Iran/Israel — The Iran-Israel Intelligence War

A use­ful analy­sis of Israel’s covert offen­sive against Iran‘s nuclear facil­i­ties and its like­ly con­se­quences in terms of a region­al con­flict that could close the straits of Hor­muz and cause major dam­age to our ener­gy secu­ri­ty and the econ­o­my per se. What is worse is that the Israeli covert method­olo­gies used could inspire the ISI and its Jiha­di cohorts to attack Indi­an nuclear facil­i­ties and sci­en­tists. That con­sti­tutes a very dan­ger­ous new sce­nario for which India must pre­pare its response options.

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As ten­sions ratch­et up over the Iran­ian nuclear pro­gramme, India has rea­sons to be wor­ried. Any vio­lent con­fronta­tion in the Per­sian Gulf has the poten­tial to dis­rupt its ener­gy sup­plies, upon which fur­ther eco­nom­ic growth is con­di­tion­al. There is anoth­er dimen­sion as well, not so exten­sive­ly stud­ied: a silent war between Iran and Israel, fought by intel­li­gence agen­cies. The vicious­ness of this con­flict can lend itself to emu­la­tion by India’s ene­mies. There have already been warn­ings that ter­ror­ist groups are scout­ing ‘strate­gic tar­gets’ in India, includ­ing nuclear facil­i­ties. The res­i­dences of senior defence sci­en­tists have been sur­veyed for pos­si­ble fiday­een attacks. Should the covert con­test between Iran and Israel con­tin­ue to esca­late, the meth­ods fea­tured in it might be oppor­tunis­ti­cal­ly repli­cat­ed on the Indi­an sub­con­ti­nent.

How it all began

Con­cerns over the Iran­ian nuclear pro­gramme derive from an Amer­i­can-Israeli ‘intel­li­gence pan­ic’ – a sud­den real­i­sa­tion that recent data on a crit­i­cal issue is unavail­able. Until the late 1990s, the US was con­fi­dent in its abil­i­ty to mon­i­tor Weapons of Mass Destruc­tion (WMDs) pro­grammes in the devel­op­ing world. Such com­pla­cen­cy was shat­tered in May 1998, when a defect­ing Pak­istani sci­en­tist revealed that his coun­try was secret­ly sell­ing nuclear tech­nol­o­gy to Iran, North Korea and Libya. The rev­e­la­tion stunned US offi­cials, who believed until then that the risk of nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion was lim­it­ed to theft from poor­ly-guard­ed instal­la­tions in for­mer Sovi­et Union republics. They had envis­aged the worst-case sce­nario to be pil­fer­age of a nuclear device by organ­ised crime groups, who might sell the device on to ter­ror­ists. Lit­tle thought was giv­en the pos­si­bil­i­ty of gov­ern­men­tal involve­ment in such enter­pris­es.

There have already been warn­ings that ter­ror­ist groups are scout­ing ‘strate­gic tar­gets’ in India, includ­ing nuclear facil­i­ties. The res­i­dences of senior defence sci­en­tists have been sur­veyed for pos­si­ble fiday­een attacks. Should the covert con­test between Iran and Israel con­tin­ue to esca­late, the meth­ods fea­tured in it might be oppor­tunis­ti­cal­ly repli­cat­ed on the Indi­an sub­con­ti­nent

The Pak­istani scientist’s claims sug­gest­ed that illic­it trade in nuclear mate­r­i­al could also occur among states. For five years there­after, US intel­li­gence agen­cies sat on the new infor­ma­tion. They had already received inputs from India in the 1980s of a nuclear traf­fick­ing net­work run out of Islam­abad by A Q Khan, but had dis­re­gard­ed these. Now an inde­pen­dent source appeared to con­firm the exis­tence of this net­work. Yet, the polit­i­cal mood in Wash­ing­ton was to wish away evi­dence of state involve­ment in illic­it nuclear trade, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it con­cerned coun­tries with whom the US already had uneasy rela­tions that need­ed to be han­dled with care. Not until 2003, when a chance inter­cep­tion trig­gered off an inter­na­tion­al inves­ti­ga­tion into the net­work, were US intel­li­gence agen­cies con­front­ed with real­i­ty: they were poor­ly informed about unde­clared nuclear activ­i­ties. Many of the states alleged to have done busi­ness with the net­work were sig­na­to­ries to the Non-Pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty (NPT). The sin­cer­i­ty of their com­mit­ment to it now appeared doubt­ful.

