(CNSNews.com) – The Australian government is investigating the seizure of weapons being shipped from North Korea to Iran that were found on an Australian cargo vessel in the Persian Gulf. Iranian officials are denying the incident, calling the reports a “Zionist” plot aimed at increasing international pressure over its nuclear activities.
Rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons were found when the vessel was searched in the United Arab Emirates in mid-August, U.N. diplomats told media late last week. The arms reportedly were labeled “machine parts.”
It was the first time a weapons shipment from North Korea had been interdicted since U.N. Security Council resolution 1874, adopted in June, tightened sanctions against Pyongyang. Earlier in August Indian authorities stopped a suspect North Korean vessel, but it was found to be carrying sugar.
The seizure comes at a sensitive time for the rogue states on both ends of the transaction. North Korea has been making conciliatory gestures towards the international community following a period of provocative behavior including the nuclear test that triggered resolution 1874; and Iran faces a difficult month ahead, with a late September Obama administration deadline for it to begin cooperating on its nuclear program, or face tougher sanctions.
The Security Council committee overseeing resolution 1874, comprising non-permanent council members Turkey, Libya and Costa Rica, reportedly has written to North Korea and Iran to seek an explanation for the weapons shipment.
The resolution requires governments to inspect ships suspected of carrying various categories of weapons as well as missile- and weapons of mass destruction-related cargoes, either to or from North Korea.
Pyongyang responded to its adoption by declaring that “an attempted blockade of any kind by the U.S. and its followers will be regarded as an act of war and met with a decisive military response.” It later threatened a “one hundred- or one thousand-fold retaliation” if the U.S. and others infringed upon its sovereignty.
Breaches of law probed
Australia’s transportation minister, Anthony Albanese, told Australian television Sunday that the government took its responsibilities regarding U.N. sanctions seriously and was “investigating as to whether there have been any breaches of Australian law.”
The ship carrying the weaponry was named as the ANL Australia, a Bahamas-flagged container vessel owned by ANL Container Line Pty. Ltd. of Melbourne, Australia, a subsidiary of CMA CGM of France, the world’s third-biggest container shipping company.
Contacted in Melbourne early Monday, Chris Schultz, ANL’s general manager business development, was cautious in his comments.
“At this point it’s still an unnamed source at the U.N. [who has made the allegations], so we’re neither confirming nor denying anything,” he said.
Schultz said the ship operated “as part of our parent company” and that he could not say what Australian government investigations were underway.
The company’s schedules, accessed online, says the ANL Australia sailed from Fuqing, a port in China’s Fujian province opposite Taiwan, on August 13, made calls over the following week at three other Chinese ports and then visited Port Kelang, Malaysia’s biggest port, departing from there on August 21.
It was not clear why the schedule said the ANL Australia was in China’s Shantou port on August 14, the day when – according to U.N. sources quoted in media reports – the ship was being searched in the UAE.
Schultz was mum about the whereabouts of the ship, saying only that it was “plying its normal schedule.”
North Korea has a nuclear weapons capability and Iran is suspected by the West of pursing one, but denies it. The two, both targeted by U.N. sanctions, have a history of military collaboration, particularly in the field of missile development.
UAE, like other Arab states in the region, is worried about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Western diplomats praised the UAE for being “vigilant,” media in the Gulf state reported.
Commenting on the seizure, UAE daily newspaper The National said in an editorial the incident was a “a reminder of the vigilance needed to keep the Gulf free of illicitly trafficked arms. Unfortunately in the globalize world, the problems of East Asia now concern us all.”
“With substantial evidence linking the country in the past to the Pakistani scientist AQ Khan, the Syrian reactor that was destroyed by Israel in 2007 and the suspected program in Myanmar [Burma], there is little doubt that North Korea is a key supporter of illicit nuclear programs,” it said.
News of the seizure also resonated on the Korean peninsula, where tensions between the two Koreas have eased in recent days, with Pyongyang sending a delegation to Seoul to pay respects after the death of former president Kim Dae-jung and releasing several detained South Koreans.
Seoul’s Korea Herald said Monday the North’s conciliatory gestures signaled that the U.N. sanctions were beginning to bite, as evidenced by the UAE incident.
Unlike previous sanctions which were never strictly enforced, “Resolution 1874 is being applied by countries around the world,” the daily said in an editorial. “Such concerted international efforts should continue and bring the North back to the denuclearization talks.”
There was no official response from Iran’s government, but the country’s ISNA news agency and Press TV television network both cited an “informed source” as saying the reports were “fabricated.”
“Reports about the seizure of a ship in the UAE have been fabricated by Zionist media outlets in an attempt to influence the outcome of the latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency [on Iran’s nuclear activities],” Press TV quoted the source as saying.
“It would be better for us to not waste our time with such childish games designed by Israel,” the source added.
In its latest report on Iran’s nuclear activities the IAEA, the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, said Iran was continuing to enrich uranium in violation of U.N. resolutions, although at a slightly slower rate in recent months. Tehran at the weekend welcomed the report as “more positive” than previous ones.
The report comes ahead of a series of meetings in September where future policies on Iran will be discussed – at the IAEA’s annual general session and board meetings in Vienna, at meetings of permanent Security Council members plus Germany (P5+1) in Frankfurt, and at a G20 summit of industrialized and developing nations in Pittsburgh.