According to a Globe and Mail article on Tuesday, Iran’s energy infrastructure and government offices have been the targets of cyber attacks in recent months. The recent cyber attacks are just one angle of a shadowy war that has been raging for at least the past three years between Israel and Iran. On one side, Israel (and to a lesser extent the United States) has been using its intelligence agencies, including Mossad, to target Iranian interests both within Iran and elsewhere, in order to weaken the Persian nation’s nuclear programme. On the other side, Iran has been using special forces and spy agencies, such as Quds Force, and proxy militant group Hezbollah to attack Israeli interests in several parts of the world. While the media often portrays assassination incidents as being part of a simplistic tit-for-tat series of revenge killings between the two rivals, the targeting of Israelis and Iranians worldwide is a much more complicated geopolitical strategy to undermine the interests and capabilities of one another.
Iran’s goal to enrich uranium in order to build nuclear power facilities (or, in the opinion of Israel and the United States, to develop nuclear weapons) has been resisted by Israel since the programme’s inception. The Israeli government is extremely concerned about conventional foreign attacks, as it is essentially surrounded by hostile nations, political movements, and militant groups (Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc), but a nuclear-capable Tehran has become one of Tel Aviv’s primary concerns.
Historically, Israel has successfully defended its borders from military incursions by its neighbours (for example the 1948 Arab-Israel War, 1967 Six-Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War), but because the country is relatively small, a single nuclear blast on its territory could annihilate it completely. Iran will continue to develop its nuclear programme in defiance of the international community in order to undermine US influence in the Middle East (Iran’s government considers Israel to be an extension of the United States), attain regional hegemony over its rival Saudi Arabia, and to have leverage over Israel (Iran would never even have to launch a nuclear weapon, just the threat of using a nuclear device can be enough to deter Israel from policies that Iran disagrees with). Therefore it is in Israel’s best interest to do anything necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Although propaganda and heated rhetoric from the leaders of Israel and Iran play a role in the covert war, sabotage, assassination, and cyber attacks are the primary strategies used by both sides to weaken each other. For example, Iran employs a number of scientists to work on its nuclear programme, and at least four of these scientists have been killed since 2010 in attacks by suspected Israeli agents (who likely work for Mossad, Israel’s foreign spy agency responsible for protecting Israel’s interests in other countries). In three of these assassination incidents, the latest occurring in January, magnetic bombs were attached to the victims’ cars by individuals on motorcycles, while the fourth was shot to death. If Israel is responsible for the killings, they achieve three major objectives:
1. Practical: The nuclear programme’s progress slows down because the scientists working on it are dying and have to be replaced
2. Psychological: The fact that the nuclear scientists were killed in Iran shows the reach, determination, and skill of Israeli intelligence agents, and one can assume that anyone involved in the Iranian nuclear programme is now fearful of becoming a victim, which could deter participation
3. Political: The deaths of Iran’s scientists not only undermines the government’s ability to proceed with the development of nuclear technology, but it also embarrasses the government and makes it appear weak and unable to protect its citizens on its own territory
The targeting of Iranian nuclear scientists and other incidents that Israel is suspected of conducting, including an explosion at an ammunition depot near Tehran which killed a military officer involved in Iran’s missile programme and 16 others, have been very successful in weakening the Iranian regime. However, attacks suspected of being administered by Iran have had debatable success in comparison.
To understand the conflict further, it is important to know a little bit about the political structure of Iran. First, the most powerful person in the country is not President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it is Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Khamenei (not to be confused with the former supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini). The Supreme Leader controls the military, can veto (disapprove) any law that is passed in Majlis (parliament), approves the inclusion (and exclusion) of political parties, and controls just about every other aspect of the state. The Supreme Leader also officially controls one of Iran’s most powerful institutions, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or IRGC (although some scholars argue that the IRGC has penetrated Iranian politics so deeply that its power exceeds even that of the Supreme Leader), under which the elite soldiers of Quds Force operates.
