One of the dirty secrets about Western trade with enemy states like Iran is that the Western companies trading with them may also wittingly or unwittingly serve as espionage assets for their home country or for other Western countries.
Consider the Stuxnet computer virus which reportedly caused great harm to at least one and perhaps multiple nuclear installations in Iran. The virus penetrated the Iranian systems through Siemens industrial control systems. In recent years, Siemens was subject to widespread criticism from US policy makers for its massive trade with Iran. And this criticism was justified. But it is important to admit that if Siemens hadn’t been trading with Iran, whomever developed the Stuxnet virus would have had to find another, probably less accessible platform to penetrate Iran’s computer systems.
The Stuxnet story shows the problematic flipside of trade embargoes against rogue states like Iran. The less access you have to enemy markets, the less ability you have to gather information about enemy targets and the less capacity you have to sabotage enemy targets. The more access you have, the more capacity you can build to infiltrate, gather information and sabotage enemy targets.
The boycott drive against states like Iran uses a legalistic framework to deal with complex military challenges. And since the nail doesn’t exactly fit the hole, it stands to reason that the damage sanctions can do to military or intelligence operations may in certain circumstances outweigh the benefit they bring to diplomatic operations.
Since last week’s announcement by the State Department that it was sanctioning the Israeli firm Ofer Brothers’ Shipping for reportedly violating US law by trading with Iran, there has been a deluge of news reports alleging that the Ofer Brother’s ships were used by the Mossad and perhaps the IDF to infiltrate and exfiltrate agents into and out of Iran.
There are number of troubling aspects to the story. First, it strikes me as odd that the announcement about the sanctions was made by the State Department. If I am not mistaken, these decisions and announcements are usually made by the Treasury Department. Why would the State Department have taken the unusual step of announcing the sanctions and take the step against an Israeli shipping company?
Second, it strikes me as odd that former Mossad chief Meir Dagan felt compelled to issue an impassioned defense of the Ofer Brothers Shipping company. Dagan is in the midst of an unprecedented, arguably illegal and certainly unseemly campaign to delegitimize Prime Minister Binyamin Netayahu. It seems strange that, in the midst of this offensive, Dagan would divert his attention to the Ofer Brothers Shipping woes. He must have been deeply shocked by the US move to do so.
(And yes, eventually I will probably address Dagan’s unacceptable abuse of his position to weaken Israel’s political leadership and limit its policy options against Iran.)
The third reason this is so shocking is that the timing of the announcement cannot be viewed as coincidental. The rare State Department announcement came just after Netanyahu wiped the floor with Obama in the Congress and as the Republicans are wisely using Obama’s hatred of Israel and his love for anti-American political forces in the region as a campaign issue for 2012. It is hard not to reach the conclusion that the announcement was deliberately released at this juncture to weaken US public support for Israel.
If my hunch is right, and the Obama administration decided to use the sanctions as a means to humiliate Israel, then this represents a stunning blow to the US’s credibility as an ally. It is impossible to believe that if the Ofer Brothers subsidiary ships were used for intelligence operations in Iran that the US did not know about it. So if the ships were used by Israeli security agencies then the US knew that exposing the Israeli identity of the ships would make it impossible for Israel to continue using them. And if this is the case, then the US also knew that by exposing the information, it was liable to leave Israeli agents currently in Iran stranded there.
Since Obama came into office, both he and his advisers and Israeli politicians and security service commanders have repeatedly mentioned that intelligence and military cooperation between the two countries has grown steadily. If my sense of what happened with the Ofer Brothers Shipping firm is even partially correct, then Israel should immediately reconsider its willingness to maintain that cooperation. If Obama may use information shared in joint intelligence meetings to harm Israel for political purposes or, for that matter for any purpose, then Israel can no longer share information with the US.