Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Look for tensions in the Persian Gulf (and Northeast Asia) to ratchet up a notch.

The United Arab Emirates recently seized a shipment of North Korean arms bound for Iran. Diplomatic sources indicate that the UAE notified the UN of the seizure two weeks ago, shortly after it occurred.

Not surprisingly, the Abu Dhabi government has been rather tight-lipped about the seizure. But other sources tell Reuters that the intercept occurred on 14 August, and the cargo included rocket launchers, detonators, munition and ammunition for rocket-propelled grenades--the very items Iran has used kill U.S. troops in Iraq.

The shipment represents a clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which bans all arms transfers from Pyongyang. It was passed earlier this year, after North Korea conducted its second nuclear test. The measure also authorizes other nations to search suspicious vessels, and destroy banned items.

Pyongyang used elaborate measures in an attempt to conceal the shipment. The ship's manifest listed its cargo as "oil boring machines;" the intercepted vessel belongs to an Australian firm that is owned by a French conglomerate, flying the Bahamian flag. An Italian firm, with offices in Shanghai, reportedly arranged the shipment.

Under the UN mandate, North Korea and Iran now have 15 days to offer a detailed explanation for the shipment, but don't hold your breath. Having been caught red-handed, the two rogue states will likely accuse the U.S. and its allies of "manufacturing" the evidence.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of this episode is the claim that Abu Dhabi discovered the shipment on its own. That scenario is plausible; the Emirates spend freely on national defense and have a credible intelligence service for a country their size.

But ferreting out a complex arms shipment--and tracking the vessel on its journey from North Korea--required more extensive SIGINT, IMINT and surveillance resources, something the Emirates currently lack. It doesn't take an intel analyst to see the hand of the U.S. in this intercept. Indeed, it would be interesting to learn the proximity of the nearest American naval vessel at the time of the seizure, and the radio chatter/information sharing that preceded it.

Of course, that raises a couple of questions. First, if Washington provided the intel information that prompted the intercept, why not assign the job to American naval forces? True, letting the Emirates handle the task creates the impression of international resolve and a united front against Pyongyang. But it also suggests that the Obama Administration was trying to avoid a direct confrontation with North Korea and Iran, still hoping for negotiations with both regimes.

Such a "strategy" amounts to little more than a fool's errand. As Tehran and Pyongyang have demonstrated--time and time again--they are undeserving of unilateral talks with the United States. Moreover, if Mr. Obama wants to lead the global effort against banned arms exports, then he must be prepared to take a more active role militarily.

Instead, naval forces from the UAE did the heavy lifting in this operation, and that entails risks for Abu Dhabi. The Emirates have a long-standing dispute with Iran over islands in the Persian Gulf and its possible that Tehran may test its rival, in retaliation for the weapons seizure.

And that brings us to our second question. The UAE has advanced weaponry (its state-of-the-art F-16s are currently participating in Red Flag at Nellis AFB, Nevada) and trained personnel, backed by the best contractor assistance money can buy. However, the Emirates would require help from the U.S. in fending off certain types of attacks--say a missile strike--or a sustained Iranian campaign against oil targets in the Gulf.

At what point is the U.S. prepared to support its ally, which took a calculated risk in boarding that Australian vessel, carrying North Korean arms to Iran? It's a query that is likely being posed in Abu Dhabi (and other capitals) from the Gulf, to the Far East. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is anything but clear.

UAE seized N.Korea arms shipment bound for Iran
28 Aug 2009 22:38:46 GMT
Source: Reuters
* Arms included rocket launchers, detonators, RPGs

* Seizure of shipment took place on Aug. 14

* Countries linked include Australia, France, Italy, China

(Adds details about weapons, countries involved)

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 28 (Reuters) - The United Arab Emirates has seized a cargo of North Korean weapons being shipped to Iran, which would have violated a U.N. embargo on arms exports from the communist state, Western diplomats said on Friday.

The weapons seized on Aug. 14 included rocket launchers, detonators, munitions and ammunition for rocket-propelled grenades, they said. The ship, called the ANL-Australia, was Australian-owned and flying a Bahamas flag.

Diplomats said the UAE reported the incident, which occurred two weeks ago, to the Security Council sanctions committee on North Korea. The committee sent letters to Tehran and Pyongyang on Aug. 25 informing them of the seizure and demanding a response within 15 days.

"Based on past experience ... we don't expect a very detailed response," one of the diplomats said on condition of anonymity.

The diplomats said the Australian firm whose ship was seized is controlled by a French conglomerate and the actual export was arranged by the Shanghai office of an Italian company. The diplomats did not name any of the firms involved.

"The cargo was deceptively labeled," said a diplomat "The cargo manifest said that the ship contained oil boring machines. But then you opened it up and you found these arms."

Diplomats said both North Korea and Iran appeared to be in breach of Security Council resolution 1874, which banned all arms exports from North Korea and authorized states to search suspicious ships and seize and destroy banned items.

The resolution was imposed after North Korea's second nuclear test in May. The council imposed sanctions on Pyongyang after its first test in October 2006, but the measures were never enforced, mainly because China showed no interest in seeing them implemented.

Diplomats said the UAE seizure, which was done on the basis of the country's own intelligence reports, was an important success for the beefed-up North Korean sanctions regime and would hopefully deter further attempts at skirting sanctions.

Tehran has also been punished with three rounds of U.N. sanctions for its nuclear program, which Western powers fear is aimed at producing atomic weapons. Iran says it has a peaceful atomic program that will generate electricity, not bombs. (Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; editing by David Storey)


  1. The important sub-story here is why was this not reported in the press? Or put differently, who has both an interest in suppressing such a story and the means to do it? It is hard not to suspect our government.

  2. Aha! I did not realize this is one blog entry, not two. I read the lower part first and wrote my comment based on that alone. Dave's analysis in the first part of the entry shows clearly what I had no more than suspected.

  3. Hello Jack: Indeed. Time to serve up some cold legislative hors d'oeuvers. Here are some making their way through the Senate.

    (H.RES.557) Senate: 'Expressing support for the State of Israel's inalienable right to defend itself in the face of an imminent nuclear or military threat from Iran, terrorist organizations, and the countries that harbor them. '

    (H.R.2290) Senate: 'To provide for the application of measures to foreign persons who transfer to Iran, Syria, or North Korea certain goods, services, or technology that could assist Iran, Syria, or North Korea to extract or mill their domestic sources of uranium ore.

    (H.R.1208) Senate: 'To strengthen existing legislation sanctioning persons aiding and facilitating nonproliferation activities by the Government of Iran, and for other purposes.

    (H.R.1985) 2. Senate: 'To amend the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 to enhance United States diplomatic efforts with respect to Iran by expanding economic sanctions against Iran to include refined petroleum, and for other purposes.

    (H.R.3516)3. Senate: 'To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide for rollover of gain from divesting certain qualified securities of business entities engaged in Iran or Sudan discouraged activities.

    (H.R.2194) Senate: 'To amend the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 to enhance United States diplomatic efforts with respect to Iran by expanding economic sanctions against Iran.

    (H.R.485) Senate: 'To strengthen existing legislation sanctioning persons aiding and facilitating nonproliferation activities by the Governments of Iran, North Korea, and Syria, and for other purposes.

  4. Anonymous7:22 PM

    Thanks to both of you for your sharp analysis and for letting us know about the bills before the Senate. Good job!