Monchegorsk: Cyprus explosion WikiLeaks
US GOVERNMENT cables disclosed by WikiLeaks earlier this week depict a Cyprus government overwhelmed by the Monchegorsk incident of early 2009, with Nicosia said to be “looking for a way out” of a diplomatic nightmare that had snuck up on it.
Those are the broad strokes. But the WikiLeaks documents - classified communications between the State Department and the US Embassy in Nicosia - provide a blow-by-blow account of what was transpiring behind the scenes.
A cable dated January 29, 2009, from then US Ambassador to Cyprus Frank Urbancic, reads: “The RoC [Republic of Cyprus] is clearly feeling the heat and wants to avoid a confrontation with Syria and Iran. [Leonidas] Pantelides [head of the President’s diplomatic office] worries, with reason, that the Monchegorsk incident will break soon into the contentious Cypriot press, and he is looking for a way out before it becomes an embarrassment to the government.”
A subsequent cable, dated 16 April 2009, looks back to Cyprus’ cooperation with the international community as having been “half-hearted.” It reads: “Cyprus's new direction under Christofias has made final resolution of the M/V Monchegorsk incident problematic. Only a full-court international press from the UN Security Council and EU convinced Cyprus to summon the vessel to port for a more thorough inspection and eventual seizure of the cargo.
“Subsequent RoC cooperation with the UN's Iran Sanctions Committee (ISC) has been half-hearted…”
In a cable (January 27, 2009) titled “Cyprus Washing Hands of M/V Monchegorsk?” from the US Embassy here to the State Department, Urbancic attributes Cyprus’ dithering to fears of “Cyprus Problem-related ‘reprisals’ from Damascus”. He goes on to add that Nicosia “hopes to avoid having to interdict and/or divert to an RoC port the M/V Monchegorsk.”
In the same communication, Urbancic says Pantelides informed him that “Cyprus had requested the ship's owner to radio the master to divert to Limassol, but as yet had received no response. ‘This is all that we can do’, Pantelides insisted.”
The cable notes, however, that the US National Security Agency, which was tracking the ship’s communications, discovered otherwise: “NSA contacts report the ship has not received or transmitted radio messages recently.”
Further on, Urbancic comments on why Cyprus was getting “cold feet” (his words): “Greek Cypriots learn Security Council resolutions like others learn their ABCs - early and by heart. No country pays more lip service to their status at the top of the international pyramid. Why, then, the seeming disregard for RoC obligations under 1747 and 1803?”
He goes on: “Contacts ranging from President Christofias to worker bees at the MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] informed us that Cyprus's 2006 decision to interdict the M/V Gregorio, a vessel carrying missile radar equipment from North Korea to Syria, had caused grave damage to its bilateral relations with Damascus. The Syrians had responded by green-lighting regular ferry service between Latakeia and the ‘occupied’ port of Famagusta in the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.’ Highest-level RoC entreaties have failed to compel Damascus to end the sea link, one of the few clear diplomatic blows the Cypriots have taken recently. They worry that further government action against the Monchegorsk might provoke Damascus to take further steps to ‘upgrade’ the
The leaked US government documents also shed light on some Cypriot officials’ belief that the Syrians would not back off their demands. Dionysis Dionysiou, Middle East Desk Officer at the Foreign Ministry, who had accompanied former Foreign Minister Erato Markoulli on an official visit to Damascus in late 2007, was convinced the Syrians were playing “hardball”. According to Dionysiou’s reading of the situation, “They [the Syrians] felt they had Cyprus in a corner, emboldened by the RoC recently having broken EU consensus to support a UNGA resolution on the Golan Heights. No end-state other than an RoC decision to let the vessel proceed to Latakeia would satisfy the SARG [Syria], Dionysiou predicted. Should that not occur, the Syrians would look to upgrade further their relations with the breakaway ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’, and lobby hard on the ‘TRNC's’ behalf within the OIC [Organisation of the Islamic Conference].”
Focus then shifted on the fate of the ship’s cargo, with Nicosia insisting that any actions it takes must have “UN cover”.
With pressure mounting on Cyprus to take decisive action, the government came up with this idea. According to Urbancic, Pantelides “floated the possibility of transferring the cargo to the United Nations in some creative way. UNFICYP likely was out, owing to its restrictive mandate; also, transfer to UNFICYP likely would require bringing the materiel on land, which the government hoped to avoid. But might UNIFIL [the UN force in Lebanon] be a possibility? Pantelides ventured. That UN mission runs its sea operations out of Limassol. He questioned whether the Monchegorsk's haul could be transferred to a German ship operating under the UN flag, and taken out of Cyprus.”
Urbancic said he “welcomed the creative thinking and promised to follow up with Washington. He emphasized that the aim of the USG was not to punish Cyprus, but to prevent an illegal Iranian arms export.”
The cables also shed light on the US’ carrot-and-stick approach toward Cyprus. On January 29, 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton advised the US Embassy here:
“If the ship arrives in Syria, without the ROC's best efforts to support the relevant UNSCRs, the USG would not be able to portray the ROC's actions in the most positive light,” Clinton says.
Meanwhile, the Syrians were working in the wings to influence Cyprus’ decision. An Urbancic email dated January 30, 2009 informs that “Damascus had deployed a high-level envoy to Nicosia, the Syrian Deputy FM, who was applying significant pressure to allow the vessel to depart for Latakeia.”
Urbancic notes that Cypriot maritime officials had conducted a cursory check of the Monchegorsk and discovered significant quantities of high explosives that were “clearly military in nature”.
He goes on to summarise the Cypriot approach: “Should the RoC's attorneys determine the cargo was subject to UNSC sanctions, the overarching Cypriot desire was to remove it soonest from the island, owing to ‘heavy pressure’ from Damascus and Teheran.”
A February 2 cable from the US Embassy describes a conversation between Pantelides and Urbancic: “Pantelides was more blunt than usual in replying. ‘Cyprus will not be able to withstand the pressure much longer, and has to find a way out,’ he claimed, noting that Monchegorsk stories were now dominating local media.”
Pantelides conveyed also to the US Ambassador that “there was no doubt the Monchegorsk was carrying proscribed materiel. That said, Cyprus needed ‘a blue flag (United Nations) solution,’ or otherwise would prefer to send the cargo back to source country Iran.”
On February 13 the ship finally docked at the port of Limassol: “Unloading of the vessel commenced at 0800 and ended at 1030; Emboffs [US Embassy officials] counted 98 containers off-loaded. Port authority contacts report that many of them will remain at quayside for an indeterminate time, as limited truck availability will make cargo transfer to the naval facility at Mari a lengthy and complex undertaking..”
On the same day “a mid-level Foreign Ministry contact told PolChief [US Embassy Political Chief] …that the government was pleased with recent developments on the Monchegorsk matter, as were ‘all major players.’ Pressed to confirm that that list included Syria and Iran, the Cypriot diplomat nodded affirmatively and added, ‘it seems so’.” here