reflections

The Covert War and Elevated Risks

12 MINS READFeb 15, 2007 | 02:41 GMT
By Fred Burton Amid a general atmosphere of saber rattling by the United States and Israel, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Feb. 8 that any aggression against his country would be met with reciprocal strikes by Iranian forces inside and outside the country. Khamenei's remarks were merely the latest installment in a drama of rhetoric, arms acquisitions, military exercises and missile launches designed to demonstrate to the United States and Israel that any potential strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities would come at a very high price. The United States and Israel also have used overt pressure tactics in the hopes of forcing Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions and to help end the chaos in Iraq. Khamenei referred to these efforts as the "enemies' psychological operations" and said they are "an indication of weakness and a state of paralysis." Speaking to an audience of Iranian air force members in Tehran, the ayatollah railed against international sanctions and threats, saying, "Fear and surrender to enemies is a method used by those nations and officials who have not comprehended the power of national resolve, but the Iranian nation, relying on its successful experiences of the last 27 years, will stand up to any enemy and threat." Clearly, there is a lot of rhetoric flying around. But despite the threats and bluster, it is not at all clear that the United States has either the capacity or the will to launch an actual attack against Iran — nor is it clear that Israel has the ability to attack Iran's nuclear infrastructure on its own. For its part, Iran — in spite of its recent weapons purchases and highly publicized missile tests — clearly is in no position to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. military. With neither side willing or able to confront the other in the conventional military sense, both will be looking for alternative means of achieving its goals. For any nation-state, its intelligence services are an important weapon in the arsenal — and it now appears that a covert intelligence war between the United States and Iran, first raised by STRATFOR as a possibility in March 2006, is well under way. So far, the action in this intelligence war has been confined mainly to Iraq and Lebanon. However, recent events — including the mysterious death in January of a top Iranian nuclear scientist, who was believed to have been a target of Mossad — indicate that this quiet war is escalating, and soon could move to fronts beyond the Middle East. Intelligence Wars The covert intelligence war between the United States and Iran now appears to be well under way. As it has evolved against the backdrop of the war in Iraq and Tehran's nuclear ambitions, it has exhibited many characteristics that were notable in the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. For example, irreconcilable geopolitical interests and conflicting ideologies prompted the present conflict. The United States appears to be following its tried-and-true Cold War doctrine of containment, and Iran has pursued the Cold War practice of equipping and training proxies to inflict pain on an adversary that is locked in a war — following the examples set by the Soviet Union in Vietnam and the United States in the Afghan-Soviet conflict. Other similarities include the heavy use of disinformation, propaganda, agents of influence and covert action by both sides. With its missile purchases, tests and nuclear program, Iran also has started an arms race of sorts in the region. This arms race, along with Iran's support for Hezbollah and controversial and provocative statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, inevitably has pulled Israel into the fray. Iran clearly regards Israel as a pressure point to be used against the Americans. The regime in Tehran also views rhetorical attacks against the Jewish state — not to mention actual attacks waged by Iran's surrogate, Hezbollah — as a way to curry favor or gain influence with the Muslim masses. This is, in effect, the same reason the Iraqis launched Scud missiles against Israel during the first Gulf War. Israel is far from a passive victim of Iranian skullduggery, of course. It has been involved in these types of intelligence wars since the founding of the state — and, if one counts the Jewish insurgent and terrorist attacks against British forces and Muslims in the 1930s and 1940s, even before. Out of geopolitical necessity, the Israelis cannot take the Iranian threats lightly; they are fully engaged in this current clandestine war. Of course, Iran is not the first country in the region to have threatened Israel with harsh rhetoric while attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Iraq was in a similar position more than 20 years ago. Thus, beginning in 1980, Israel developed a program of assassinating and threatening scientists who were associated with Iraq's nuclear weapons program. This was followed by the bombing of Iraq's Osirak reactor in June 1981. As recently as the 1990 assassination of Canadian scientist and "supergun" creator Gerald Bull, Israel's clandestine hand appears to have been working to thwart Iraqi weapons programs. A New Salvo? There is reason to believe that Israel — whose reputation for conventional military strength was dealt a considerable blow during last summer's conflict with Hezbollah — now might be dusting off the strategy it successfully employed against Iraq. Specifically, Iranian news sources on Jan. 25 reported the death (a week previously) of Ardeshir Hassanpour, a high-level scientist who is believed to have played a key role in Iran's nuclear program. His death has not been officially explained, but STRATFOR sources have indicated that Hassanpour was a target of Mossad. If he was indeed assassinated by agents of Israel, it would mean the Jewish state has raised the stakes in the covert war — and reprisals could be coming down the pike. However, the capabilities of Iran's intelligence services today are very different from those of 1980s Iraq. Though the Iraqi service was quite adept at operating domestically — in torturing, murdering and instilling fear in its own population — its efforts to strike U.S. targets in Asia and Africa in January 1991 (following the launch of Operation Desert Storm) demonstrated a much lower degree of tactical sophistication and aptitude in operations abroad. The Iraqi operatives blew themselves up, planted IEDs that did not detonate and made naive mistakes, such as dispatching operatives using consecutively numbered Iraqi passports. They were simply too clumsy to wage a nuanced and complex intelligence war. Iran is a different story. Between the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), the special operations elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (also called the "Pasdaran" in Farsi) and Hezbollah, the Iranians have a well-developed clandestine infrastructure that has a history of effectively conducting assassinations and terrorist attacks abroad. The Islamic Republic's covert capabilities were honed during the revolutionary struggle and became evident soon after the shah was toppled. The revolutionaries' first targets were Iranian monarchists in exile, who were trying to foment a counterrevolution in Iran. Later, after many of these opponents had been eliminated and the threat brought under control, MOIS shifted its focus to exiled dissidents and other opponents of the regime. