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On Mossad, Stuxnet and the Iranians

On January 11, 2012, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, an Iranian engineer who worked at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, was killed by a magnetic bomb attached to his car. He was the latest of the five Iranian scientists and engineers affiliated with the controversial nuclear program who were assasinated since 2007, mostly by attaching magnetic limpet bombs to their vehicles. The sixth scientist targeted, Fereydoon Abbasi, survived a similar attempt on his life in 2010 and is now the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency.

The latest assassination sparked deep anger in Tehran. The Iranians immediately pointed the finger at Israel, the prime suspect, and the United States. Secretary Clinton categorically denied American involvement and even condemned the act of violence and expressed sympathy to Roshan’s family. Most experts and analysts agreed that the attacks bore the hallmarks of a Mossad operation. Mossad, the intelligence agency of Israel, has been suspected in the targeted killings. Its agents had done this tactic effectively against Egypt’s rocket program in the 1960s. One of its more brazen daylight assassinations in recent memory was the torture and killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas leader, inside a hotel in Dubai two years ago.  The Mossad agents who carried out the assassination used fake passports from several European countries, causing an international uproar.

Possibly with American cooperation, Mossad was also suspected in sabotage operations including the infamous 2009 Stuxnet cyber-attack at the Natanz enrichment facility. Stuxnet is a very complex and powerful computer program and was the first of its kind in cyber-warfare. It is a computer worm that spies on and subverts industrial systems by affecting programmable logic controllers that control machines. Up to a thousand nuclear centrifuges used to enrich uranium were damaged by the worm in November, 2009, causing a drop in the Iranian facility’s operational capacity by 30%  and helped delay, though not destroy, Tehran’s ability to make its first nuclear bomb, as many in the West firmly believe is its real intention.

Surprisingly, the Israelis are less discreet about these operations. At the very least Israel’s defense establishment seems eager to let its allies believe its spies have pulled off these “events that happen unnaturally.” Israel’s chief military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai wrote on his Facebook page: “Don’t know who settled the score with the Iranian scientist, but for sure I am not shedding a tear.” Mossad officers were quietly bragging about the string of explosions at a missile-testing site outside Tehran in November, 2011. The explosions killed Maj. Gen. Hassan Moqqadam, the head of Iran’s missile program. In his testimony before the Knesset, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz promised more such “unnatural events” in 2012 aimed at thwarting Iran’s nuclear program.

Are these targeted assassinations intended to provoke a US-Iran War? According to former CIA officer Robert Baer, during an interview with Chris Matthews of MSNBC,”there seems to be little doubt that these assassinations have been an Israeli operation, but the weakening effect on Iran’s nuclear program is far less significant than the fact that this could easily provoke Iranian retaliation and achieve the desired US-Iranian war.” Any hostile response by the Iranians could easily be used as a pretext by the Israelis to legitimately attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. It may even drag the United States to an open war against Iran. Already, tensions are rising in the waters of the Persian Gulf with the Iranians threatening to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passage where 35% of the world’s oil shipments  are carried by ocean-going supertankers, and the Americans warning them not to do so.

Israel has good reasons to worry about Iran. Iran’s outspoken president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had made many controversial statements in the past, including one interpreted to mean “wiping Israel off the face of the Earth.” It does not help that he is also a Holocaust denier and the fact that Iran is the major supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah, two militant groups considered by many in the West as terrorist organizations.  However, Iran and Ahmadinejad are not one and the same. In fact, in recent years, Ahmadinejad had a lot of conflicts with many of his former supporters in the parliament who at one time were considering impeaching him, and the Supreme Leader himself, Ali Khamenei. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a fatwa saying the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons was forbidden under Islam. In contrast to Ahmadinejad’s remarks, Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei’s main advisor in foreign policy, said that the Holocaust was a genocide and a historical reality. Although Iran is anti-Zionist and opposed to the State of Israel, it is generally not anti-Semitic. In fact, over 40, 000 Jews live in Iran.

Which brings an important question: is Israel justified in murdering civilians in Iran on mere suspicion that Iran might be building a nuclear bomb?

Khamenei has criticized Ahmadinejad’s “personalization” of the nuclear issue. Despite Ahmadinejad’s teasing the West about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program as exemplified by his recent joke about the “atomic bomb”  with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in reality,  Ahmadinejad’s office is not directly involved in the country’s nuclear policy. It is actually set by the Supreme National Security Council which includes two representatives appointed by the Supreme Leader,  some military officials, and other government officials, and reports directly to Supreme Leader Khamenei. Could Ahmadinejad’s refusal to cooperate with the UN inspectors similar to Saddam Hussein’s that ultimately led to the Iraq invasion but later proved that indeed he was telling the truth that there was no longer weapons of mass destruction in Iraq the Bush regime was so confidently insistent do exist? It’s  possible that Ahmadinejad is telling the truth when he said that Iran’s nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes, backed by the fatwa issued by the Supreme Leader Khamenei and even supported by Iran’s main opposition.

The targeted killings can backfire on Israel’s and the West’s efforts to halt the nuclear program. The latest attack dominated Iran’s media this week, with many  criticizing what they said was the silence of the West over the killings. More conservative newspapers urged tit-for-tat covert action against Israel. Pro-democracy forces in Iran say the assassinations are likely to backfire against the West—enhancing the military state by legitimizing the nuclear program in the eyes of the Iranian people. Glenn Greenwald, writing on Salon, asked this question: [Is it] merely targeted killings or terrorism? He continued, “In the few venues which yesterday denounced as “Terrorism” the ongoing assassinations of Iranian scientists, there was intense backlash against the invocation of that term. Terrorism is the most meaningless — and thus most manipulated — term of propaganda; it’s always what They do and never what We do.That always happens whenever “Terrorism” is applied to acts likely undertaken by Israel, the U.S. or its allies — rather than its traditional use: violence by Muslims against the U.S. and its allies — because accusing Israel and/or the U.S. of Terrorism remains one of the greatest political taboos (even when the acts in question involve not only assassinations but also explosions which kill numerous victims whose identities could not have been known in advance). But the case of these scientist assassinations particularly highlights how meaningless and manipulated this term is.”

The Obama administration should be careful in dealing with the Iran problem. It will serve Obama well to remember the lesson of history when almost a decade ago the United States and its allies decided to invade Iraq based on their strong belief that Iraq hid weapons of mass destruction. Many of the American lawmakers, including former senator and now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at least in private, regretted voting in favor of the invasion. Is it deja vu all over again?

References:

  1. Iran and the Terrorism game by Glenn Greenwald , Salon, Jan. 12, 2012  http://www.salon.com/2012/01/12/iran_and_the_terrorism_game/singleton/
  2. Israeli Test on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Nuclear Delay by WILLIAM J. BROAD, JOHN MARKOFF and DAVID E. SANGER, New York Times, January 15, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/world/middleeast/16stuxnet.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all
  3. Will Israeli terrorism and US military threats provoke Iran into war? by Lindsey German, Stop The War Coalition, January 12, 2012 http://stopwar.org.uk/index.php/iran/1038-will-israeli-terrorism-and-us-threats-provoke-iran-into-war
  4. Is There A Covert War Against Iran? by Chris Matthews, MSNBC, Jan. 12, 2012  http://video.msnbc.msn.com/hardball/45978020#45978020

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