At around the same time, Israel’s Mossad dis­cov­ered that a ura­ni­um enrich­ment facil­i­ty was oper­at­ing near the Iran­ian town of Natanz. Although this site had been under sur­veil­lance since the mid-1990s, Mossad ana­lysts had long been unable to ascer­tain the nature of research con­duct­ed there. The A Q Khan inves­ti­ga­tion abrupt­ly revealed that the instal­la­tion had secret­ly acquired cen­trifuges whose main pur­pose was to enrich ura­ni­um for pos­si­ble mil­i­tary use. Once this infor­ma­tion was ver­i­fied by the Inter­na­tion­al Atom­ic Ener­gy Agency (IAEA), con­cerns began to be voiced over Iran’s nuclear inten­tions. Over the next three years (2003–06), talks on the issue dragged on, with some ana­lysts believ­ing that Iran was stalling for time until it could devel­op a nuclear weapon.

Mount­ing wor­ries about Tehran’s nuclear pol­i­cy stemmed from a grow­ing appre­ci­a­tion of how dif­fi­cult it was to track WMD pro­grammes in hos­tile or ‘denied’ ter­ri­to­ry. Amer­i­can and Israeli intel­li­gence agen­cies had already been wrong twice on the sub­ject. In 1990 they under­es­ti­mat­ed the degree to which Iraqi WMD capa­bil­i­ties had devel­oped and in 2003 they went to the oppo­site extreme and invent­ed a non-exis­tent threat. By 2006 Iran had begun tak­ing advan­tage of the Iraq insur­gency to posi­tion itself as a major pow­er in the Per­sian Gulf region. Hav­ing devel­oped a jaun­diced view of Tehran since the 1980s, as a result of its con­sis­tent sup­port for Shia mil­i­tan­cy, nei­ther Wash­ing­ton nor Tel Aviv was pre­pared to assume that Iran’s nuclear inten­tions would be benign.

In Feb­ru­ary 2007, such doubts appeared to be par­tial­ly jus­ti­fied. That month, US intel­li­gence arranged the defec­tion of a senior Iran­ian offi­cial, who had been close­ly con­nect­ed with the nuclear pro­gramme. This offi­cial revealed that Iran, Syr­ia and North Korea had set up a joint research project aimed at pool­ing nuclear tech­nol­o­gy and knowl­edge. Infor­ma­tion that three coun­tries hos­tile to West­ern inter­ests were col­lab­o­rat­ing in nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion raised fears about anoth­er A Q Khan-style traf­fick­ing oper­a­tion. Hav­ing failed to react to past warn­ings about such activ­i­ties, the US could not afford to dis­re­gard the new infor­ma­tion. For its part, Israel was extreme­ly alarmed at the prospect of Syr­ia acquir­ing a nuclear shield. Its intel­li­gence agen­cies had had no infor­ma­tion on this devel­op­ment.

In mid-August, a recon­nais­sance mis­sion by Israeli com­man­dos ver­i­fied that a secret nuclear reac­tor was oper­at­ing in north­ern Syr­ia. Three weeks lat­er, on 6 Sep­tem­ber 2007, Israeli air­craft bombed the instal­la­tion. Accord­ing to pho­tographs released by the US gov­ern­ment in April 2008, the Syr­i­ans had been pro­duc­ing plu­to­ni­um at the site — an activ­i­ty that ana­lysts inter­pret­ed as hav­ing a mil­i­tary pur­pose. Hav­ing grown con­vinced that a wave of nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion was about to occur, the US and Israel now focused on pre­vent­ing Iran from acquir­ing nuclear weapons sta­tus. With North Korea hav­ing already test­ed a nuclear device in 2006, time was not in favour of the non-pro­lif­er­a­tion regime unless inter­ven­tion took place.

A pre­lude to con­flict

That inter­ven­tion, it seems, has large­ly tak­en the form of an intel­li­gence war. Mossad has long been sus­pect­ed of assas­si­nat­ing WMD sci­en­tists in Arab states, in order to deny a nuclear shield to ter­ror­ist groups oper­at­ing against Israeli bor­ders. It is there­fore, the prime sus­pect in a series of tar­get­ed killings that have caused severe dis­rup­tion to the Iran­ian nuclear pro­gramme. So far, six sci­en­tists have been killed, with an attempt made against the life of a sev­enth.

