Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Meanwhile, in the Middle East

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Perhaps if the world's focus were not so intensely concentrated (as it should be) on Ukraine, or on the missing Malaysian plane, we would have paid more attention to an important development in the Middle East just a few days ago and to its grave implications.

On March 5, Israeli forces boarded an Iranian-owned, Panamanian-flagged, ship named the Klos C. It was loaded with an arsenal of weapons from Iran and Syria headed for Gaza.

The weapons, of course, had one, and only one, purpose: to target Israelis. As if to underline that point, rocket fire from Gaza, aimed at Israeli civilians, escalated dangerously in recent days, triggering retaliatory strikes and risking an even worse situation for civilians on both sides of the border. It was the most serious breach of a fragile truce declared more than a year ago.

On Wednesday alone, Palestinians in Gaza fired more than 60 missiles toward Israeli towns, and Israel bombed several of their launching sites. The group carrying out the attacks was most likely Islamic Jihad, but Hamas, which controls Gaza, apparently did little to stop them.

Most of the missiles were intercepted by Israel's defensive shield, but if a rocket gets through and causes bloodshed, or if the barrages continue, much more serious fighting could return.

Millions of civilians live on top of this tinderbox, which Iran is trying to stoke with more weapons.

If the Klos C incident received the attention it deserves, it could threaten negotiations between Iran and world powers over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. It raises questions about Iran's goals in the region and about the role it is playing now, as it claims to have nothing but peaceful intensions.

CNN reported that the United States was tracking the shipment and the vessel all along. American intelligence followed the weapons when they left Iran by air and landed in Syria. They were shipped to Iraq, where they were loaded aboard the Klos en route to Gaza -- a shipment perhaps addressed to Hamas or to Islamic Jihad.

The U.S. Navy reportedly had secret orders to "be prepared to act" to stop the ship and seize the cargo.

If U.S. forces had boarded the Klos C, which carried hundreds of thousands of bullets, along with scores of rockets and mortars, the incident would have had much more serious international consequences. Washington would have been forced to delve into Tehran's tangible efforts to promote the killing of Israelis and to arm those whose stated aim is to destroy Israel.

If the United States had seized the ship's contents, the images of the deadly cargo would have received much more international attention, raising new questions about the trustworthiness of Iran and its new face to the world.

Instead, it was Israel that boarded the ship, and it was left to the Israelis to make their case, that just as Iran now ships arms to Gaza, a nuclear-armed Iran could cause a catastrophe. Israel's warnings on the subject don't get very much attention.

Iran, incidentally, denies any involvement with the ship and its cargo.

The Klos C affair is reminiscent of the 2002 events involving another weapons-carrying vessel, the Karine A. That ship was captained by Omar Akawi, of the Palestinian group Fatah, who confessed about Yasser Arafat's involvement, saying the ship was purchased by a Palestinian official with help from Hezbollah and Iran. The cargo hold contained 50 tonnes of Iranian arms, a gift from Tehran, including all manner of weapons and thousands of pounds of high explosives, all marked with Farsi letters. It also contained C-4 explosives, used to make the vests of suicide bombers, who were blasting their way through Israeli buses, cafes and pizzerias in those days.

The ship was bought just weeks after Arafat rejected Bill Clinton's Camp David plan for a Palestinian state and peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Arafat, who was still travelling to world capitals as an honoured statesman, claimed he knew nothing, but as the evidence massed, his credibility as a "peacemaker" steadily eroded.

Today, the United States and Europe are hoping against hope that the Iranian leadership is being guided by peacemakers. But nobody really knows Iran's true intentions. After all, Iran has a new, more affable president, but the real power still lies with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, and the military and Revolutionary Guards still wield enormous power.

The Klos C incident gives reason to doubt Iran's intentions -- something Western powers would rather not think about right now.

Frida Ghitis writes about global

affairs for the Miami Herald.

-- McClatchy Tribune Services

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 20, 2014 A15

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