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.
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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