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, influential leaders of these groups were targeted and killed in a sophisticated campaign that stretched from the Middle East to Europe to the suburbs of Washington. Iranian agents and surrogates also engaged in overt attacks — kidnappings, automatic weapons and grenade attacks in public places and bombings. Hezbollah in particular was quite active on this front; notable incidents included the abductions of CIA station chief William F. Buckley in 1984 and U.S. Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins in 1988 (both men died in captivity), as well as numerous hijackings and bombings. Because Iran's conventional military forces — though among the best in the region — are clearly no match for those of the Americans or others, the sophisticated and highly disciplined intelligence service, and its ability to carry out covert campaigns, is a key component of national security. In the past, kidnappings and assassinations — carried out with sufficient deniability — have proved an effective way of eliminating enemies and leveraging the country's geopolitical position without incurring unacceptable risk. Therefore, when Khamenei warned that attacking Iran would result in the attacker's interests around the world being targeted by Iranians, he was referring not only to Iran's conventional military strength but also to its well-developed clandestine capabilities. Reciprocity Reciprocity is one of the defining characteristics of an intelligence operation. For example, if a U.S. case officer were to be discovered by the Russians and PNG'd (declared "persona non grata"), it would be quite normal to see the Americans quickly detain and expel a Russian intelligence officer, known as a "Rezident." Similarly, if the FBI perceived that a Rezident was getting too provocative in his countersurveillance routine and decided to break the Rezident's car tail light or slash his tires, the bureau's Russian counterpart, the FSB, usually would respond in kind with an American case officer in Moscow. This principle extends to assassinations: If you kill one of ours, we will kill one of yours. The concepts of reciprocity and vengeance are also deeply ingrained in the cultures and religions of the Middle East. In a conflict between the Iranians and Israelis, these concepts would figure prominently in any covert strikes — as they frequently did in the past. To illustrate:
  • February 1992: Israeli agents assassinated Hezbollah leader Abbas Musawi. A month later, immediately after the 30-day mourning period for Musawi ended, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was bombed.
  • July 1994: Israel Defense Forces killed dozens of Hezbollah members in a strike at the group's Ein Dardara training camp. Hezbollah's response: the vehicle bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires and attacks, eight days later, against the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish charity in London.
  • March 1995: MOIS carried out a well-planned strike against U.S. consulate employees in Karachi, Pakistan, killing two and wounding a third. It is believed that MOIS staged the attack in response to the killing of an Iranian intelligence officer, for which Tehran blamed the United States.
In short, Khamenei's recent threats of reciprocal attacks, in light of history, should not be taken lightly. Emerging Risks With this in mind, it is to be expected that the Iranians would retaliate against the party they believe to be responsible for the assassination of Hassanpour. Precisely which assets would be used in retaliation is an important question. If Hezbollah were activated, for example, one might expect a strike along the lines of the Buenos Aires or London attacks. But if MOIS operatives carried out the strike, it would have a completely different feel. MOIS frequently has employed stealth and deception to get the assassins within close range of their targets — close enough to kill them with pistols or knives, often in the targets' homes. If past cycles are any indication, the Iranians would take somewhere between four and six weeks to launch a reprisal — or, in other words, a strike could come as early as the last week of February. According to source reports, MOIS and Hezbollah have been conducting pre-operational surveillance over the past year or so to collect targeting data in many different locations, so it is likely that a target already has been identified. This activity — which began before the summer Israel/Hezbollah conflict and continued after its conclusion — is a strong indication that the Iranians have been thinking about "off-the-shelf plans" that could be executed later as needed to protect their interests. Once plans were prepared, however, it still would be necessary to move operatives into place, acquire weapons and fine-tune details before an actual strike was carried out. This last step would require additional surveillance, so countersurveillance efforts will be crucial, especially for Israeli and Jewish targets, over the next few weeks.
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As a rule, the activities of ranian diplomats in Western countries are watched closely in an effort to determine who among them are likely to be MOIS officers. With international tensions with Iran at their current levels, the activities of these officers will be scrutinized closely in coming weeks. American and Israeli intelligence officers also will be watching the Iranians closely in developing countries — working with intelligence and security services of friendly countries and on a unilateral basis in locations where the host government is less cooperative — or less competent. Meanwhile, counterintelligence agents will be taking a keen interest in anyone who meets with suspected MOIS officers — especially Lebanese or Iranian visitors from out of town. That is because the Iranians have shown a tendency to use "out-of-town talent" to carry out attacks in the past, such as the strikes in Buenos Aires. Monitoring such activity could help to pre-empt any plans for a retaliatory strike by Iran. The Iranians know this well — it is not a new concept — and therefore likely would plan any retaliatory actions to take place in a country where, from their perspective, there is less risk of being detected or caught after the fact. History and Khamenei's statement last week support the possibility that a reprisal attack very well could take place far beyond the Middle East. Countries in Asia, the Americas or Europe — where MOIS and Hezbollah have conducted operations in the past — are possibilities to consider. The risks to Israeli or Jewish targets are highest in areas where the Iranians have a diplomatic presence to support the mission, and where the host country's intelligence service and law enforcement officials are corrupt or otherwise ineffective. If a strike against an Israeli or Jewish target in such a location should transpire, it would differ from a jihadist attack in that there would be no claims of credit by Iran. The attack itself would send all the message required.

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