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Israeli commandos seize a freighter, the “Karine A” (or “Karin A”), in the Red Sea 300 miles off the coast of Israel, in an operation dubbed “Operation Noah’s Ark.” Eli Marum, an Israeli Navy operations chief, says the operation took less than eight minutes and did not require a single shot being fired. “The crew was fully surprised,” he says. “They did not anticipate that we would strike so far out into the Red Sea.” Israeli officials claim the freighter contains a large store of Iranian-supplied weapons—including Katyusha rockets capable of destroying tanks, mortars, grenades, Kalashnikov assault rifles, anti-tank missiles, high explosives, and two speedboats—for use by Palestinian fighters against Israeli targets. The Palestinian Authority is forbidden by treaty to own such weaponry. Israel also claims that the captain of the freighter, Omar Akawi, has direct ties to the Palestinian Authority and to its leader, Yasser Arafat. (According to Israeli sources, Akawi claims he is a member of Arafat’s organization Fatah.) Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer tells European Union (EU) authorities that the freighter “was purchased by the Palestinian Authority after September 11” and that “the whole operation was managed and funded by the Palestinian Authority in cooperation with Iran and other sources.” (BBC 1/10/2002; Whitaker 1/21/2002; Jewish Virtual Library 2009) “What Iran is trying to do is create another base, besides its base in Lebanon” to threaten Israel, says Major General Giora Eiland, the Israeli Army’s chief of planning. (Bennet 1/12/2002)
Arafat's Denials - Initially, Arafat denies any connection whatsoever with the shipment, accusing Israel of fomenting a propaganda attack to thwart US-led efforts to implement a cease-fire agreement, and says Israel “fabricated” the whole affair. Ahmed Abdel Rahman, the secretary general of the Palestinian cabinet, calls the operation “an Israeli trap.” Later, Arafat continues to insist that he had no involvement in the affair, but admits that he cannot control “everyone” in the Palestinian Authority. American and Israeli intelligence officials note that the weaponry on board the “Karine A” is similar to that of a “wish list” allegedly drawn up by senior Palestinian officials under Arafat’s direction. (Bennet 1/12/2002; Jewish Virtual Library 2009)
Propaganda by Israel? - Some, such as Guardian reporter Brian Whitaker, believe that Israel is using the incident to persuade the EU to stop funding the Palestinian Authority. And, Whitaker notes, Israeli lawmakers and pundits such as former President Benjamin Netanyahu are using the incident to argue that the idea of Palestinian statehood be permanently scrapped. Whatever the truth of the matter, the attempts suffer setbacks when documents show that an Iraqi, Ali Mohamed Abbas, purchased the ship, and other records disprove the Israelis’ claims about the ship’s cargo, which Israel says it picked up in Yemen. It seems clear that the freighter was indeed carrying weapons, but little of Israel’s other claims—they were Iranian in origin and intended for Palestinian use against Israel—are borne out by ascertainable facts.
Hezbollah Connection? - American intelligence sources later speculate that the weapons may have been intended for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militant organization with close ties to Iran, and not the Palestinians. Israel is initially resistant to the idea, but Israeli defense sources later tell Israeli reporters that it was “certainly possible that some of the arms were earmarked for Hizbullah,” though it is certain that most “were clearly bound for the Palestinian Authority.” Whitaker echoes skeptics’ disbelief about the Hezbollah claim, noting that there are easier and more secure methods of delivering arms to Lebanon than a risky sea voyage past Israeli patrol boats. (Whitaker 1/21/2002) Israel names reputed senior Hezbollah security officer Imad Mughniyeh as a key figure in the incident. Mughniyeh has not been heard from for years by Western intelligence, but is wanted by the FBI for his participation in kidnapping Americans in Beirut during the 1980s and the hijacking of a TWA passenger plane. The BBC reports, “Correspondents say the Israeli government has been going to great lengths to convince Washington that the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is linked to Tehran and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, and hence to what it sees as international terrorism.” (BBC 1/10/2002)
Iranian Connection Unlikely - And the Iranian connection is similarly hard to swallow. Though Israel insists that the arms prove a new and disturbing connection between Iran and Palestinian militants, Whitaker writes, “most non-Israeli observers of Iran ridicule the idea totally, for a variety of historical, political and religious reasons. It also conflicts with the foreign policies adopted by [Iranian] President [Mohamed] Khatami.” He goes on to add: “The trouble with Iran, though—as one Iranian exile remarked last week—is that it has two governments and 10,000 leaders. If you are going to pin blame, you have to determine which one is responsible.” Whitaker is referring to Iran’s religious and secular leaders, who are often at odds with one another, and to the propensity of Iranian leaders from both sides to conduct independent operations without “official” government sanction. (Whitaker 1/21/2002) The New York Times notes: “Iran’s government has dismissed the Israeli accusations. But Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have discretionary funds and access to weapons, and they often run operations independent of the elected government of… Khatami.” (Bennet 1/12/2002) The “Karine A” incident helps prompt Bush officials to include Iran as a member of the so-called “axis of evil,” disrupting backchannel negotiations between Iranian and US officials (see January 29, 2002).
