The State Department revealed Wednesday that even as the Obama administration was engaging in direct and very high-stakes nuclear negotiations with Iran, U.S. officials for months have been secretly collaborating with Israeli intelligence to track an illicit Iranian weapons shipment bound for Palestine.
Israeli naval forces raided a merchant cargo vessel in the Red Sea early Wednesday, seizing dozens of Syrian-made M-302 rockets that Israel’s government says were being shipped by Iran to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
With the seizure amid tension between Israel and Washington over the eagerness with which the Obama administration has pursued negotiations with Iran, some analysts expressed skepticism Wednesday — even suggesting that the Israeli government may have timed and hyped the incident to hammer home a message that Tehran cannot be trusted.
That the seizure came just two days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Obama at the White House prompted questions over what the administration new about the operation and the extent to which Washington played a role in it.
State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told reporters that the U.S. and Israel “closely coordinated” and “had routine communications” on the weapons seizure through “intelligence and military channels, as well as through our national security advisers.”
“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 in order to be prepared to take unilateral steps if necessary,” said Ms. Psaki.
She added that Israel decided to take the lead, moving Wednesday to intercept the cargo vessel, which was operating under the shipping name “Klos-C,” more than 1,000 miles south of Israel.
Israeli Defense Forces spokesman Peter Lerner said the vessel had tried to avoid detection by sailing under a Panamanian flag, and that the interdiction was part of a months-long, “complex, covert, intelligence-based mission.”
Israeli naval forces boarded the ship and found dozens of the M-302 missiles hidden behind piles of cement mix, Mr. Lerner said, adding that Israeli intelligence indicated the missiles were “manufactured in Syria, by Syrian authorities,” and were initially shipped by airplane from Damascus to Tehran.
The weapons, he said, were smuggled through Iraq and loaded onto the Klos-C at the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr. The vessel then moved down the Persian Gulf and into the Red Sea, apparently en route to the Port of Sudan. From there, Israeli officials said, the missiles likely were to be smuggled into Egypt and then on to Gaza.
None of the vessel’s 17 crew members were Iranians, said Mr. Lerner, who suggested they may not have even known of the weapons on board. But Israeli intelligence officials believe the ship was operating on behalf of Iran’s elite Qods Force.
Some analysts questioned the development, saying that — despite the U.S. cooperation in the mission — the Israeli government overhyped the incident to smear the Obama administration’s for eagerly negotiating with Iran.
“It just seems a little too conveniently timed,” said Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council and has written extensively on U.S. and Israeli policy toward Iran.
Mr. Parsi said he was “suspicious” that the weapons seizure occurred just after Mr. Netanyahu had met with Mr. Obama at the White House and had railed against Iran at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — Israel’s most powerful lobbying group in the United States.
While Mr. Parsi said he had “no evidence” to suggest the seizure was conspiratorial, he noted Iran is “one of the biggest sticking points right now between Obama and Netanyahu.”
While Mr. Netanyahu has argued repeatedly against the nuclear negotiations with Tehran, saying Iran is still bent on trying to build a nuclear weapon — a charge Tehran denies — others said it makes sense that the U.S. and Israel would have cooperated closely on the weapons seizure.
There is “no daylight” between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to cooperation on security and defense matters, said Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs at the Congressional Research Service.
At the State Department, Mrs. Psaki said that “even as we continue our 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.”
Iran has continued with its provocative behavior despite a thaw with the West over its nuclear program.
Iran supports Lebanese Hezbollah militias who are fighting alongside Bashar al Assad’s forces inside Syria; and it Revolutionary Guard commanders are training Syrian troops. On Wednesday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard announced that it had acquired missiles with multiple warheads.
The thaw with the West over its nuclear program has not encouraged Iran to “dial it back,” said Mr. Katzman.
“Iran has drawn iron boxes around these issues,” he said. “The nuclear issue is one box and there is some flexibility there; Syria is in a different box and Hezbollah in another box, and Iran is showing no flexibility there.”
“On Iran’s core interests, the Arab-Israeli dispute, Hamas, Syria, Iran has shown no flexibility at all,” he added.