The assas­si­na­tions have pro­voked a dou­ble-sided out­cry in Iran. On the one hand, there is indig­na­tion that a for­eign pow­er can uni­lat­er­al­ly assume the right to car­ry out extra-judi­cial killings of Iran­ian nation­als. On the oth­er, the Iran­ian gov­ern­ment is blamed for being unable to pro­tect its cit­i­zens. In the long term, these two trends are like­ly to fold into an even stronger and broad-based com­mit­ment to the nuclear pro­gramme. Whether the gov­ern­ment intends to keep the pro­gramme peace­ful or not might be irrel­e­vant: pub­lic pres­sure will edge it towards either weapon­i­sa­tion orat the least, thresh­old sta­tus. Such a state of affairs would be part­ly the Iran­ian regime’s own fault and part­ly the fault of Israeli intel­li­gence.

With the Euro­pean Union hav­ing announced an embar­go on Iran­ian oil, effec­tive 1st July 2012, Tehran has retal­i­at­ed by declar­ing that it will imme­di­ate­ly stop sup­plies to the EU. The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards are mean­while, brac­ing for a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion in the Straits of Hor­muz

The Iran­ian regime, for its part, has con­struct­ed a per­cep­tu­al wall between its cit­i­zens and the out­side world, such that dia­logue free of recrim­i­na­tions becomes dif­fi­cult. With its name-call­ing rhetoric, it has viti­at­ed the atmos­pher­ics of diplo­mat­ic engage­ment. On a more prag­mat­ic lev­el, its sup­port for the Lebanese Shia mil­i­tant group Hezbol­lah has kept alive old con­cerns about nuclear ter­ror­ism, how­ev­er exag­ger­at­ed these might be. Rather than a ter­ror­ist inci­dent involv­ing WMDs, what the Israelis fear is pre­cise­ly the kind of prob­lem that India already faces: increased bel­liger­ence from rad­i­cal Islamist groups, pro­tect­ed by a nuclear-armed state patron. The com­bat­ive pos­tur­ing of the Iran­ian regime, while good for domes­tic pol­i­tics, is only under­scor­ing inter­na­tion­al con­cerns about its long-term game­plan.

Israel on the oth­er hand, has used meth­ods that can only hard­en Iran­ian resolve. While some of its covert oper­a­tions have been quite sophis­ti­cat­ed (for instance: the 2010 release of a com­put­er virus called Stuxnet into cyber-sys­tems asso­ci­at­ed with the nuclear pro­gramme) oth­ers have been polit­i­cal­ly inflam­ma­to­ry. Besides the afore-men­tioned killings, they include sab­o­tage inci­dents at sen­si­tive mil­i­tary sites. Since 2006, such inci­dents have claimed the lives of sev­er­al dozen Iran­ian secu­ri­ty per­son­nel and placed the regime in a dif­fi­cult posi­tion: now that the nuclear pro­gramme has its mar­tyrs, it becomes polit­i­cal­ly dif­fi­cult for the gov­ern­ment to change course. For a pop­u­la­tion that strong­ly believes in self-sac­ri­fice amidst over­whelm­ing odds, it seems log­i­cal to push on in the face of set­backs and intim­i­da­tion.

Para­mil­i­tary oper­a­tions are like­ly to delay the Iran­ian nuclear pro­gramme, but they will also solid­i­fy the process by which Iran might push on to devel­op nuclear weapons. The 2011 Libyan Civ­il War can be seen by some regime hard­lin­ers as a sign of the per­pet­u­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty that comes with being a non-nuclear weapons state. Hav­ing dis­man­tled his WMD pro­gramme, Libyan dic­ta­tor Muam­mar Gaddafi end­ed up being top­pled by the West and killed by his own coun­try­men. In con­trast, Kim Jong Il, who as a dic­ta­tor was hard­ly more benev­o­lent than his Libyan coun­ter­part, died of old age and was mourned by his peo­ple as their ‘Dear Leader’. The dif­fer­ence: Kim hung on to his WMD pro­gramme.

Even as it con­tin­ues with its nuclear activ­i­ties, Iran is seek­ing to neu­tralise West­ern lever­age over its econ­o­my. With the Euro­pean Union hav­ing announced an embar­go on Iran­ian oil, effec­tive 1 July 2012, Tehran has retal­i­at­ed by declar­ing that it will imme­di­ate­ly stop sup­plies to the EU. The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards are mean­while, brac­ing for a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion in the Straits of Hor­muz, whose defence is their respon­si­bil­i­ty. The Guards have rough­ly 2,000 mines with which to block com­mer­cial ship­ping in the Straits, although it is esti­mat­ed that not more than 300 are actu­al­ly need­ed for the pur­pose. Iran also has a large fleet of speed­boats with which to mount guer­ril­la-style attacks on mer­chant ves­sels and is posi­tion­ing mis­siles to hit the wealthy and crowd­ed cities of the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, just across the Strait. Unless ten­sions can be defused in the next few months, some kind of mil­i­tary action is like­ly.

