What hijack? The high-sea drama no one will discuss

By Anshel Pfeffer, September 10, 2009
A Russian soldier takes one of the suspected hijackers off the Arctic Sea

A Russian soldier takes one of the suspected hijackers off the Arctic Sea

Ehud Barak’s face remained expressionless. The reporters surrounded the defence minister, asking again and again, “do you have anything to say about the Russian ship?” — but he would not even look at them. His bodyguards cleared a path for him as he stepped into his official car and sped away.

None of the countries allegedly involved in the mystery of the Arctic Sea — the boat that disappeared in the Baltic Sea for several days in July after being boarded by pirates — have any interest in publicity.

They have all dealt with the reports in their characteristic ways. While Mr Barak ran the gauntlet of Israeli media, an intrepid Russian journalist who had dared report inconvenient details was forced to flee Moscow. There are no longer any independent reporters in Tehran to ask difficult questions.

The media worldwide has reported that the ship was carrying Russian missiles bound for Iran. If true, Russia does not want to draw attention to the fact that strategic weapon systems worth hundreds of millions of dollars can be smuggled out of its territory.

The Iranians are not interested in publicising their efforts to obtain material to advance their nuclear programme and the air-defence system that protects it from attack.

And if Israel was at all involved in the “hijack” or in a tip-off that might have alerted the Russian authorities to the cargo, it never details its intelligence or interdiction operations.

Nor does Israel have any interest in embarrassing Russia. Mr Netanyahu’s mysterious half-day visit to Moscow this week, and that of Shimon Peres last month, are urgent efforts to ensure that Russia does not succumb to the temptation of Iranian cash and oil.

Almost all that has been reported on the subject in recent weeks is the result of speculation and conjecture. But whatever the facts, the Arctic Sea saga serves as a reminder of the secret arms race being conducted by Iran.

Most of the world’s attention has been concentrated on the centrifuges revolving, and the uranium being enriched, at Natanz and Bushehr.

Meanwhile, the Iranians have been frantically trying to obtain the necessary equipment that will enable them to achieve the full cycle: a functioning nuclear bomb, within a warhead, screwed onto a missile, with the range and navigation system capable of hitting a target 2,000km away.

And along with that, they seek anti-aircraft missile batteries, such as the Russian S-300, that will make any strike against their nuclear capabilities extremely difficult.

Currently, the only possible sources of such material are North Korea and rogue elements in the Russian military-industrial complex.

Another anxious customer in this market is Syria, which is also trying to upgrade its missile and air-defence capabilities. At the same time, Iran itself is supplying Hizbollah and Hamas. By equipping these groups with their own arsenal, Iran believes it can further threaten Israel to desist from attacking.

Ships disappear from the high seas, convoys are bombed in the desert and mysterious explosions occur at secret factories. Much of this remains hidden from the media but the little that does trickle out attests to a constant clandestine campaign against Iran’s intention to fundamentally shift the strategic balance in its favour.

Last updated: 8:50am, September 30 2009