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The Intensifying Covert War between Iran and the West

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Written by Richard Rousseau, Contributor

The magnetic bomb – attached to his car – that killed Professor Mustafa Ahmadi Roshan in Tehran on January 11, 2012 is the latest in a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists involved in Iran’s nuclear program. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused the Israeli secret service, Mossad, of being behind this murder. As was predicted, the Netanyahu administration totally rejected this accusation. An alternative explanation to Israel’s involvement is based on the growing tension between Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader. There may also be a connection to the upcoming U.S. presidential elections. The Israeli frenzy in calling for a preemptive strike against Iran’s facilities could actually portend a significant turning point in the intricate story of the Iranian nuclear dossier.

Coincidence or not, Professor Ahmadi Roshan was the deputy head of the government’s commercial uranium enrichment site at Natanz. The Iranian Fars news agency reported that he had been involved in a project for the production of polymeric membranes for gaseous diffusions, a technology used to produce enriched uranium.

The Iranian authorities immediately blamed Israel and the United States for this premeditated murder, accusing them of wanting to delay by any means, legally or illegally, the Iranian nuclear program which Tehran assures the international community is solely for civilian purposes. The U.S. has unequivocally denied any involvement in the affair, strongly condemning, in the words of White House spokesman Tommy Vietor, “all acts of violence, including acts of violence like what is being reported today [the assassination]”, including the killing of Professor Roshan. The Israeli authorities, through President Shimon Peres and the official spokesman for the Israel Defense Force (IDF) Yoav Mordecha, also denied any involvement in the Roshan affair.

Then, on February 13, coordinated car bomb attacks targeted the Israeli embassies in New Delhi and Tbilisi, Georgia. While in Tbilisi, an Israeli Embassy staff member found an explosive device attached to his car and called the Georgian Police to defuse the bomb before it went off; in New Delhi a bomb exploded and injured an Israeli diplomat’s wife, as well as several bystanders.

Minutes after these two events, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused “Iran and its proxy Hezbollah” of being behind both the explosion in New Delhi and the attempted bombing in Tbilisi. “In recent months we have witnessed several attempts to attack Israeli citizens and Jews in several countries, including Azerbaijan, Thailand, and others,” Netanyahu said at a meeting with members from his Likud party. Tehran, however, was swift to deny its involvement in organizing the attacks. A statement from the Iranian government, released by the BBC, called the accusations “sheer lies” and regarded them as part of an Israeli propaganda campaign. As reported by Iran’s state news agency, IRNA, Iranian Foreign Minister Ramin Mehmanparast mused that Israel had itself planned its embassy car explosion in New Delhi and an attempted car bomb in Tbilisi to “tarnish Iran’s friendly relations with India and Georgia,” adding that Netanyahu’s accusation against Tehran is part of Israel’s “psychological warfare against Iran.” Both incidents coincided with the fourth anniversary marking the assassination of Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Imad Mughniyah, which the Islamist group attributes to Israel. Khamenei pledged in January that Iran would seek revenge against international sanctions and the assassination of Iranian scientists involved in the nuclear program.

With the blame nearly impossible to assign, some cryptic past statements, linked in one way or another to the Iranian nuclear issue, may provide some insight and interpretations of what is going on, or at least some clues as to the actions of covert forces operating within the larger strategic game being played out in the Israeli-Iranian conflict.

The IDF’s Yoav Mordechai, having declared that he does not know who was behind the attack on the Iranian professor, added that he did not shed tears over the violent death of Roshan. The timely disappearance of a key element in the continued development of the Iranian nuclear program is seen in Israel as a major setback for Ahmadinejad and the Iranian regime, whose blatant anti-Semitic statements are still causing turmoil and threaten to unleash war in the Middle East.

The latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report released on November 8, 2011 on the Iranian issue has highlighted that the country has made significant progress towards its declared goal of developing civilian nuclear power. However, the report cast heavy shadows on, and expressed suspicions about, the purported civilian uses of the program. In particular, allegations are being made about purported research and studies directly applicable to the development of detonators for nuclear weapons, such as warheads and other components, and the production of long-range missiles. Israel and the United States have been the most active nations in opposing the possibility of a nuclear armed Iran, as Iran is located in one of the most unstable areas on earth. These two allied countries have for years – but more intensively in recent months – been preparing contingency plans for a possible preemptive air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. As a decision is still awaiting on whether Tel-Aviv and Washington will attack the Islamic state, there are some intriguing interrelated facts concerning the killing of Iranian scientists. Roshan is not the first targeted-killing in Iran, but only one in a long list of professors and scientists falling victim to regional powers’ geopolitical interests.

On July 23, 2011, Professor Daryoush Rezaei, 32, another nuclear physicist involved in the development of Iran’s nuclear program, was shot by two assassins who then fled on a motorcycle. But even more striking was an assassination attempt on November 29, 2010 on current Vice President and Head of Atomic Energy Organization Ferydoun Abbassi Davani, and then manager of the project on nuclear reactors Majid Shariari. The first was seriously injured, while the second died on the spot following the explosion of two bombs of the same magnetic type used in the Roshan assassination, at least according to a statement by Deputy Governor of Tehran province Ali Safar Baratloo. Finally, on January 12, 2010 Masoud Ali Mohammadi, an Iranian nuclear scientist who was well known internationally, died in the explosion of a motorcycle which had been packed with explosives and primed to detonate when his vehicle came close.