Impli­ca­tions for India

The secret war between Iran and Israel could impact India in two ways. First, it might dri­ve up ten­sions in the Per­sian Gulf to such lev­els that oil sup­plies would be dis­rupt­ed by naval clash­es. Tehran already knows the region’s worst-kept secret: that oppo­si­tion to its nuclear pro­gramme, while being spear­head­ed by the US and Israel, is qui­et­ly endorsed by its Arab neigh­bours. It has lit­tle rea­son to be con­cerned about the neg­a­tive impact that its actions could have on their economies and might even wish for a cal­i­brat­ed con­fronta­tion to pun­ish them.

Sec­ond, the meth­ods used could make para­mil­i­tary covert action against nuclear assets fash­ion­able for some rogue intel­li­gence agen­cies in India’s neigh­bour­hood. Many ana­lysts would argue that this would not be a new devel­op­ment — ter­ror­ist threats to nuclear facil­i­ties, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Bhab­ha Atom­ic Research Cen­tre (BARC) have been detect­ed in the past, but noth­ing has hap­pened. Still, there is no room for com­pla­cen­cy.

Indi­an intel­li­gence agen­cies have already warned of the under­ly­ing log­ic behind ter­ror­ist plans to attack nuclear sites. The ter­ror­ists and their patrons wish to dis­cred­it the phys­i­cal secu­ri­ty arrange­ments sur­round­ing India’s nuclear pro­gramme and gen­er­ate inter­na­tion­al pres­sure for sus­pend­ing nuclear trade with India. In the best­case sce­nario, as far as India’s ene­mies are con­cerned, the coun­try would be unable to con­sol­i­date its fledg­ling nuclear ener­gy pro­gramme and would remain depen­dent on oil imports. This would great­ly increase the strate­gic lever­age of states that lie between Indi­an ener­gy con­sumers and Cen­tral Asian sup­pli­ers. There are two such states: Afghanistan and Pak­istan. Of these, the for­mer is a friend of India, while the lat­ter is known to be quite fond of covert para­mil­i­tary oper­a­tions (besides being the orig­i­nal source of the Iran­ian nuclear pro­gramme in the first place).

An attack on Indi­an sci­en­tists or nuclear instal­la­tions, even if osten­si­bly car­ried out by non-state actors, would be a provo­ca­tion of a greater mag­ni­tude to that so far faced by New Del­hi. It would have strate­gic impli­ca­tions and require a pol­i­cy response. With the Iran-Israel intel­li­gence war show­ing that ‘wet’ oper­a­tions and casu­al­ty-caus­ing sab­o­tage, like state-spon­sored ter­ror­ism, remain a com­po­nent of state­craft, India needs to pre­pare retal­ia­to­ry plans if its strate­gic assets are attacked by a neighbour’s prox­ies. No amount of inter­na­tion­al pres­sure or polit­i­cal sen­ti­men­tal­ism should be allowed to hold back the Indi­an response.

About the Author
Dr Prem Mahade­van — The writer is Senior Researcher for Intel­li­gence, Sub-state Con­flict and Organ­ised Crime at the Cen­ter for Secu­ri­ty Stud­ies in Zurich, Switzer­land. Between 2002 and 2009, he com­plet­ed an under­grad­u­ate degree in War Stud­ies and post­grad­u­ate and doc­tor­al degrees in Intel­li­gence Stud­ies from King’s Col­lege, Lon­don. He has writ­ten exten­sive­ly on Indi­an and Pak­istani intel­li­gence agen­cies and his arti­cles on Indi­an counter-ter­ror­ism have been made rec­om­mend­ed read­ing for mil­i­tary offi­cers in North Amer­i­ca and West­ern Europe.

Note by the Author:
The Guards have rough­ly 2,000 mines with which to block com­mer­cial ship­ping in the Straits, although it is esti­mat­ed that not more than 300 are actu­al­ly need­ed for the pur­pose. Iran also has a large fleet of speed­boats with which to mount guer­ril­la-style attacks on mer­chant ves­sels and is posi­tion­ing mis­siles to hit the wealthy and crowd­ed cities of the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, just across the Strait. Unless ten­sions can be defused in the next few months, some kind of mil­i­tary action is like­ly

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