).
Read the relevant excerpt from the press exchange with Carney on the next page.
Q Sort of. One on that same topic, and then Israel is saying that they intercepted a shipment of arms that was headed to Gaza coming from Iran. Does the White House have any comment on that? And does this complicate negotiations with Iran over a long-term nuclear agreement?
MR. CARNEY: I can confirm the reports that the Israeli government interdicted a suspected shipment of illicit Iranian arms. The United States and Israel have had routine communications about this issue through intelligence and military channels, as well as through our national security advisors. Soon after becoming aware of the imminent movement of [the] suspected vessel, the White House directed the Department of Defense to monitor the vessel and to develop concepts of operation for a range of options to be prepared to take unilateral steps if necessary. This is part of the robust presence that the President has directed that we continue to maintain in and around the Gulf.
Throughout this time, our intelligence and military activities were closely coordinated with our Israeli counterparts who ultimately chose to take the lead in interdicting the shipment of illicit arms. Even as we continue efforts to resolve our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy, we will continue to stand up to Iran’s support for destabilizing activities in the region, in coordination with our partners and allies, and made clear that these illicit actions are unacceptable to the international community and in gross violation of Iran’s U.N. Security Council obligations.
Q How can you continue to have nuclear negotiations with them when it looks like they’re actively continuing to sponsor terrorism against Israel?
MR. CARNEY: Josh, we’ve noted on multiple occasions that we are pursuing potential resolution of an enormous challenge, which is the challenge posed by Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and we are doing that through the P5-plus-1 process.
We continue to have enormous issues with Iran, its sponsorship of terrorist organizations, its bad behavior in the region that manifests itself in many ways. And we continue to take all the necessary steps to address those challenges. But it’s entirely appropriate to continue to pursue the possibility of reaching a resolution on the nuclear program.