A close look at a long covert conflict.
[ opinion ] The assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan Behdast, 32, a chemical engineer involved in Iran’s nuclear program, in Tehran on Wednesday is the latest manifestation that not only is the covert war against Iran well under way, but that it is in fact no longer so covert. In addition, it is becoming increasingly clear -- if it was not already -- who the culprits are.
The day before the assassination, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, chief of staff of Israel’s armed forces, told the Israeli parliament that “2012 is expected to be a critical year for Iran.” He cited “the confluence of efforts to advance the nuclear program, internal leadership changes, continued international pressure and things that happen to it unnaturally [emphasis mine].” As reported by progressive journalist Richard Silverstein, who writes an influential blog, the coverage of Gantz’s statement by the conservative Israeli daily Yisrael HaYom “further reinforces the notion that he was referring directly to the ‘mysterious explosions’ that have rocked Iran of late.” Silverstein also reported that his Israeli sources have told him that Mossad and the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization were the culprits behind the latest assassination.
Such cowardly assassinations are nothing but state-sponsored terrorism at its worst. Nothing must distract from this fact, nor from the manifest hypocrisy of the United States and its allies, particularly Israel, when it comes to the question of terrorism. Just as the international community justifiably condemns any terrorist operations against innocent civilians, and in particular those in which Iran is accused of being indirectly involved (such as providing support to the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas), it must also condemn such assassinations in Iran, but it has not. The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn an alleged Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States last year, but has it taken any action regarding the assassinations? No, and it is highly unlikely that it will ever do so.
Thus, it should be abundantly clear that there are two types of terrorist operations in this world: the “good” ones committed by the West, and the terrible ones perpetrated by the West’s foes, and in particular the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). Just try to imagine the international outcry had an Israeli or American nuclear scientist been assassinated here in the United States or in Israel. We would have had armies of pundits that would have loudly condemned the assassination, attributed it immediately to the IRI, and demanded stronger economic and political sanctions, and even war. But when it comes to murdering Iranian nuclear scientists, they are either mute, or even applaud and support it.
Take, for example, Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he specialized in Iran. After the latest assassination, Clawson said,
I often get asked when Israel might attack Iran, [to which] I say, “Two years ago.” Sabotage and assassination is the way to go, if you can do it. It doesn’t provoke a nationalist reaction in Iran, which could strengthen the regime. And it allows Iran to climb down if it decides the cost of pursuing a nuclear weapon is too high.
The assertion by Clawson regarding the effect of the assassinations on Iranians is so wrong that it would be laughable, if the issue were not so serious. This is the same man who in 2004 suggested that the United States should create large-scale industrial accidents in Iran’s nuclear program, and that such accidents would not cause “a single fatality.” I responded to him at the time, and the response was apparently convincing enough that he stopped advocating that position.
As another example, take David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington. The ISIS always presents itself as a nonpartisan institution. After all, how can science be political? But the ISIS and its president have been anything but nonpartisan. Has the ISIS ever condemned the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists? Absolutely not. And, here is how he talked about Roshan, the assassinated scientist, on PBS NewsHour:
He was possibly...involved in organizing the secret smuggling operation that Iran has been trying to operate worldwide and is banned under U.N. Security Council sanctions. And countries are spending a great deal of effort to try to stop Iranian smuggling operations.... You know, he was a brilliant, in a sense, smuggler. His loss may be significant.
The “great deal of effort” includes, of course, state-sponsored terrorism. Roshan, who had published scientific papers (see, for example, here) was just a “smuggler” in Albright’s opinion. Does he imply that Roshan’s life was somehow not so worthy, because he was a “smuggler?”
How about Rick Santorum, the GOP presidential hopeful? In a campaign appearance in Greenville, South Carolina, Santorum said,
On occasion, scientists working on the nuclear program in Iran turn up dead. I think that's a wonderful thing, candidly. I think we should send a very clear message that if you are a scientist from Russia, North Korea, or from Iran and you are going to work on a nuclear program to develop a bomb for Iran, you are not safe.
