As the tale of the “New Karine A” develops, one alarm bell it sets off concerns the ease with which the arms transshipment was brought off in plain sight. The ship the Israelis caught with the arms was M/V Francop, a freighter operated by Cyprus-based United Feeder Services. The crew onboard didn’t know what they were carrying, and didn’t carry it from Iran anyway: they picked their cargo up in Damietta, Egypt. The Israelis had tracked Francop from Beirut to Damietta and knew the cargo was loaded there. That means the arms themselves were shipped from Iran to Egypt by other means. Sounds like a story we’ve heard before about Port Sudan and overland convoys to Gaza, right?
Not really. The port of Damietta is neither a remote spot in the desert nor a sleepy Sudanese port. It’s one of Egypt’s premier seaports, located on the Mediterranean near the entrance to the Suez Canal. Damietta has some distinctive claims to fame: it’s in a heavily promoted Egyptian free-trade zone and is operated by DIPCO, an international consortium of private maritime-service companies whose pathbreaking development project at Damietta serves as a model for a global trend toward the private development and operation of ports.
Private administration of customs and cargo verification, the functions that might detect arms shipments, is not unusual. But under these conditions, transshipments of cargo through free-trade zones — shipments offloaded only to await further transportation to another country — are especially likely to receive a hand wave. The port operator’s priority is to tally containers and assess fees, not to break open containers and inspect their contents. Damietta’s convenient location in the eastern Mediterranean means that transshipments represent a large majority of its container traffic. Most of what stops there is merely waiting onward transportation and interests neither Egypt nor the port-services operator.
A big shipment from Iran, meanwhile, would raise no eyebrows in Damietta. Iran’s state shipping line, IRISL, was one of the first shipping companies to contract with DIPCO for services in Damietta, and two of IRISL’s subsidiaries make regular stops there. Containers bearing the IRISL logo are routinely present.
It would be hard to dream up a set of circumstances more conducive to perfunctory supervision of cargo. But these same circumstances represent a cash cow for Egypt. Private companies optimizing the profitability of port operations are a moneymaker, not only for growing economies but also for the Middle Eastern nations in which many of the companies (like DIPCO’s leader, Kuwait & Gulf Lines Ltd.) are based. The beneficiaries of this trend will kick hard against any inefficiency introduced by the administration of UN sanctions. Ultimately, intermediate transshipment ports aren’t going to represent effective pressure points for arms interdiction. The most effective pressure point would, as usual, be Iran itself, and that reality demands not so much administrative meticulousness as political will.