Quds Force is widely suspected of organizing attacks against Israeli targets worldwide. However, the group’s operational ability is questionable due to the failures of its suspected agents, including attempts against targets in Georgia and Azberbaijan, and an incident in Bangkok, Thailand in February in which a bomb maker blew his own legs off after a grenade he threw at police bounced back at him. The numerous failures of suspected Iranian agents to achieve strategic objectives probably led to the attack in January in Bulgaria, in which a bus holding Israeli tourists exploded, killing seven. The tourists were likely attacked because of Iran’s inability to hit high-profile targets such as Israeli diplomats and members of the armed forces. Therefore the Iranian government settled for so-called soft targets, who had no security to protect them. The attack in Bulgaria was a powerful statement by Iran, that it is capable of hitting Israeli targets, and that even Israeli civilians are not safe.
In addition to the previously mentioned attacks, the IRGC is suspected of maintaining a considerable degree of control over a political party and militant organization that operates out of Lebanon (which borders Israel to the North) called Hezbollah. The group fought a war against Israel in 2006 after it captured several Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid which prompted a retaliatory Israeli attack on Lebanese territory, and has also been blamed for many terrorist attacks against Israeli targets worldwide.
Furthermore, cyber attacks and expanding operations in East Africa are also part of the covert war. Computer viruses have been responsible for damaging Iran’s oil infrastructure, which is in general disrepair and in need of an update (although this is made difficult due to international sanctions), and slowing uranium enrichment, which is required for creating nuclear power (or nuclear bombs). Also, Iran is known to smuggle weapons to its proxy militant groups and other allies through countries in East Africa, a situation that Israel is monitoring very closely through intelligence-gathering efforts.
Finally, the Israel-Iran covert war continues in the background of numerous announcements and media reports about a pending Israeli or American attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Although such an attack could very possibly take place if Israel or the US believed that it was necessary in order to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, it would only occur as a surprise attack. The war rhetoric coming from Israel is a psychological tactic that the government uses to keep Iran’s government constantly on edge. Israel would never announce to the world that it was going to attack Iran, it would just do it (but probably with US support).
Timeline of Major Events from 2010 to 2012
- Some of the information in this timeline was taken from an article published by the Guardian here
- 12 January 2010 – Iranian particle physicist Masoud Ali Mohammadi dies when a bomb blows up a vehicle in Tehran
- 29 November 2010 – Iranian nuclear scientist Majid Shahriari is killed when a bomb attached to his car exlodes in Tehran; another nuclear scientist, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, escapes an attempt on his life in a separate incident
- 23 July 2011 – Iranian scientist Darioush Rezaeinejad is shot to death in Tehran
- 12 November 2011 – A massive explosion at an ammunition depot outside of Tehran kills 17 people, including Major General Hassan Moqaddam, a key figure in Iran’s missile programme
- 28 November 2011 – Bombs explode at nuclear facilities in Isfahan, 340 km south of Tehran
- 11 December 2011 – An explosion rocks a steel mill linked to Iran’s nuclear programme in the city of Yasd, killing seven people
- 11 January 2012 – Iranian scientist and director of the Natanz nuclear plant in central Iran dies in an explosion from a device that was attached to his car
- January 2012 – Three men suspected of planning attacks against two Israelis employed by a Jewish school in Azerbaijan are arrested by Azeri authorities before the attacks could be carried out
- 13 February 2012 – The wife of an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi, India survives an explosion caused by a bomb attached to her vehicle; also, a bomb is discovered in Tbilisi, Georgia, attached to the car of an Israeli embassy staffer, which is defused before it could detonate
- 14 February 2012 – An explosion rocks a house containing three Iranian nationals in Bangkok, Thailand, and one of the suspects loses his legs after his own grenade bounces back at him. Two men are still in custody in Thailand in relation to the attacks, while the third is in Malaysia awaiting extradition
- 07 July 2012 – A Swedish national is arrested in Cyprus after he is caught tracking the movements of Israeli tourists
- 19 July 2012 – A former Guantanamo Bay detainee and Swedish citizen blows up a bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing himself, the bus driver, and five Israeli tourists