So not only does a serious candidate for president of the United States condone state-sponsored terrorism, he thinks of it as “wonderful.”
Here is what Ronen Bergman, a reporter for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, told Jeffrey Brown of PBS NewsHour, on the same program on which Albright appeared:
I would say this. Mossad has a long tradition. The Israel intelligence foreign agency has a long tradition of taking out, eliminating, targeting nuclear scientists working for Israeli enemies. Benjamin Netanyahu many times -- I think stupidly -- but many times compared President Ahmadinejad with Hitler.
And when your adversary is at the size of Adolf Hitler, then all means are justified to stop him. And we have been witnessing in the last five years a series of mysterious mishaps, sabotaging, bombing and, above all, killing of Iranian scientists who were prominent figures in the Iranian nuclear project and the Iranian attempt to build surface-to-surface long-range ballistic missiles.
These assassinations, I would say, are aimed at a three-fold target[:] First, to take out prominent figures from the Iranian nuclear project. [S]econd, to make the Iranians, to force the Iranians to put a lot of effort into trying to prevent the next assassination, screening people, trying to find who are the Mossad moles, guarding the live scientists. And when someone has to invest so much effort into trying to protect, he has a lot less energy to invest in the advancement of the project. And, third, maybe [a] not-less-important target, is to spread fear, grave intimidation among the surviving scientists that they may end up like their friends.
Bergman thus effectively acknowledged that Israel was behind the assassination. He also said, “The outcome of such assassinations are [sic] the actual neutralization[emphasis mine] of the main scientists and the intimidation of those left behind.”
So when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declares, “I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran,” how credible is this denial? Yes, let us assume that the United States had absolutely nothing to do with the assassination. But America is Israel’s strongest supporter and protector -- militarily, economically, and politically -- and there is almost no doubt among the experts that Israel is involved in the assassinations, at least indirectly, even if they do not state so explicitly. Interestingly, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland did not answer a question about whether Washington was involved in the killing, or if the Obama administration viewed Roshan as an innocent victim. Nuland said, "I am not going to speak to who may or may not have done this." she told reporters. Indeed, people in Tehran say of the United States, “They save our sailors [a reference to recent U.S. Navy rescue operations in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman], but kill our scientists," implying that many in Iran believe that the United States is somehow involved, even if it is not.
Timeline of the covert war
Unlike what many think, the covert war against Iran is at least 11 years old. In July 2001, Colonel Ali Mahmoudi Mimand, known as a founder of Iran's missile program, was found dead in his office, reportedly with a bullet in his head.
One facet of the war has involved wooing Iran’s nuclear scientists to defect to the West. In May 2009, Shahram Amiri, a junior scientist who was supposedly involved in Iran's nuclear program, disappeared during a trip to Saudi Arabia. He eventually emerged in the United States, but after several seemingly contradictory videos of him were posted on YouTube, he became an embarrassment to the Obama administration and was allowed to return to Iran.
Brigadier General Ali Rea Asgari, who was an adviser to the deputy defense minister in the Khatami administration, disappeared on February 7, 2007, in Istanbul. Iran's position is that Asgari was abducted, while others believe that he defected to the West, but was eventually taken to Israel, where he may still be incarcerated.
Amiri, and presumably Asgari, were the “lucky” ones, since they did not lose their lives. Others have been killed, or disappeared entirely.
There was an explosion in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in April 2006, damaging some centrifuges there. The cause turned out later to be faulty electrical equipment that Iran had imported. Another facet of the covert war has been selling equipment to Iran that is meant to malfunction and inflict damage.
On January 15, 2007, Dr. Ardeshir Hassanpour, a world authority on electromagnetism, and a prominent and award-winning figure in Iran's nuclear program, was murdered. Stratfor, the private security and intelligence analysis firm, released a report asserting that Israel's Mossad was responsible.
