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Iran-Israel covert war: the Mossad is said to wage a clandestine campaign of assassination and sabotage against Iran's nuclear programme, but this could backfire on President Obama's efforts to negotiate with Tehran.


Israel's intelligence service, the Mossad, has intensified its war against Iran's nuclear programme and, by some accounts, its Kidron (Bayonet) hit teams are reportedly targeting Iranian nuclear scientists for assassination as well as sabotaging the Islamic Republic's global network for procuring vital material.

Assassination is something the Mossad has carried out in the past to decapitate efforts by Israel's enemies to develop weapons of mass destruction that pose a mortal threat to the Jewish state. In the 1960s, it was Operation Damocles, repeated attacks against German scientists, some of the former Nazis, working with Egypt to build rockets armed with chemical warheads. Several Germans were assassinated by letter bombs.

In the 1980s and '90s, it was the systematic killing of key figures in Saddam's weapons programmes--at least three high-level scientists--and the bombing of European companies supplying components for the Iraqi dictator's secret programme to manufacture nuclear bombs. The cores for two French-built reactors bound for Iraq were blown up in a warehouse outside Toulon, France, on 5 April 1979 in Operation Sphinx.

There have also long been suspicions that the Mossad eliminated several of Pakistan's nuclear scientists in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at least two by poisoning, in a bid to stop the development of the "Islamic Bomb".

"With cooperation from the United States, Israeli covert operations have focused both on eliminating key assets involved in the nuclear programme and the sabotaging of the Iranian nuclear supply chain," said Reva Bhalla, director of analysis with Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor), a Texas-based private intelligence company with close links to the US security establishment.

Israel has reportedly set up dummy companies to infiltrate Iran's extensive procurement network that seeks to circumvent United Nations sanctions. The Israelis and Americans have both carried out industrial sabotage against Iran. Their task has been made infinitely easier because Tehran, unable to buy equipment on the open market due to US-led sanctions, has to rely on the black market, which is easily penetrated.

Iran has been sold components with flaws that are difficult to spot, while technical documents have been subtly doctored to make them useless. US sources reported one incident in which sabotaged electrical equipment purchased in Europe exploded at the uranium enrichment centre at Natanz in April 2006, destroying 50 centrifuges, machinery essential to the enrichment process.

"Industrial sabotage is a way to stop the programme, without military action, with out fingerprints on the operation, and really, it's ideal, if it works," according to Mark Fitzgerald, former US deputy assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation and now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think-tank.

Stratfor's Bhalla concurs that Iranian nuclear scientists are key targets of the Israeli operations and have been the target of intimidation campaigns to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. There was "strong intelligence", she said, that one of Iran's leading nuclear physicists, Ardeshir Hassanpour, was killed by the Mossad in January 2007.

The Americans have their own clandestine programme, which appears to be primarily aimed at inducing Iranian scientists to defect, or to spy for the CIA from inside. The Israelis have been conducting their covert operations against Iran in conjunction with the Americans, along with Arab regimes which are alarmed by Shi'ite Iran's expansionist ambitions.

But Israeli and US interests are diverging. The US administration of President Barack Obama is seeking dialogue with Tehran to head off conflict in the strategic Gulf region. On the other hand, the Israelis, under the hardline government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, believe they are under mortal threat by Iran's nuclear ambitions and favour a massive pre-emptive military strike against the Islamic Republic.

The Americans are pressuring the Israelis to take no direct action and it is unclear whether the clandestine operations by both states will he curtailed. But it is unlikely that the Mossad will back off while Netanyahu is in power and the service is headed by Meir Dagan, a former army general notorious for high-risk clandestine operations against Israel's enemies.

Given the murky nature of intelligence work, it is not clear how effective the efforts to derail or slow down Iran's nuclear project have been. Opinion is divided. US intelligence sources say that several joint Mossad-Central Intelligence Agency operations failed miserably. But at least one senior Iranian official has hinted that the Israelis have had some successes.

One of those may have been the mysterious death of Professor Hassanpour, a key figure at the uranium enrichment plant and research centre in Isfahan and considered one of Iran's most important scientists. On 25 January 2007, Iran's state media reported that Hassanpour, 44, had been "suffocated by fumes from a faulty gas fire while he slept".

