(Mintpress) – Western nations in the European Union agreed on Monday to impose an oil embargo on Iran, which would fully take effect in July. The world now waits to see if Iran will follow-through on its threat to block the Strait of Hormuz in response to such actions. While the prospect of war looms on the horizon, analysts argue a covert war is already long underway given the recent assassinations, explosions, and cyber attacks surrounding Iran’s nuclear program.
The most recent escalations in tensions between Israel, the US, and Iran have come over the past few months after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report on November 8th indicating that “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”Western nations called for tougher sanctions on Iran in response to the November IAEA report. In late December, Iran responded to new economic sanctions by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway for transporting one-fifth of the world’s oil, if the West were to impose an embargo on Iran’s oil exports. The result has been a series of back and forth threats between Iran, the United States, and Israel.
Israel has become increasingly worried after IAEA spokesperson, Gill Tudor, announced on January 9th that Iran has begun enriching uranium to 20% at an underground, sheltered facility. Although Iran claims its nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes, the West views increased enrichment as a closer step towards developing a nuclear weapon. Israel believes that a nuclear-Iran poses an existential threat to its sovereignty.
The United States has urged Israel not to carry out a preemptive military strike on Iran in order to wait for economic sanctions to force Iran into negotiations and abandon its nuclear program. However, a series of attacks may already be underway.
Nuclear Scientist Assassinations
Two days after the IAEA announced Iran’s increased uranium enrichment activities, an Iranian nuclear scientist, Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, was assassinated in a car bombing. A motorcyclist was seen placing a magnetic bomb on Roshan’s car.
Roshan is the fifth nuclear scientist to be murdered in Iran in the past two years. Iran believes the CIA or Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, is behind the assassinations. The United States denied any involvement in the attack, while Israeli officials did not comment on the matter.
Several critics argue that the Iranian government may be behind the assassinations because of assumed support for the opposition movement. Others argue that the sophisticated nature of the attacks and similar bombs used in various assassinations are similar to tactics used by Mossad.
Shortly after the November IAEA report was released, an explosion at an ammunition depot near Tehran resulted in the deaths of 17 Iranians, including Revolutionary Guard commander and missile expert, General Hasan Moghaddam.
Two weeks later, there was a mysterious explosion heard at nuclear facilities in Isfahan. Following another event two weeks after the blast in Isfahan in which seven people were killed in an explosion at an Iranian steel mill that is believed to be producing steel of the grade required for centrifuges to enrich uranium.
There has been no confirmed link between the three explosions, and Iran has not published any evidence of who is responsible for the attacks. However, according to Haaretz “the choice of targets indicated a clear attempt to strike at the various links of the Iranian nuclear program chain – the production of raw materials, uranium-enrichment operations, and the development of launch capabilities for missiles with nuclear warheads.
In response to the mysterious explosion in Tehran, Israel Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, told Army Radio, “May there be more like it.” Israel has not confirmed nor denied responsibility for the explosions.
The Huffington Post reported that Ilan Mizrahi, former head of the national security council and former deputy head of the Mossad, said “I have no idea whether this blast was accidental or whether it was sabotage. But I will say God bless those who were behind it, because the free world should be doing its best to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear military capability.”
On November 13th, five days after the November IAEA report was released and one day after the explosion that killed Moghaddam, Iranian officials announced it had been hit by the Duqu computer virus, the third cyber attack to hit Iran in the past year.
Duqu is based off Stuxnet, the cyberweapon that is claimed to have destroyed one-fifth of Iran’s centrifuges and delayed its nuclear program by years. Stuxnet hit Iran in 2010, followed by a second cyber attack, the Stars virus, in April 2011.
The New York Times reported that the United States authorized joint covert program with Israel aimed at undermining the computer and electrical systems around Iran’s nuclear facilities. Senior Iranian military official, Gholam Reza Jalali, stated that Iranian experts linked the Stuxnet virus to the United States and Israel.
Sir John Sawers, head of Britain’s MI6, said in a 2010 speech: “We need intelligence-led operations to make it more difficult for countries like Iran to develop nuclear weapons.”
Sawers stated that the purpose of intelligence services was “to find out what these states are doing and planning, and identify ways to slow down their access to vital materials and technology.”
From Covert to Overt Operations
The power of covert operations is that there is no hard evidence linking the suspect to the crime. As long as the attacks cannot be 100% confirmed, then Iran is not likely to respond with full-blown military retaliation.
Patrick Clawson, director of the Iran Security Initiative at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the New York Times that Israel prefers covert versus overt attacks on Iran’s nuclear program because 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.”
However, covert operations can lead to blurred lines between friends and foes. Mark Perry recently revealed a series of CIA memos that describe how Israeli Mossad agents posed as American CIA officers to recruit members of the Jundallah terrorist organization to carry out covert operations in Iran. The article in Foreign Policy cites CIA memos, interviews with intelligence officers and members of Jundallah that confirm Israel’s covert operations.
A currently serving US intelligence officer told Perry that “the report sparked White House concerns that Israel’s program was putting Americans at risk.” Several retired CIA officers expressed frustration that Israel’s covert tactics were painting the United States as a supporter of Jundallah, which the United States has vehemently denied.
The complexity and controversy around alleged Israeli false flag operations makes it very difficult for Iran to pinpoint a clear suspect for the covert attacks. However, it also implicates the United States in a more committed role of covert espionage–a role we may see to avoid. One retired intelligence officer told Perry, “It’s going to be pretty hard for the U.S. to distance itself from an Israeli attack on Iran with this kind of thing going on.”
The disclosure of covert operations, combined with the increased pressure of economic sanctions imposed by the west, growing tensions in the region, and a large presence of both Iranian and American military forces adds to the likelihood of inadvertent military confrontations spiraling out of control.
In addition to the European Union’s decision to ban Iranian oil imports, the United States Navy reported that the American aircraft carrier, the Abraham Lincoln, sailed through the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday. Both actions put significant pressure on Iran to make a bold response.
Aware of the possibility that Iranian and American commanders may misconstrue the other’s intentions, some have suggested that the White House setup a hard-line of communication with Tehran, similar to the one used with the Soviet Union, to prevent crises from escalating into all-out war. The United States would be wise to engage in more open dialogue with Iran to prevent covert operations from turning into an overt military operation.