In February 2007, the Telegraph of London reported that the United States
is secretly funding militant ethnic separatist groups in Iran in an attempt to pile pressure on the Islamic regime to give up its nuclear program. In a move that reflects Washington's growing concern with the failure of diplomatic initiatives, CIA officials are understood to be helping opposition militias among the numerous ethnic minority groups clustered in Iran's border regions. The operations are controversial because they involve dealing with movements that resort to terrorist methods in pursuit of their grievances against the Iranian regime. In the past year there has been a wave of unrest in ethnic minority border areas of Iran, with bombing and assassination campaigns against soldiers and government officials.
Meanwhile, Asia Times reported that the United States had military units operating inside Iran, and that
Iran is fast joining ranks with India and Afghanistan as a victim of trans-border violence perpetrated by irredentist elements crossing over from Pakistan. Tehran, too, will probably face an existential dilemma as to whether or not such acts of terrorism are taking place with the knowledge of [former Pakistan President Pervbez] Musharraf and, more importantly, whether or not Musharraf is capable of doing anything about the situation.
Those two reports gained further credibility in June 2008, when Seymour Hersh revealed that the Bush administration was spending $400 million to carry out a covert war inside Iran, including supporting the minority Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan, the Baluchi groups such as Jundallah, and other dissident organizations. They also include gathering intelligence about Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. According to Hersh,
Clandestine operations against Iran are not new. United States Special Operations Forces have been conducting cross-border operations from southern Iraq, with Presidential authorization, since last year. These have included seizing members of Al Quds, the commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and taking them to Iraq for interrogation, and the pursuit of “high-value targets” in the President’s war on terror, who may be captured or killed. But the scale and the scope of the operations in Iran, which involve the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), have now been significantly expanded, according to the current and former officials. Many of these activities are not specified in the new [Presidential] Finding [the secret order to authorize the operations], and some congressional leaders have had serious questions about their nature.
In late 2010, Iran’s Natanz nuclear facilities were attacked by the American-Israeli designed computer worm Stuxnet, believed to be the most sophisticated cyber weapon ever deployed. The attack destroyed at least 1,000 centrifuges at Natanz. The Telegraph reported that Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, former chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces, confirmed his country’s role in the Stuxnet attack.
Then came the assassination of Dr. Majid Shahriari, a prominent contributor to Iran’s nuclear program. He was the one who made the necessary calculations that enabled Iran to enrich uranium to 19.75 percent for the Tehran Research Reactor, which provides nuclear isotopes for 850,000 patients annually and is rapidly running out of fuel. On November 29, 2010, he was killed and his wife wounded when a magnetic bomb attached to his car by two unknown motorcycle-riding assailants exploded. On the same day, a similar attempt was made to assassinate Dr. Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, another prominent nuclear scientist, in Tehran, but he survived. Abbasi Davani is currently the president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
On December 10, 2010, there was a huge explosion at Imam Ali military base in the southwestern province of Lorestan that killed and injured up to 40 people. The base is controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It was reported that a fire had started that had spread to the ammunition warehouse within the base, but there were widespread rumors that a fire was not, in fact, the cause.
On July 24, 2011, Dariush Rezaeinejad, 35, an electrical engineer and a Ph.D. candidate, was killed in Tehran. He had been involved in designing high voltage triggers that have many civilian applications, as well as use in nuclear weapons. He had published his work in open-source scientific journals and, thus, it is highly unlikely that he was involved in the nuclear program. Still, as Der Spiegel put it, “There is little doubt in the shadowy world of intelligence agencies that Israel is behind the assassination.”
Little noticed is the fact that, on the same day that Rezaeinejad was murdered, a physics professor, identified only as "Dr. Boronzi, a researcher with the Rouyan Institute," was also assassinated in Tehran.
On November 12, 2011, there was another huge explosion at a Revolutionary Guard missile base near Tehran, which killed 37 people, including Major General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, a pioneer of Iranian missile development. Though it is not clear what caused the explosion, Time reported that a Western intelligence source said Israel was behind the attack.
