The covert war against Iran

Could it spill over into open conflict?

War by any other name

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Iran and the West are engaged in an undeclared covert struggle fought through sabotage, espionage and murder that may yet escalate into open war.

The latest blow against Iran came two weeks ago in Tehran, when two assassins on a motorbike pulled up alongside a car carrying Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, deputy director of Iran’s main uranium enrichment plant, and affixed a magnetic bomb to it. The bomb exploded, killing Roshan and his driver. It was a daring and sophisticated assault, likely requiring long and intensive surveillance of the victim, one or more safe houses, access to explosives, and the ability to make a device that murdered the occupants of the targeted car without harming passersby. Iran immediately blamed Israel, the U.S. and Britain, and says it has made arrests connected to the killing.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued an explicit and categorical denial of any American involvement. Britain also said it was not involved. Israel was more circumspect. The attack came one day after Israel’s military chief, Benny Gantz, told a parliamentary committee the Iranian regime could face “unnatural” events this year. Israel Defense Forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, writing on his Facebook page, said he didn’t know who had killed Roshan, but added, “I certainly won’t shed a tear.”

Paul Pillar, a Georgetown University professor who spent three decades working for U.S. intelligence, including the CIA, believes Israel is the most likely culprit. “We’re talking less about capability and more about willingness, and, quite frankly, sensibility and sensitivity,” he says, referring to Israel’s long history of assassinating its enemies, and America’s reluctance to embrace the same tactic—at least in the last couple of decades. “We Americans still don’t do this kind of hit job.” Drone strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets are different, he says, because they’re part of an ongoing war.

But Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who previously worked in intelligence at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, says America may have been involved. “Given that we’re trying to do everything we can to thwart Iran’s ability to complete its nuclear weapons program, I don’t think it should surprise that, when we’re trying to lure defectors, and steal laptops, and insert [computer] viruses, that another factor would be to eliminate key personnel in the program. Not only does it remove a key person in the program, it creates fear. It breeds distrust.”

Regardless of who arranged this most recent hit, it is part of a much larger confrontation—one Levitt describes as a “shadow war”—between the U.S. and its allies, and Iran.

The primary casus belli is Iran’s nuclear program, which the West believes is geared toward building nuclear weapons, but which Iran claims is peaceful. Many of the tactics in this shadow war directly target Iran’s nuclear capacity, as well as its means to one day deliver a nuclear weapon.

Roshan is at least the fourth Iranian scientist with a nuclear connection to be murdered since 2007. And late last year a suspicious explosion at an Iranian missile base killed 17, including a top general. Iran has also been hit with cyberattacks that damaged its uranium enrichment infrastructure. In December, Iran captured an American drone that was flying in its airspace. Washington claimed it had malfunctioned and gone astray from Afghanistan, but it’s more likely the drone was used to spy on Iran.

Other tactics, notably sanctions targeting Iran’s oil exports and central bank, appear to have less to do with Iran’s nuclear program and more with destabilizing and perhaps changing the regime in Tehran—leading some observers to question what exactly are America’s end goals in the country.

Officially, U.S. President Barack Obama wants to change Iran’s behaviour, not the regime itself. But this is hardly obvious from his administration’s actions. “At this point the logic of the policy of pressuring Iran has simply taken over, and it’s not clear to me that there is fairly good coherence between the tactics that we’ve adopted and the outcome that we intend to see,” says Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “By simply exasperating the paranoia and confirming the delusions of the Iranian leadership, we’ve put negotiations further out of reach rather than encouraging the Iranians to come to the negotiating table.”

Paul Pillar thinks a nuclear-armed Iran is a manageable threat. “We’ve managed similar capability with far more powerful nations and by regimes that seemed at least as radical and hostile: Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China. Principles of deterrence do not get repealed simply because one party wears a turban and happens to be Muslim,” he says.

But no American or Israeli leader would pre-emptively accept such a threat, which is why both countries appear to be playing the only cards they have left to stop or delay this from happening. “Nobody wants to take military action,” says James Acton, a senior associate in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “John McCain famously asked, would you rather bomb Iran or Iran gets the bomb? The problem is there is a third option, which is you bomb Iran and Iran gets the bomb anyway, which is the worst of all possible worlds. Given that constraint, delaying the program by as much as possible with covert action, while simultaneously ramping up the pressure with sanctions to try to force Iran to the negotiating table, is the strategy that’s been adopted. I don’t see a better alternative.”

It’s not one without risks, though. Some analysts suggest a policy of assassinations will simply force Iran to redouble its nuclear efforts. This misses the point, says the Washington Institute’s Levitt. “I don’t think they could be any more committed to their nuclear program,” he says. “The real question is at what point do they decide to start striking back?” Indeed, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has already vowed revenge. And there is also broader domestic pressure on Iran’s leadership to respond. “It is difficult for them to justify to their own population how a foreign country can carry out intelligence operations and particularly assassinations on Iranian soil with impunity,” says Vali Nasr, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “These kind of things can backfire because they create a certain nationalistic anger in the country. No people like terrorist operations happening around them.”

Iran’s potential retaliatory measures are mostly violent. It can’t impose sanctions on its enemies. Besides trying to shut down the Strait of Hormuz—an ocean passage through which much of the region’s oil supply flows—it doesn’t have a lot of economic weapons. This leaves deadly ones. It can use Hamas and Hezbollah to hit Israel, or it can strike at American targets in Afghanistan through proxies. It may also counter with its own assassinations or terrorism in the U.S. itself.

There is a danger, says Nasr, that such revenge attacks may lead to war.

“The war can start in two ways,” he says. “One way is the way we thought it would start for a long time. Whether in Jerusalem or Washington, leaders sit down and think hard and decide on a date and a location to start an attack on an Iranian nuclear site. Or the war is going to start as a result of an escalation in tension. In other words, you accidentally stumble into war—something like what’s happening right now.”

Nasr adds, “Right now the ball is in Iran’s court. They could ignore it, or they could do something. And if they do something then the ball is in our court. It’s an election year. If they do something visible, could the administration afford not to respond? Or if they do something against Israel, given the way Israel usually deals with things of that sort, could they afford not to answer?”

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