In fact, Hassanpour had been found dead six days earlier, on 18 January. There was no explanation for the delay in announcing his demise, possibly indicating that something untoward had occurred. Stratfor claimed at the time that Hassanpour had been killed by the Mossad.

There are also question marks about the death of at least two other Iranian nuclear scientists, apparently caused by poison. That's a technique the Israelis have used in the past, most notably in an abortive attempt to assassinate Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal in Amman in September a997. The Pakistani scientists who died under mysterious circumstances in the 1990s were also reported to have been poisoned.

Ronen Bergman, a journalist with Israel's Yediot Ahronot daily who specialises in security matters and the author of the 2008 book The Secret War With Iran, says that over the last four years "the uranium enrichment programme in Iran was delayed by a series of apparent accidents: the disappearance of an Iranian nuclear scientist, the crash of two planes carrying cargo related to the project, and two labs that burst into flames".

He did not elaborate on these reported incidents, although two Iranian Air Force transport aircraft, one of them carrying a group of senior IRGC officers, have crashed under mysterious circumstances over the last three years. But Iran's air force has been badly hit by a chronic lack of spare parts because of US-led economic sanctions and by poor maintenance, and that could account for the crashes.

But if any of these "accidents" were the work of the Mossad or Western intelligence services, they were undoubtedly mastermind ed by Meir Dagan, the director of the Mossad since 2002. He was appointed by his former military commander, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with orders to breathe some fire into an intelligence organisation that at the time was badly demoralised by a series of spectacular failures and internal turf wars.


Dagan had made his reputation as a soldier who got things done, however messy, and he was the ruthless commander of an undercover army unit that played a key role in pacifying the turbulent Gaza Strip in the 1970s by assassinating Palestinian militants. At that time, Sharon was head of the Israeli military's southern command.

Since Dagan took over as intelligence chief, he has complied with Sharon's directive that he wanted "a Mossad with a knife between its teeth", and has pulled off several high-risk operations. But his special mission has been to do everything he can to sabotage Iran's nuclear programme.

The Mossad has been extremely active in Iraqi Kurdistan on Iran's western border, Iran and in Central Asia north of the Islamic Republic. From these regions, the Israelis have infiltrated agents into Iran in an intelligence war that has heated up considerably in recent months as Tehran has reportedly stepped up its uranium enrichment capabilities, a vital element in producing nuclear weapons.

Iran's intelligence services, aided by its Lebanese allies, have responded vigorously. In 2008, security authorities in the oil-rich former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, which has strong links with the West, claim they foiled a plot by agents of Hizbullah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi'ite movement, to blow up the Israeli embassy in Baku, the Azeri capital on the Caspian Sea.

That was intended to avenge the 12 February 2008 assassination in Damascus of Hizbullah's renowned military chief, Imad Mughniyeh, one of the world's most-wanted terrorist suspects and a key Iranian intelligence operative. Hizbullah blamed the Mossad for killing him in a car bombing.

Azeri authorities began court proceedings in Baku against the two captured Lebanese, and four Azeris alleged to be their accomplices, in late May.

The reports of a sustained espionage campaign against Iran's nuclear programme were given credence in December 2005, when Iran's intelligence establishment established a nuclear counter-espionage agency known as Oghab 2. It was headed by senior officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the most powerful military and intelligence force in Iran. Oghab's main mission was to protect the nuclear programme from hostile intelligence services.

Further proof that the covert campaigns were causing problems for the Tehran regime came in the spring of 2007, when the commander of Oghab 2, IRGC General Gholam Reza Moghrabi, was replaced following the announced discovery of several alleged US and Israeli spy rings in the Islamic Republic.

The new chief was identified by a Paris-based website with connections to the French intelligence establishment as General Ahmad Wahibi, a former commander of the IRGC's elite Al Qods Force that handles the corps' covert operations. Under Wahibi, and his number two, General Akbar Dianatr Far of the IRGC's intelligence department, Oghab 2 was reportedly set for a major expansion with 4,000 more personnel to raise its strength to an estimated 10,000.

That build-up followed three serious security setbacks for Iran--the mysterious death (and purported assassination) of Ardeshir Hassanpour in January 2007, the disappearance and apparent defection of former IRGC general and deputy defence minister Ali Reza Asghari in Istanbul in mid-February that year, apparently engineered by the Mossad, and the 30 April 2007 arrest of former top nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian, considered a "moderate" in the Tehran hierarchy, on charges of spying for the British.