On November 28, 2011, the sound of a massive blast was heard throughout the city of Isfahan, the site of a major uranium conversion facility. The blast was reportedly so strong that people, terrified, rushed to the streets. Iran first confirmed the report, but then retracted it. The Times of London flatly claimed that Isfahan's primary nuclear site was "hit by a huge explosion." Time reported on comments made by Israeli military figures hinting that Israel was responsible for the Isfahan event, with the apparent assumption that a nuclear facility was the target:
“Not every explosion over there should be tied to reconnaissance and stories from the movies," Dan Meridor, Israel's minister for intelligence and atomic matters, told Israeli Army Radio. Saying, "it isn't right to expand on this topic," Meridor nonetheless went on to acknowledge that espionage has set back Iran's nuclear program. "There are countries that impose economic sanctions and there are countries who act in other ways," Meridor said.
A former director of Israel's National Security Council, retired Major General Giora Eiland, told the station the Isfahan blast was no accident. "There aren't many coincidences," he said, "and when there are so many events there is probably some sort of guiding hand, though perhaps it's the hand of God."
In addition to the above, Professor Masoud Ali-Mohammad of the University of Tehran was assassinated on January 12, 2010. Though there is considerable evidence that suggests he was murdered by the security forces, the possibility that Israel was behind the murder cannot be ruled out.
There are other aspects of the covert war that have not attracted as much public attention as they should, yet have been every bit as deadly. In an October 2009 article, I described how the United States and its allies helped the terrorist group Jundallah, which operates in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan on the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mark Perry of Foreign Policy recently described how Israeli agents, posing as CIA operatives, recruited Sunni extremists to carry out terrorist operations inside Iran. Here is what he reports:
Israeli Mossad officers recruited operatives belonging to the terrorist group Jundallah by passing themselves off as American agents. According to two U.S. intelligence officials, the Israelis, flush with American dollars and toting U.S. passports, posed as CIA officers in recruiting Jundallah operatives. [...]
The [CIA] memos also detail…field reports saying that Israel’s recruiting activities occurred under the nose of U.S. intelligence officers, most notably in London, the capital of one of Israel’s ostensible allies, where Mossad officers posing as CIA operatives met with Jundallah officials.... They were stunned by the brazenness of the Mossad’s efforts.
It’s amazing what the Israelis thought they could get away with, the intelligence officer said. Their recruitment activities were nearly in the open. They apparently didn’t give a damn what we thought.
WikiLeaks had already exposed documents that pointed to Israeli efforts of this sort.
And it is quite possible that both Israel and the United States have tried in the past to use fighters of the Party of Free Life for Kurdistan, known as PJAK and listed by the State Department as a terrorist group, to carry out terrorist operations inside Iran.
And, of course, spying on the IRI with airborne drones has continued unabated. One such drone was recently forced down inside Iran, which the IRI celebrated as a victory.
The goals of the war
Some believe that this covert -- and not-so-covert -- war, now over a decade long, is meant to decapitate Iran’s nuclear program and deny it the experts that it needs to make further progress. This is baseless. Some 30,000 people work in Iran’s nuclear program. Most, if not all, have been educated in Iran, and thus are easily replaceable. Murdering a few will not make any difference to the program. Surely, the know-how that men such as Hassanpour, Shahriari, and Rezaeinejad produced has been documented and can easily be implemented by others. Their deaths will not slow down the program even a bit.
Others opine that the covert war -- the assassinations, in particular -- will make the population angry at the ruling hardliners in Tehran, and may eventually help to bring about the demise of the regime. This point of view is even more baseless. The hardliners and the opposition inside Iran agree that the nuclear program must continue. The only difference between the two camps is in how they would handle the international aspects of the program -- negotiating with the West and so forth. Mir Hossein Mousavi is one of the strongest defenders of the program.
In addition, given Iranians’ fierce nationalism and pride, if the assassinations and the covert war have any effect, it will be to make the population angry at the perpetrators and their masters. The people are united about protecting the nation’s resources and assets, and if that means rallying around a regime that a very large portion of them despise, they will do so. At a time when Iran’s hardliners are grappling with increasingly intractable economic problems and need to justify anything they do that costs the nation heavily, the covert war is a sort of “God-sent” present to them.