Possible interpretations

Investigations of these suspicious killings have not yet produced results. Nonetheless, a propaganda war between Iranian and Israeli authorities has ensured, which affects both countries’ relations with the United States. Tehran’s contention that Roshan and the other scientists killed in the last two years were victims of the Israeli secret service cannot be confirmed.

Assuredly, the similarity of the materials used to kill Roshan this year and Davani and Shariari on November 29, 2010 would suggest that a single organization was behind the attacks on Iranian scientists. Since the highest priority goal of Israel (and other Western countries) is to prevent Tehran gaining atomic weapons, it is easy enough to make the government of Benjamin Netanyahu the main suspect. In addition, some secret operations conducted by Mossad in recent years, and the ruthlessness with which they were executed, may suggest the direct involvement of Israeli intelligence services. Attention should be paid to the case of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. A senior Hamas military commander and one of the founders of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military affiliate of Hamas, al-Mabhouh was involved in arms trafficking before his murder in a Dubai hotel on January 20, 2010. According to the Police in the Emirate of Dubai, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras and the images captured by hotel security lead many to believe that the murder was carried out by Israeli intelligence.

Though the involvement of Mossad in the affair cannot be irrefutably proven, it cannot be disproven either, since the stated goal of the Israeli secret service is quite plain: to prevent Iran from producing an atomic bomb. But there is another possible interpretation of the Roshan assassination. Denying any involvement of their own, the Israeli authorities have implicitly hinted that the Iranian authorities themselves might have ordered the killing of the professor. This insinuation makes little sense if we assume that Iran seeks to accelerate its nuclear program. However, looked at from an internal political perspective, it becomes a far more plausible claim to some observers. Indeed, the clash between President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has in recent months seen moments of high tension, and the timing of the murders might consequently be connected to Iranian internal politics.

Khamenei’s decision to reinstate the former head of the Ministry of Intelligence, Eider Moslehi, whom Ahmadinejad had forced to resign in April 2011, and the confrontation over Ahmadinejad’s current Chief of Staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who occupied the position of First Vice President of Iran for one week in 2009 before Khamenei ordered his removal from that post, lay bare the bitter rivalry between the two most important officers of the Iranian state. Roshan’s murder may have been part of this collision at the highest level. It could serve as a means to further elevate the tension and the stakes and, by the same token, to create a permanent state of siege and reduce the influence of the nationalist front, represented by Ahmadinejad and Mashaei in the face of growing external threats. Although it is doubtful that Iran ever wished to deprive itself of five of its own brightest nuclear scientists over the span of two years, the November IAEA report led to a new wave of more stringent sanctions which seem to be about to affect Tehran much more than previous ones.

2012: the Breaking Point

It appears that the Obama administration’s decision to strike the Iranian banking sector, identifying the Central Bank of Iran (BCI) as a possible centre of money laundering and terrorism financing, is causing serious budget problems for Iran, as it discourages international banks and financial intermediaries from dealing with the BCI and undertaking new business with Tehran.

From this perspective, Washington policy’s line seems clear: no pre-emptive strike against Iran and its nuclear sites, but heavy sanctions against, and continued diplomatic pressure on, the Iranian regime. This policy is partly determined by the declared intention of Obama to partially withdraw U.S. troops from the Middle East in the short to medium term. The financial crisis and the debate on the U.S. public debt ceiling have actually forced President Obama to progressively disengage the U.S. from the region, as evidenced by the departure of the last U.S. battalion from Iraq in December and the objective to end the engagement in Afghanistan by 2014. Moreover, the upcoming presidential election is likely to dissuade the White House from risking the possible complications arising from another protracted war far away from home.

However, an international crisis forced by an Israeli attack on Iran could derail American plans and force Washington to offer help and assistance to its ally. The election year, and the increased attention to domestic issues it imposes on the Obama administration, could offer Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu a window of opportunity. The White House has certainly not forgotten what happened on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.

On December 27, 2008, the Israeli government launched “Operation Cast Lead” against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, while it is true that the U.S. disengagement from the Middle East will proceed at a slow pace, one must also consider that the U.S. has now more leeway in its military policy. If the simultaneous presence of two open fronts once prevented the opening of a third one, the reduction in America’s Middle East military commitments could now offer opportunities to settle old scores with Iran and its erstwhile supporters in the region.

If President Obama’s election snags were to persist, a war against Iran, which could potentially restore his shattered image among American voters, might be a viable option. The French-led intervention in Libya may be seen as an example of such a gamble, even if there are serious doubts about the success of a military operation in Iran or Washington’s willingness to engage its troops in the Middle East again, especially in conditions of severe economic crisis, high oil prices, and world market volatility. These considerations, however, are not in Israel’s game plan. If the Jewish state sees its security threatened by an open enemy possessing nuclear weapons, it will counter the threat by any means necessary.

In 2012 Ahmadinejad began his final year as President of Iran. He faces increasing hostility from Supreme Leader Khamenei and several members of the parliament, which threatened to initiate impeachment proceedings against him in May 2011 after he fired three ministers without the consent of parliament. The time may have come for Ahmadinejad to find a diplomatic solution to the current impasse over the nuclear program issue, as the increasingly stringent economic sanctions are eroding his electoral base and further imperiling the overall well-being and standard of living of ordinary Iranians.

Dr. Richard Rousseau is Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Khazar University in Baku, Azerbaijan and a contributor to Global Brief, World Affairs in the 21st Century (www.globalbrief.ca), and The Jamestown Foundation.