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Comment / Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor: Behind the Door: Dirty dealings by Israel and Iran

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A scandal that has recently erupted in Israel concerning a private Israeli shipping and transport group Ofer Brothers that sold a tanker to Iran via a well-known Iranian front company and has been transporting petroleum products to and from Iran for a decade, heightens my suspicions that nothing is what it seems in the dirty world of geopolitics.

On the one hand, the Netanyahu government has been calling upon Washington to tighten anti-Iranian sanctions while on the other a company owned by Israel’s richest man the late Sami Ofer (he died on Thursday 2nd of June, aged 89) has been trading with Iran for years while his ships have been regularly docking at Iranian ports.

Israeli officials have denied they knew what was going on. However, conspiracy theorists are having a field day after a discussion held by members of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee on the issue was cut short by the Defense Ministry’s Security Chief who once served on the board of Ofer Brothers. Initially, the Ofer family asserted they had dealt with Iran on Israel’s behalf but have since u-turned on that defense provoking speculation a deal has been done. Anyone who imagines that the Mossad and the Shin Bet have been in the dark for ten years must be naïve in the extreme and for all anyone knows the Ofer revelations could well be just the tip of the iceberg.

This echoes the Nahum Manbar controversy. He is an Israeli former IDF paratrooper who was accused of selling components used to make mustard gas and nerve gas to Iran. He was imprisoned for 16 years in 1997 subsequent to a trial held behind closed doors. Author and former Mossad agent Victor Ostrovsky revealed Manbar’s connections with Israel’s security services while other insiders suggested Israel used him as a fall guy when the transaction became known.

Manbar has always insisted his dealings with the Iranians were blessed by the Israeli intelligence community and is none too pleased that the Ofers seem to be getting off lightly. “The establishment took revenge on me while they, the Ofer Brothers, have connections in government and nobody’s touching them,” he said.

Last week, Ynetnews reported that “Israel-Iran trade ties thriving” with “dozens of Israeli companies secretly engaging in relations with the Islamic Republic through third parties.” The article quotes the chairman of the Israeli-Arab Friendship Association Yehoshua Meiri saying, “Despite what is seen on the ground, the secret relations with Iran total tens of millions of dollars a year…Even when harsh statements are made on both sides, business thrives. Relations with the Iranian colleagues are excellent and political statements are ignored.”

Just days before, Tehran’s Trade Ministry had to answer to Iranian exporters/importers who claimed Israeli apples and oranges were on sale in the country’s markets. It’s an open secret that Israel buys marble, cashews and pistachios from Iran while Iran imports organic fertilizer, artificial hormones to boost milk production, irrigation pipes and seeds from Israel.

How can that be you are probably asking yourself when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been relentlessly bashing Israel since he took office? According to a recent article on Yedioth Ahronoth’s English-language website, “Ahmadinejad’s top advisor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei stated three years ago that Iran should have ‘friendly ties’ with the Jewish state, a statement that was supported by his boss.

In one of my recent columns, I suggested that the mutual enmity currently displayed between the US/Israel and Iran could be part cinema, allowing Tehran to curry favor with the Arab world, Israel to pinpoint Iran as a threat to its existence in order to propagate its victim status – and America a pretext to maintain military bases in the region.

I highlighted that although Washington and Tehran have been ‘sworn enemies’ since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranians facilitated Israel’s bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and the Reagan administration shipped weapons to Iran during the mid-1980s via Israel. Following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran offered to train Afghan troops under US supervision and urged Shiite Iraqis not to resist the US-led occupiers.

Moreover, despite Iran’s failure to ally the international’s community’s suspicions that Iran may be developing nuclear weapons, anti-Iranian sanctions have been toothless compared to those that crippled Saddam’s Iraq for ten years. On this, President Barack Obama has been sending mixed messages. Last month, he vowed to keep up the pressure on Iran but the question is ‘what pressure’? It certainly isn’t the same sort of pressure the White House heaped on President Mubarak and President Ben Ali to step-down.

The bottom line is that all three military powers consider the Middle East and the Gulf as their sphere of influence and wouldn’t shed a tear if the Arabs were to lose their grip on this strategically-positioned, oil and gas-rich region.

I would urge the GCC States leaderships to focus on the menacing dangers and pursue political and military independence; in particular, Egypt should resist Tehran’s self-serving overtures to normalize diplomatic relations. With the Israel-Palestine peace process in its death throes, storms brewing over the ‘Arab spring’ and Iran working to expand its influence, sitting on the fence and hoping for the best is no longer an option.

(Khalaf Al Habtoor is a businessman and chairman of Al Habtoor Group. Al Habtoor Group is a Dubai-based conglomerate with extensive business interests in the region and worldwide, including: construction, hospitality, education, automotive and real estate. www.habtoor.com)