Still others suggest that the assassinations will force Iranian experts to think twice before joining the nuclear program. But those who work for the program, or those who want to join it, are truly dedicated to it, regardless of their political thinking. An academic source in Tehran told me both Shahriari and Abbasi have made it clear that they voted for Mousavi in the presidential election of 2009, and yet both were and are totally dedicated to the program. Such dedication -- whether due to fierce nationalism and pride, or religious and ideological thinking, or all of the above -- has made it possible for the IRI to make very significant progress in its nuclear program.
If anything, the covert war provides the hardliners with a “reasonable” excuse, under the guise of a threat to national security and territorial integrity, to increase their suppression of opposition forces. Many in the opposition, while they support the nuclear program, oppose the way the hardliners have approached the issue in the international arena. At a time when the IRI is deeply worried about the strength of the opposition and the terrible economic situation, such cowardly assassinations only distract people from the real problem -- the repressive IRI regime.
In addition, the assassinations are totally outrageous because their intended target is the scientific foundation of Iran, without due consideration for human rights, due process of international and national laws, and the lives of innocent people who are the “collateral” casualties of the conflict. The assassinations also leave deep psychological scars, prompting Iranians to demand retaliation and revenge.
Another possible goal of the assassinations is to scuttle negotiations between Iran and the 5+1 group -- the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. Discussions are under way to restart the negotiations soon, possibly in Turkey, as agreed upon recently when Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Tehran.
Yet another possible goal, which I believe is the most plausible, is that the covert war will strengthen the hardliners, potentially provoke them to take some retaliatory action, and hence start a chain reaction that will eventually lead to a war with the United States and Israel. The United States has made it clear to Israel, most recently during the trip by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta -- that it does not intend to attack Iran in the near future, while Israel has wanted a war for years. Therefore, those Israeli military and political leaders may well be trying to create a situation that will compel the United States to attack Iran. Thus, the covert war will only escalate the regional conflicts, and direct it toward a direct military confrontation.
There is no question in my mind that Israel is the main driving force behind the campaign of assassinations and other aspects of the covert war. The main country that supposedly “benefits” from such heinous acts is Israel. If, for example, an opposition group inside Iran wanted to wage an assassination campaign for political reasons, it would first and foremost target the political/military/clerical leaders, as the MKO did in the 1980s.
There are, however, other culprits. Even if the United States has had absolutely no direct role in the covert war -- an unlikely prospect -- it still shares the responsibility simply because, as was pointed out earlier, it is the most important supporter and protector of Israel. It shares intelligence with Israel, gives it over $3 billion annually in military aid, shields it in the international arena, and vetoes any United Nations Security Council resolution that condemns what Israel does to Palestinians.
There are two other culprits. Such assassinations cannot be carried out without the collaboration of some Iranians. The only group that has been willing to work with any nation opposing the IRI, ranging from Saddam Hussein to Israel, is the MKO. Precisely due to its cultish culture, whereby its members blindly follow their leaders’ orders, the MKO is the only organization willing to help assassinate Iran’s national resources and assets. Those in Washington who claim that the MKO no longer carries out terrorist operations should rethink their position.
The final culprit is Saudi Arabia, a country that not only has advocated military attacks on Iran, according to the documents released by WikiLeaks, but is widely believed to provide financial support to MKO and the Jundallah.
Some claim that at least some of the assassinations have been carried out by Iran’s security forces for one reason or another. While it is impossible to rule out such a possibility completely, its likelihood is close to zero. Why should the IRI want to assassinate Shahriari, when he helped developed the country’s capacity to enrich uranium at close to 20 percent? If Abbasi Davani were a suspect in the eyes of the Iranian authorities, to the extent they attempted to kill him, why did they elevate him to be the president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran? Why should the IRI want to kill Roshan, when he was reportedly a member of the Basij militia and had helped Iran’s nuclear program, even if -- as some have argued is a reason for the authorities wanting him dead -- he had opposed the importing of uranium ore? Such claims simply do not add up.
The international community, and in particular Iranians, must oppose such cowardly terrorist acts, regardless of what they think about Iran’s nuclear program and its repressive regime.
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