By Reva Bhalla


A number of mysterious developments have occurred over the past several weeks concerning Iran that are unlikely to all be explained purely by coincidence. There is no clear line of evidence linking these events, but when you take a step back and look at what's happening, you can not only get a strong sense of the constraints the U.S. and Israel continue to face in dealing with Iran but can also catch a glimpse of the quiet battle playing out in the covert world.

In early October, the U.S. government went public with an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

A few weeks later, leaks started coming out on a new IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) report providing fresh details on Iranian efforts toward a nuclear weapons program. The report formed the backdrop to an Israeli-led campaign calling for more effective action against Iran, ranging from more stringent sanctions to military action.

Then, in the early afternoon on Nov. 12, two explosions occurred at a missile base near Tehran, killing 17 people including a high-ranking IRGC commander. Iran has insisted the blast was accidental, but speculation has since spread that the explosion could have been part of a sabotage operation carried out by Israeli intelligence.

Later that evening, the Bahraini government went public with the discovery of an alleged plot involving at least five Bahrainis traveling through Syria and Qatar on a mission to carry out attacks against government and diplomatic targets in Bahrain. Iran vehemently denied it was involved and portrayed the plot as a fabrication, just as they responded to the alleged plot against the Saudi ambassador.

The next day, the Iranian press reported that Ahmad Rezai, the son of Mohsen Rezai, who is the secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, a former IRGC commander and presidential contender, was found dead at a hotel in Dubai. The deputy head of the Expediency Council told the Iranian press that the son's death was suspicious and caused by electric shocks, while other reports portrayed the death as suicide.

In trying to understand this thread of mysterious events, it is important to take a step back and understand the current geopolitical environment in the Persian Gulf. The United States is just weeks away from officially completing its withdrawal from Iraq, but it is leaving behind a power vacuum that Iran has been patiently waiting to fill. Iran intends to exploit this opportunity to not only consolidate its position in Iraq, but intimidate its Arab neighbors into accommodating Iran on a number of strategic issues. Such intimidation tactics are likely to involve the heavy use of Iranian covert assets.

Part of Iran's confidence can be explained by the lack of containment options that the U.S., Israel and the GCC states are contemplating against Iran. Any sanctions campaign is going to be full of loopholes that can be exploited by Iran, its allies and profit seekers in the market. A conventional military strike against Iran would have to neutralize Iran's hardened nuclear sites, its air defenses and asymmetric warfare capabilities dispersed along the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. This is a task that cannot be performed by Israel alone, and would carry enormous global economic consequences given Iran's retaliatory option of mining the Strait of Hormuz to disrupt 40 percent of the world's sea-borne crude.

But Iran isn't working free of constraints, either, especially when it comes to battling its adversaries in the covert world. Iran has already admitted that its nuclear program was targeted by the Stuxnet worm, a cyberweapon developed most likely by U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies with the aim of slowing down Iran's nuclear weapons program. In recent days, Iran has also publicly admitted that it has been facing fresh cyber attacks from a new virus called Duqu, reportedly designed to collect information from Iranian computer systems. Iran has also been the victim of a series of assassination, kidnapping and defection cases involving Iranian nuclear scientists.

Just as Iran compensates for its conventional military weaknesses with a robust covert capability, the United States and Israel have attempted to work around the constraints of their containment strategies against Iran by focusing their resources on various sabotage campaigns. This doesn't mean that every single suspicious event involving Iran can be traced back to a cloak and dagger, but this is exactly the geopolitical environment in which one would expect such covert operations to intensify.



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Countering Iran in the Covert World is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

Countering Iran in the Covert World | Global Viewpoint