The escalating covert attacks on Iran

The attacks could be a silent acknowledgement by the West that a full-scale war against Iran is no longer possible, or a precursor to military action.

Updated - October 22, 2016 04:25 pm IST

Published - December 09, 2010 10:49 pm IST

People gather at the scene of a car bomb attack in a marketplace in Baiyaa, Baghdad, Iraq in this Dec. 4, 2010 picture.

People gather at the scene of a car bomb attack in a marketplace in Baiyaa, Baghdad, Iraq in this Dec. 4, 2010 picture.

The covert war launched against Iran by its foes over the last few years has escalated sharply in recent months. In two separate but coordinated incidents on November 29, motorcycle-borne assailants fixed magnetic bombs on the moving cars of prominent nuclear scientists Majid Shahriari and Fereidoon Abbasi.

According to the Iranian website mashreghnews, Dr. Shahriari and Professor Abbasi were on the scientific board of the Nuclear Engineering Faculty of Shahid Beheshti University, named after Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti, architect of the Iranian Constitution who was assassinated in a horrific bombing with about 70 others in June 1981.

Dr. Shahriari was instantly killed but Professor Abbasi survived, apparently with light injuries. Significantly, he is the dean of the Physics faculty in Imam Hossein University, run by the powerful Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC).

This is not the first incident in which Iran's nuclear scientists have been targeted. In January, atomic scientist Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, who was on the faculty of Tehran University, was killed by a bomb planted on a stationary motorcycle outside his house.

About four years ago, Professor Ardashir Hosseinpour, a world authority on electromagnetism working at a nuclear facility in Isfahan, died under mysterious circumstances. A report posted on the American website,, claimed that the Israeli spy agency, Mossad, was responsible for his death, which occurred due to “radioactive poisoning.”

It is apparent that the nuclear scientists have been hit in order to retard Iran's atomic programme, widely seen by its arch-enemies in the West and its regional allies as a threat to the favourable architecture of regional security they have developed since World War II.

In the all-out war by stealth against Iran, the role of cyber warfare has also been prominent. After initially stating that only peripheral damage had been caused by the Stuxnet malware that infected some of their computers, the Iranians acknowledged that the virus had indeed impeded uranium enrichment at the Natanz core facility. Without specifically naming the Stuxnet malware, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acknowledged that “[Iran's enemies] succeeded in creating problems for a limited number of our centrifuges with the software they had installed in electronic parts.” He added: “They did a bad thing. Fortunately our experts discovered that, and today they are not able [to do that] anymore.”

Iranian officials say Tehran's foes have now opened up additional channels of subversion, as was visible in the recent failed attempt to hijack a Damascus-bound night flight from Tehran.

Commenting on the assault on its nuclear scientists, the Iranian establishment is not ruling out a possible connection between these attacks and the recent remarks by the head of the British intelligence agency (MI6), John Sawers, about using covert action as an option to disrupt Tehran's nuclear programme.

The Kayhan daily from Tehran quoted Mr. Sawers on October 28 as saying: “Stopping nuclear proliferation cannot be addressed purely by conventional diplomacy. We need intelligence-led operations to make it more difficult for countries like Iran to develop nuclear weapons.”

The November 29 incident has raised the question why the attacks against Iran have been stepped up in recent times and why they are taking a covert route. The escalation of unconventional warfare, homing in on Iran's nuclear establishment and infrastructure, appears premised on flawed perceptions and woolly in their conception, rather than being based on hard facts. Despite the inability of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to discover any secret Iranian nuclear weapon programme, or the conclusion drawn by the U.S. National Intelligence Estimates that Iran has given up its atomic weapon programme, the Americans and their Israeli allies are responding to Iran as if nuclear weapons are nearly within its grasp.

Consequently, a feverish urgency has been imparted to subverting Iran's programme that could generate enriched uranium which, when purified above the 90 per cent level, can be used for making bombs.

According to Tel Aviv, a weaponised Iran which, in its view, is well on its way to acquiring atomic weapons, would pose an unacceptable “existential threat” to Israel. The contention, however, wilfully ignores the counter-narrative that Israel is already in possession of a nuclear deterrent, based on a well developed arsenal of atomic weapons that can be mounted on multiple platforms. An Iranian nuclear attack on Israel would therefore be illogical and self-destructive, if not suicidal.

The second argument emerging from the West to justify its unbridled hostility towards Iran is the perception that once armed with atomic weapons, Tehran will destabilise West Asia, including the oil rich Persian Gulf. According to the American narrative, a nuclear armed Iran would undermine the naval preponderance of the U.S. along the Persian Gulf sea lanes that lead to the Strait of Hormuz, the channel through which large volumes of global oil supplies pass. Iran would therefore emerge as a serious challenger to global energy security.

A nuclear Iran, it has been argued, is also likely to spur proliferation as it would encourage Tehran's rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt to acquire atomic weapons. Besides, nuclear weapons could embolden Iran to destabilise some of the Gulf petro-monarchies, by rousing against these regimes Shia populations located along sensitive geographical fault lines such as the oil-bearing eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia.

In Iran, the attacks on the nuclear scientists have evoked a furious response. Iranians are interpreting them as the latest in a series of plots the West has hatched against Tehran, which include the overthrow in 1953 of nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq by the CIA and the British intelligence.

The rapid escalation of the covert war against Iran will admit of at least two major interpretations. First, it could be viewed as a silent acknowledgement by the West that a full-scale war against Iran is no longer possible. In other words, it suggests the acceptance that a covert war is its substitute for a full-scale conflict. The U.S. military is overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on account of the possible emergence of Yemen as yet another frontier in the so-called war on terror. An exhausted West is therefore incapable of launching yet another full-scale war against an unpredictable rival such as Iran.

However, it can also be argued that the covert war is not an alternative to conventional strikes but precursor to full-scale military action. Covert warfare may be a first step aimed at “softening” Iran as well as buying time for launching air strikes against its atomic facilities. The combination of the weighty Israeli lobby, in alliance with the Christian-Zionists in the U.S., and backed by a Right-wing Congress on Capitol Hill may eventually force President Barack Obama to launch a full-scale attack on Iran.

Despite arguments for and against, neither a covert war on its own nor in a combination with a full-scale strike is likely to succeed. The string of assassinations of some of their most gifted people is bound to generate unifying impulses among Iranians, irrespective of deep political differences that surfaced soon after the June 2009 presidential election. Instead of softening Iran, these attacks are likely to herald its social consolidation, thereby belying western hopes of the country “imploding.”

A full-blown air campaign is also unlikely to achieve the results its perpetrators may hope for. It is unlikely to cause serious damage to Iran's nuclear faculties, which are well protected and widely dispersed.

Besides, there is a serious economic dimension which is tied to an attack against Iran. Once military strikes commence, international oil prices will likely skyrocket — an eventuality which the fragile economies in the West are unlikely to sustain over a long period. With a limited number of options, the Americans may have no realistic alternative to engaging with Iran in a serous tension-reduction dialogue. Direct negotiations are decisively advantageous as they may help the Americans withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan without a loss of face.

Iran along with Syria and Turkey is part of an emerging bloc which is likely to exercise considerable influence within a strategic arc starting from the high mountains in Afghanistan to the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon. By opening talks with Iran, the Americans may have a better chance of re-engaging with a rapidly changing region, where their politico-military influence is perceptibly on the decline.

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