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Washington Helps Curtail Iran's Covert Suez Thrust

DEBKAfile Exclusive Report

April 11, 2009, 8:26 PM (GMT+02:00)

Hassan Nasrallah: Iran's red herring

Hassan Nasrallah: Iran's red herring

From early 2006, Egyptian and Western security services and Israeli intelligence have been aware of Hizballah's smuggling operations for Hamas on behalf of Tehran and Iran's covert networks in Sinai and the Suez Canal cities of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia.

But last Wednesday, April 8, Cairo disclosed that Egyptian security forces had arrested 49 men, 41 Egyptians, seven Israeli Arabs, and one Lebanese citizen on charges of supporting Hamas and Hizballah. Iran was not mentioned. The arrests had begun last November and were continuing.

The disclosure sparked a slanging match between Cairo and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Yet neither touched the real bone of contention. The latter admitted that the network's head, Sami Shehab, belonged to Hizballah and had provided Hamas with money and logistical support, "for which we are not ashamed."

He thus confirmed a long-held Israeli intelligence contention.

Nasrallah went on to accuse the Egyptian regime of working hand in glove with Israel and America to keep the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip under siege.

An Egyptian source shot back by calling Nasrallah an Iranian agent and accusing him of organizing subversion against the Cairo government to divert attention from Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

These allegations were a mutually agreed smoke screen, DEBKAfile's intelligence sources report. It suited neither party to admit that the gang Cairo exposed led to a major undercover Iranian network operating in Egypt for three years.

While Hizballah contributes to Iran's covert overseas operations from the time of the late Imad Mughniyeh, Nasrallah could hardly admit he was not privy to all the arrested men's identities. Egypt, for its part, refrained from publicly accusing Tehran of its deep penetration, while the Iranians placed a Hizballah security operative at its head rather than a high-ranking Iranian agent to avoid being directly compromised in the operation.

DEBKAfile's military and intelligence sources disclose that this group had a much larger strategic mission than terrorist attacks on Egyptian towns and Israeli targets in Sinai, as claimed by Egyptian and Israeli media: It was assigned with planting an Iranian logistical-intelligence infrastructure as stealthily and inconspicuously as possible along the shores of the Suez Canal. This chain was to eventually hook up with the clandestine Iranian cells operating out of Somalia and Sudan opposite the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean and provide Iran with an outer safety belt as a counterweight to the US naval presence in those waters.

In the event of an American or Israeli military strike against its nuclear facilities, Tehran would have resources in place for retaliating against Saudi and Western traffic passing through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Horn of Africa.

To this end, in 2006, the Iranian agents and their recruits started purchasing apartments on the upper floors of tall buildings near the Suez Canal coast and small walled-in houses right on the waterline. The 49 agents captured by the Egyptian police may well have been just the tip of the iceberg. Once they were in place in their forward positions, Iranian intelligence decided they would also be useful for smuggling arms to Gaza for Hamas.

On March 17, 2007 DEBKAfile wrote:

Iranian and Venezuelan assistance is funneled through a well-oiled smuggling network Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has thrown up across Egyptian Sinai up to and including the ports of the Suez Canal and Gulf of Suez as far south as Sudan and as far north as the Mediterranean…

Israel repeatedly warned Egypt that this multi-branched covert ring would undermine Egyptian security in Sinai and the Suez Canal before turning against Egypt proper.

The Iranian network came up in a conversation between the former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and CIA chiefs with Egypt's intelligence minister Gen. Omar Suleiman, when they met in the Jordanian capital of Amman on Feb. 20, 2007 (as revealed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 290 on Feb. 23: Rice Chairs a Pivotal US-Arab Intelligence Summit in Amman).

On that occasion, Suleiman informed Rice that Egypt lacks the military, intelligence and financial resources to effectively cope with the strongholds Iran has planted along the Suez Canal. In his view, the United States must pitch in if Iran's Suez presence and smuggling operations were to be curtailed.

In the last two years, meanwhile, Iranian arms smuggling operations for its Palestinian protégée in Gaza swelled. It took Israel's Operation Cast Lead against Hamas from Dec. 2008 to Jan. 2009 to persuade the Americans how necessary it was to heed the Egyptian minister's advice.

The roundup of 49 Iranian-backed undercover agents, disclosed by Cairo last week, was in fact part of the intelligence and military operation backed by the US and Israel for rooting out the hostile Iranian infrastructure dug in deep from the Suez Canal shores in the north to Sudan and Eritrean in the south.

Six months ago, Cairo began rolling up the Iranian ring, but only after the US beefed up its naval strength in the Gulf of Suez and Red Sea and assured Cairo that more would be done.

In the last ten days of January, Barack Obama who had just moved into the White House decided that before engaging Tehran in dialogue it would be well to loosen its covert grip on strategic Middle East intersections.

On Jan. 21, DEBKAfile's military sources reported that US 151 Combined Task Force (CTF) went into action to intercept Iranian ships bound for Hamas with smuggled munitions. Unit 405 of the US Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET 405) boarded the Cypriot-flagged Iranian Monchegorsk to search its holds.

While attention was fixed on this fateful marine contest, on Jan. 29, a US-Israeli air attack hit an Iranian arms convoy driving through Sudan with another arms consignment for the Palestinian terrorist group.

The Egyptian crackdown on the Iranian network continued in February, March and in early April, Cairo had uncovered a key element of the hostile Iranian network.

The mudslinging between Egypt and Hizballah was the public face of the real contest between two heavyweights, the United States and Iran in this sensitive arena.


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