Look for tensions in the Persian Gulf (and Northeast Asia) to ratchet up a notch.
According to Bloomberg, 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.
ADDENDUM: In light of the recent seizure, you can expect an increase in arms delivery flights between North Korea and Iran. IL-76 "Candids" (similar to our retired C-141s) regularly transit between Pyongyang and Tehran. With no restriction on air traffic between the two nations, it will be relatively easy to fly most of the illicit cargo to Iran.