To Win a Shadow War

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Sunday morning, an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps missile commander and sixteen other IRGC officials were killed in an explosion at a base southwest of Teheran. Iranian officials called the explosion an accident during the transport of munitions, but there are a number of reasons to believe it was not.

Firstly, the commander killed was Major Gen. Hasan Moghaddam, a senior IRGC commander with responsibility for the “Self-Sufficiency” unit of the Iranian’s missile forces, in particular surface-to-surface missiles. Moghaddam is said to have been a favorite of Ayatollah Khamenei, and it strains credibility that he was engaged in such a routine activity as personally supervising the transfer of munitions when the “accident” occurred. Secondly, according to an Israeli news report, Moghaddam had close ties to assassinated Hamas arms provider Mahmoud Al–Mabhouh, which suggests that, if Moghaddam was killed by the Mossad, they may be working their way up al-Mabhouh’s list of associates, possibly using intelligence gained from the terrorist’s interrogation before he was killed.

Western intelligence sources are confident that the explosion was indeed a successful Mossad operation.  The assassination of Moghaddam is just the latest in a series of shadowy attacks against Iran, specifically related to the missile program. Explosions have also killed Iranian missile technicians, an IRGC base where Shabab missiles are stored, and convoys transporting missiles, probably intended for Hezbollah.  Numerous nuclear scientists have been assassinated in the past two years, including Russian nuclear scientists killed in a plane crash in June.

Coincidentally, the Iranians also admitted Sunday that they had suffered from another computer virus attack, called “Duqu”, which is closely related to the previous Stuxnet virus. The Iranians claim to have “neutralized” Duqu before any substantial damage was done, but considering that Duqu is primarily designed as an information-gathering device, rather than a weapon of sabotage, it seems likely that whoever injected the code into the Iranian computer systems probably already got what they came for. “Duqu” would represent the third such virus attack against Iranian systems, including Stuxnet, and another virus program which the Iranians called “Stars”.

Lest one think that Iran is some hapless victim, the Islamic Republic is active in the shadows as well. Former CIA spy Reza Kahili’s Iranian sources tell him that the operation which included the assassination plot against a Saudi Ambassador on U.S. soil, and Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington and Buenos Aires, were hatched at the direction of Iran’s supreme leader. Bahraini intelligence claims they successfully intercepted a plot to bomb Saudi targets in the small Gulf country, and destroy the causeway which connects Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. On November 3rd, an Afghan suicide bomb team targeted a construction company in Herat, Afghanistan. The likely commander of that operation, Samihullah, has close ties to Iran’s Al-Qods force.  Iranian support for the Taliban in Afghanistan has been publicly known for some time, and is a great concern for U.S. forces. Closer to home, Iran is heavily active in Latin America, expanding Al Qods and Hezbollah forces, ties with anti-American regimes, and even drug cartels. The Iranians have also been active in promoting and cheerleading the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, in the exact same manner they did the Arab Spring protests. Iran routinely host U.S. based Muslim Brotherhood front groups such as CAIR, MPAC and MSA, on their Press TV propaganda outlet.

When we consider the on-going covert conflict with Iran, it becomes readily apparent that the two sides have vastly different objectives. The West (including Israel and the United States, and other western allies who may be assisting in intelligence activities) are almost wholly focused on the nuclear weapons issue. Targets are those actively involved in the Iranian nuclear weapons project, or increasingly, involved in the delivery systems for such weapons, meaning surface to surface missiles.  The operations against Iran are largely technocratic. The elimination of particular scientists or arms suppliers, target specific reactors and centrifuges.  Success or failure can best be measured by Iran’s progress towards nuclear weaponization.

Are we succeeding? The recently released IAEA report contained intelligence information from ten countries, all leading to the conclusion that Iran has constructed and “cold tested” all the components of a nuclear warhead, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested that the up to date intelligence places Iran further ahead than would be suggested by the already alarming U.N report. And despite the skill and ingenuity displayed by Western Intelligence in attempting to disrupt Iranian nuclear efforts, such efforts are likely doomed to failure. As U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen stated in February of last year, even an overt military strike would not stop the Iranian nuclear program for good.

By contrast, the Iranian objectives appear to be primarily about spreading influence and ideology, both regional, vis-à-vis its chief competitor Saudi Arabia, but also globally, seeking to hamper U.S. interests. The Iranians are clearly willing to engage in any theater, including the U.S. capital itself. The Iranians are a revolutionary opponent, focused on the spread of their Islamic revolution. They firmly believe that any action which upsets the status quo, and which creates chaos or dissension is to their advantage. As Iranian President Ahmadinejad said, “… [Iran] builds something you can’t respond to: Ethics, decency, monotheism and justice.” In other words, Ahmadinejad views the Iranian ideology as its most powerful weapon.

Viewed in these terms, can the Iranians then said to be achieving their objectives? One would be hard pressed to argue otherwise. The new Islamist Prime Minister of Tunisia has called for a new Caliphate and hosts Hamas. The head of Tunisia’s new ruling Islamist party, Rachid Ghannouchi has publicly declared that he “quite likes” Hamas’ rocket attacks against Israel. Even a leading Saudi thinker is calling the recent upheaval in the Middle East, “The Muslim Brotherhood Spring”. Prior to Mubark’s overthrow in Egypt, Egyptian intelligence warned the U.S. of Iran’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in June of last year, according to a Wikileaked State Department cable. In the UAE, the Crown Prince warned of the risk of elections in any country with an organized Muslim Brotherhood presence.” Despite this the U.S. says it would be “satisfied,” with a Muslim Brotherhood victory, and trains Islamists in electioneering techniques.

Arguably then, Iran is achieving its broad objectives, even as particular operations, such as the Saudi Ambassador assassination fail and their hand is publicly revealed. By contrast, the efforts by the Western covert agencies have been operationally successful, and their fingerprints largely wiped cleaned. But despite numerous operational successes, the Iranians continue on undaunted, inching ever closer towards a nuclear weapons arsenal.

The West must adopt a far broader effort if it hopes to best Iran in this shadowy conflict. While operations delaying or hampering the Iranian nuclear project are positive, (as Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said of the Iranian explosion, “May there be more like it”) but these acts are merely to buy time, they do not represent an actual strategy against Iran’s global ambitions. Nuclear weapons play a role in these ambitions, but they are not a goal in and of themselves. The goal is worldwide Islamic revolution with Iran as its leader.

The West must set as its own goal, not merely the prevention of Iran’s nuclear weapons, but the overthrow of the regime, and the defeat of Islamism as an ideological force. To do that will require a willingness to combat Iran in every sphere of endeavor, and on every continent where they are operational. The U.S. must immediately cease cooperating with Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist parties, and equip liberals and democrats with the tools and training necessary to be successful against their Islamist opposition. This idea that the U.S. must support all parties equally in the interest of a free and fair election is deeply misguided.  Refusing to intervene in our own interest means only that Iran’s preferred parties and Islamist fellow-travelers are allowed to dominate. We should instead act, as we did when CIA operations affected the outcome of the Italian election of 1948, keeping the Communists from power in Italy. Even with the opportunity of the Iranian protests in 2009 squandered by an Obama Administration at pains to keep open negotiations with Iran, we can still work within Iran with opposition parties and dissidents to undermine and eventually defeat the regime.

Until such a strategy is devised and executed, we will find that the west can succeed at all of its covert operations, and yet still lose the shadow war.

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About the Author

Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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