Mousavian, a former ambassador to Germany, was later acquitted of the national security-related charges and given a suspended sentence for the relatively minor charge of "propagating ideas against the system". His arrest may have been part of a power struggle between the hardliners in Tehran and more pragmatic figures such as former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who favour dialogue with the US.

Mousavian, who travelled abroad frequently and was therefore open to possible recruitment by foreign intelligence services, is close to Rafsanjani. But even if his arrest was linked to the power struggle in Tehran, it nevertheless underlined the unease that the clandestine operations by the Mossad and the CIA is apparently causing in the Iranian hierarchy.

Tehran has claimed it has rolled up a series of Israeli espionage cells over the last four years. Dozens of people have been arrested. On 21 November 2008, Iran's justice ministry announced that Ali Ashtari, a businessman and electronics expert who dealt with the Iranian security establishment, had been hanged for spying for Mossad.

He was arrested in 2006 and sentenced to death on 30 June 2008 by a revolutionary court in Tehran for working with the Mossad for three years. He was the first Iranian convicted of spying for Israel since 2000. Iranian authorities said that among the tasks Mossad gave him was eavesdropping on officials involved with Iran's nuclear programme.

In an unusual move by the highly secretive Iranian intelligence apparatus, a senior official, identified only as the head of the intelligence ministry's counter-intelligence branch, met a select group of reporters in Tehran to give details of the case and Israel's clandestine activities in Iran.

He said that Ashtari gathered intelligence on senior officers of Iran's security apparatus and the powerful IRGC through bugged electronics equipment he provided for them. He transmitted the material he had gathered to his Israeli handlers electronically using special equipment he had been given by them when he visited exhibitions abroad.

The official conceded that the Ashtari case "shows a new dimension" and an "intensifying of the widespread intelligence war between us and the Israeli intelligence service". The official acknowledged, without elaborating, that Ashtari had scored some major successes by "on some occasions ... creating good conditions for the Israelis".

The official disclosed that the Mossad was using satellite television advertisements and internet chat rooms to recruit Iranians as spies.

On 20 January, the official stepped out of the shadows yet again to warn Obama's infant US administration to back off its clandestine operations against Iran and to offer rare comments on what he described as a "full-fledged intelligence war".

The semi-official Fars News Agency quoted him as claiming that the US, like Israel, had suffered "heavy damage" in their clandestine endeavours to recruit Iranians. He expressed surprise that the Americans had contacted "people we didn't expect to be of their interest: fashion designers, doctors, professors, clerics, athletes and artists".

He claimed that four "network heads" had been arrested in Iran and convicted by a secret security court in December. Two of those were identified as brothers Arash and Kamiar Alaie, both renowned physicians who pioneered HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programmes in Iran. They were arrested in June 2008 and held in the political prisoners section of Tehran's notorious Evin Prison.

Their lawyer, Massoud Shafaei, told the Los Angeles Times that Arash was sentenced to six years in prison during a four-hour trial at which secret evidence was introduced which the defence could not refute. Arash's younger brother Kamiar got three years. Both men pleaded innocent. Iranian authorities say they were recruited by US intelligence during a 2006 medical conference in Washington funded by the US State Department and were tasked with destabilising the Islamic Republic and bringing down the government.


Shortly after Ashtari was executed, the IRGC commander, General Mohammed Ali Jaafari, announced that his units had arrested another Mossad cell that he said had been trained in Israel state to carry out assassinations and bombings, with the nuclear programme a particular target. Hi-tech communications equipment, allegedly provided by the Israelis, was seized.

Three weeks later, the Tabnak news agency, linked to former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaie, a contender in Iran's presidential election in June, reported that several people working for Iran's nuclear research programme had been arrested. It did not specify which intelligence agency was running them, but if the report was genuine, the Mossad or the CIA would have been the most likely culprits. That may have been one of the joint Mossad-CIA operations mentioned earlier.
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Title Annotation:CURRENT AFFAIRS
Comment:Iran-Israel covert war: the Mossad is said to wage a clandestine campaign of assassination and sabotage against Iran's nuclear programme, but this could backfire on President Obama's efforts to negotiate with Tehran.(CURRENT AFFAIRS)
Author:Blanche, Ed
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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