President Bush issues a statement strongly supporting “prodemocracy” forces in Iran, whose stated goal is to overthrow the current Iranian regime. In response, Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, considered a moderate by most Westerners, calls Bush a “warmongerer.” (Scoblic 2008, pp. 247)
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami visits India to urge the construction of a multi-billion pipeline that would bring Iranian natural gas to the region. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee says after meeting with President Khatami that “Iran has gas and we want it.” But Vajpayee adds, “There are some impediments in the middle.” (BBC 1/27/2003) The so-called “peace pipeline” would bypass unstable Afghanistan entirely. The pipeline would originate near the Iranian South Pars fields by the Persian Gulf; travel through Khuzdar and Multan, Pakistan; and terminate in Delhi. In Pakistan, one section would branch off and divert gas to Karachi on the Arabian Sea coast. (Chudhary 1/2001)
Iranian political leader Mohammad Khatami reveals that Iran has begun building two nuclear processing plants devoted to enriching uranium. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, later says that one of the Iranian plants is already near completion and a second plant is well underway. Although Iran claims that the nuclear plants are strictly for peaceful energy creation, the Bush administration believes that the Iranians have used the cover of practices not strictly forbidden by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (see July 1, 1968) to hide a nuclear weapons program. One Bush official says that if the Iranians run the Bushehr reactor (see December 12, 2002) for five or six years, withdraw from the Nonproliferation Treaty, just as North Korea has done (see January 10, 2003 and After), and reprocess all of their radioactive material, they would have enough weapons-grade uranium and/or plutonium to build as many as a hundred nuclear weapons. Bush officials hope that a combination of pressure from Russia and the US occupation of neighboring Iraq—one senior Bush official says, “I think the presence of 200,000 American troops on their border for X period of time may tend to concentrate their attention”—may keep Iran’s nuclear program under restraint. (Keller 5/4/2003)
In the wake of the US-led conquest of Iraq, the government of Iran worries that they will be targeted for US invasion next. Sadegh Kharrazi, Iran’s ambassador to France and the nephew of Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, drafts a bold proposal to negotiate with the US on all the outstanding conflicts between them. (Porter 5/21/2006) Diplomats refer to the proposal as “the grand bargain.” The US sends neoconservative Zalmay Khalilzad, a senior National Security Council official, to talk with Iran’s UN ambassador, Javad Zarif. (Unger 3/2007) The proposal was reviewed and approved by Iran’s top leaders Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mohammad Khatami, and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador to Iran, is used as an intermediary since the US and Iran do not have formal diplomatic relations. (Kessler 2/14/2007)
According to the language of the proposal, it offers “decisive action against any terrorists (above all, al-Qaeda) in Iranian territory” and “full cooperation and exchange of all relevant information.” In return, Iran wants “pursuit of anti-Iranian terrorists, above all [the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK)],” a dissident Iranian group which the US officially lists as a terrorist organization.
Iran also offers to accept much tighter controls by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in exchange for “full access to peaceful nuclear technology.” It proposes “full transparency for security [assurance] that there are no Iranian endeavors to develop or possess WMD” and “full cooperation with IAEA based on Iranian adoption of all relevant instruments (93+2 and all further IAEA protocols).” That is a references to IAEA protocols that would guarantee the IAEA access to any declared or undeclared facility on short notice.
The proposal also offers a dramatic change in Iranian policy towards Israel. Iran would accept an Arab league declaration approving a land-for-peace principle and a comprehensive peace with Israel in return for Israel’s withdrawal to 1967 lines, a softening of Iran’s usual policy.
The proposal further offers to stop any Iranian support of Palestinian opposition groups such as Hamas and proposes to convert Hezbollah into “a mere political organization within Lebanon.” It further offers “coordination of Iranian influence for activity supporting political stabilization and the establishment of democratic institutions and a nonreligious government” in Iraq.
