Classified Ad: Missing 69 Patriot missiles and 160 tons of explosives? If so, contact traffic police, Kotka, Finland. Iran, don't bother.
Dock workers in the port of Kotka were suspicious of ill-packed crates labeled "fireworks" on a ship bound from Germany to Shanghai. While adding to the existing cargo on the British-owned Thor Liberty, they found the explosive picric acid in open containers as well as the Patriots. Picric acid is a propellant (making one wonder where the radars and command-and-control systems are that complete the Patriot package). Traffic safety authorities took control of the ship and Finnish officials are questioning the two senior officers.
The head of Finland's National Bureau of Investigation said that although there are customs documents showing a valid transaction and a legal end-user – South Korea – there are at least two crimes involved: the shippers did not request permission to transit missiles and explosives via Finland; and the explosives were not properly packed and safeguarded.
There are probably more crimes than that. If the missiles were moving legally, why were the crates labeled "fireworks" and why was the packing insecure to begin with?
Dr. Stephen Bryen, former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense and first head of the Defense Technology Security Agency, noted that Patriot missiles do not move routinely or easily. "If South Korea wanted to buy them, it would have had to ask the Germans (where the missiles came from) to ask the US for permission. Because of the sensitivity of the shipment and the fact that these missiles are controlled under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MCTR), the movement would also need Congressional approval. And it is unlikely the South Koreans would need propellant.
"No German export official," he added, "would issue documents of this kind without the government's approval, and there is no reason to believe that the German government would authorize such a transfer without American approval. American law says that arms exports need to be shipped in U.S. flagged ships." More likely than South Korea, Bryen posits the customs documents as forgeries and Iran as the end-user, planning to get not only the missiles, but also technical support from China.
Over the years, Iran has developed wide-ranging operations to skirt international sanctions on arms acquisition and arms export; Hamas and Hezbollah have benefitted from the illicit trade as well. The Thor Liberty with its massive inventory may be joining the Victoria, the Karine A, the Santorini, the Francop, the Hansa India, the Monchegorsk and scores of smaller ships that have been intercepted by Israel – sometimes with American assistance – with weapons going to or coming from the Islamic Republic in defiance of the Western embargo.
While congratulating the Finns, particularly the dock workers who acted on their suspicions, it would be a mistake to view this as either an isolated sloppy incident, or a problem of only Iran. Western countries have a long way to go in the guardianship of their weapons stocks, and the policing of their own customs services and transport operators, to protect them from the unscrupulous and dangerous support of a terrorist country and its allies.
And they might also wish to take continual and better account of the activities of Iran's primary supporters – China and Russia.
Shoshana Bryen has more than 30 years' experience as a defense policy analyst and has been taking American military officers and defense professionals to the Middle East since 1982. She was previously senior director for security policy at JINSA.