In return, Iran wants a democratic government in Iran, which would mean its Shiite allies would come to power since the Shiites make up a majority of the Iraqi population. The proposal wants the US to remove Iran from its “axis of evil” and list of terrorism sponsors. (Porter 5/21/2006)
US Rejects Offer - The US flatly rejects the idea. “We’re not interested in any grand bargain,” says Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton. (Unger 3/2007) The American Prospect will later comment that “Iran’s historic proposal for a broad diplomatic agreement should have prompted high-level discussions over the details of an American response.” State Department counterterrorism expert Flynt Leverett will later call it a “respectable effort” to start negotiations with the US. But within days, the US rejects the proposal without even holding an interagency meeting to discuss its possible merits. Guldimann, the Swiss intermediary, is reprimanded for having passed the proposal to the US. (Porter 5/21/2006) Larry Wilkerson, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, will later say that it was a significant proposal for beginning “meaningful talks” between the US and Iran but that it “was a non-starter so long as [Dick] Cheney was Vice President and the principal influence on Bush.” (Hirsh 2/8/2007) He will also say that the State Department supported the offer, “[b]ut as soon as it got to the Vice President’s office, the old mantra of ‘We don’t talk to evil‘… reasserted itself” and Cheney’s office turned the offer down. (BBC 1/18/2007) Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage will later claim that, “We couldn’t determine what was the Iranians’ and what was the Swiss ambassador’s,” and says that he though the Iranians “were trying to put too much on the table.” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will say of the proposal, “Perhaps somebody saw something of the like” but “I just don’t remember ever seeing any such thing.” (Hirsh 2/8/2007) Colin Powell will later say that President Bush simply didn’t want to negotiate with an Iranian government that he believed should not be in power. “My position… was that we ought to find ways to restart talks with Iran… But there was a reluctance on the part of the president to do that.” He also says, “You can’t negotiate when you tell the other side, ‘Give us what a negotiation would produce before the negotiations start.’” (Hirsh and Bahari 2/12/2007) Days later, Iran will propose a more limited exchange of al-Qaeda prisoners for MEK prisoners, but the US will reject that too (see Mid-May 2003). Author Craig Unger will later write, “The grand bargain was dead. Flush with a false sense of victory, Bush, Cheney, and [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld felt no need to negotiate with the enormous oil-rich country that shared a border with the country America had just invaded.” (Unger 2007, pp. 308-309)
Proposal Echoed Four Years Later - In 2007, the BBC will note, “Observers say the Iranian offer as outlined nearly four years ago corresponds pretty closely to what Washington is demanding from Tehran now.” (BBC 1/18/2007)
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami personally accompanies about 30 journalists deep into the underground nuclear plant at Natanz, a uranium enrichment facility located 250 km (150 miles) south of Tehran. The group of foreign and local journalists is permitted to film and take video footage of the complex. Natanz is built more than 18 meters (54 feet) below ground due to “security problems.” The journalists are shown another facility in the city of Isfahan. “If we were looking to make atomic weapons, we could have completed these [facilities] in hiding,” Khatami tells the reporters. The gesture is viewed by many as an attempt to undermine support for a possible aerial attack by the United States or Israel. (Reuters 3/30/2005)
After winning a contentious election in July, former Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, described by the BBC as an “ultra-conservative,” is confirmed as president of Iran. Ahmadinejad replaces moderate reformer Mohammad Khatami, who served as president for eight years. Ahmadinejad won the election in July, but only now becomes president after being formally endorsed by Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. With Ahmadinejad’s rise to power, hardline conservatives now control all the institutions of power in Iran. He is expected to lead a move to break off negotiations with European Union diplomats over constraining Iran’s nuclear development program (see January 2004), a move already heralded by Iran’s decision to resume converting uranium into plutonium (see Late July 2005). (BBC 8/3/2005; Scoblic 2008, pp. 251) Ahmadinejad tells the Iranian Parliament that while the nation will respect international norms regarding nuclear programs, it will never surrender to what he calls “illegal requests.” (Voice of America 8/6/2005) Many believe that Khamenei is the driving force behind Ahmadinejad’s rise to power and the new sense of recalcitrant opposition to European diplomacy. (Slackman 9/8/2006)
Iran’s former Deputy Minister of Defense, General Ali Reza Asgari, defects during a visit to Turkey. (Porter 12/17/2007) According to former CIA officer Vincent Cannistraro, Asgari is a longtime Western intelligence agent, and is immediately debriefed by Turkish and US intelligence officials. Asgari will be given a new identity; his current whereabouts are unknown to the public. (MacAskill 12/8/2007)
History and Connections - Asgari held the Defense Ministry position from 1997 through 2005, under the regime of reformist Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, and, according to US media reports, was providing the US with intelligence during that time period. (Porter 12/17/2007) He is a former intelligence officer in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and is believed to have considerable knowledge about several IRGC-ordered terrorist attacks, including the October 1983 bombing of a US Marine barracks in Lebanon (see April 18-October 23, 1983) and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia (see June 25, 1996). He has close ties to Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, and presumably can tell US intelligence about Hezbollah’s military command structure, its overseas networks, and perhaps its cells inside the US. (Baer 3/22/2007)
Source for National Intelligence Estimate - Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi says that Asgari is a “key” source for the intelligence community’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program, currently in development (see August 2, 2005). Asgari’s information helps the intelligence community determine that Iran had ceased work on its nuclear program in 2003. According to Giraldi, Asgari had been recruited by Turkish intelligence in 2003, and defected after learning that Iranian intelligence had become suspicious of him. Asgari defects with “bags of documents,” presumably including information about Iran’s nuclear program. Asgari will provide information crucial to the US’s ability to monitor sensitive communications among senior Iranian military officials (see July 2007), which helps corroborate the finding that Iran had indeed ceased research into nuclear weapons development. Former National Security Council official Gary Sick will say that Asgari’s knowledge of the Iranian military is critical in determining what is and is not important among the communications intercepts. “There are zillions of pieces of evidence, and what you look for is defined by what you know,” Sick will say. “What Asgari gave them was a new way of looking at the evidence.” It is highly likely that President Bush will be made aware of Asgari’s information soon after Asgari’s debriefing, though the White House will claim that Bush knew nothing of the new intelligence on Iran until August 2007 (see December 3-4, 2007). (Porter 12/17/2007)
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