ISRAEL’S OPERATIONS AGAINST IRAN
The most dramatic development in the Middle East for a long, long time was the liquidation of Qassem Sulaymani, the de facto second-in-command in Iran as head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC)-Quds Force that exports the Islamic Revolution abroad. Killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020, Israel had been crucial in tracking Sulaymani’s mobile telephones and thus pinpointing him to enable the strike.
Sulaymani’s deputy, Jamal al-Ibrahimi (Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), who ran the IRGC-replica militia conglomerate in Iraq, the Hashd al-Shabi, was killed alongside him, and the U.S. simultaneously went after—but missed—the IRGC chief in Yemen, Abdul Reza Shahlai. There are claims that U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) set out to capture two Hashd commanders and did in fact apprehend one of them; this is unconfirmed.
A massive explosion in Tehran on 25 June 2020 was traced back not to Parchin as initially suspected but to the Khojir area, the location of what one expert called the “single most important site associated with Iran’s ballistic missile program”, and the specific facilities at the epicentre appear to have been involved in the production of solid-propellant. As with the explosion at Bidganeh in November 2011, also a solid-propellant development site, which killed the architect of the Iranian missile program, Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, it is simply impossible at this stage to say whether Khojir was an accident or sabotage.
Before that, on 7 August 2020, Israel struck down one of Al-Qaeda’s most senior officials, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (Abu Muhammad al-Masri), on the streets of Tehran. Abdullah was killed alongside his daughter, Maryam, the wife of Usama bin Laden’s son, Hamza. Maryam and Hamza had been married in Iran. Hamza was acting as a propagandist and allegedly being groomed for a leadership role within Al-Qaeda until he was killed a few years ago; the latter was also true of Maryam.
The messaging from the Israeli operation that eliminated Abdullah went in two directions. A crucial point was obviously to highlight the long relationship between Iran and Al-Qaeda, specifically that the clerical regime continues to harbour Al-Qaeda’s military leadership, as it has since they fled Afghanistan in 2001. In this, Israel succeeded: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a speech soon afterwards, and there was a flurry of commentary on the subject.
The other message from Abdullah’s demise was to the Iranians. Abdullah had been crucial to planning the bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than two-hundred people, mostly Africans, and he was killed exactly twenty-two years to the day later, demonstrating significant Israeli capacity to control the environment in the enemy’s capital, as had allegedly happened two-and-a-half years earlier when Israel says it spirited away the “atomic archive”.
In November 2020, Israel killed Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the godfather of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, outside Tehran. While some of the accounts of how Fakhrizadeh’s demise was brought about were rather fantastical, there seems little reason to doubt that Israel had extensive human and signals intelligence that it was able to use in real time to target one of the most senior Iranian officials in his own country in a situation where he had complete control—or thought he did—of the security situation. Israel previously used local proxies to kill a number of Iranian nuclear scientists in the 2010-12 period.
The Natanz uranium enrichment site in central Iran was plunged into darkness on 11 April 2021 by “a large explosion that completely destroyed the independent—and heavily protected—internal power system”, as The New York Times explained. The Iranian version of this event was that it was a “very sophisticated” operation that managed to cut the power to the centrifuges from the main grid and the backup system; there is no obvious evidence-against-interest reason for the Iranians to be lying about this.
There was never much doubt Israel was behind the blackout at Natanz, and Israeli officials as much as claimed it. On the very day it happened, U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin was in Israel. Austin’s statements and demeanour showed no signs of hostility, suggesting strongly the Americans were not taken by surprise. The U.S. did, in the context of negotiating a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), let it be known it had no role in the Natanz operation. This is in contrast to the Stuxnet cyberattack at Natanz a decade ago, where U.S. officials were delighted to share details of their involvement during Barack Obama’s re-election year.
The events two months ago follow an explosion that hit Natanz’s centrifuge infrastructure in July 2020. As with Stuxnet last time, there are strong indications that Israel needed human spies this time around at Natanz to carry this off. It has been reported that explosives were smuggled into Natanz in equipment that had been sent abroad for repair. If true, it would only underline the scale of the compromise—and the incompetence, on counter-intelligence, among other things.
Meanwhile, in the background to all the above, since late 2019 Israel has been targeting Iranian ships that carry weapons and oil to the war machine of Syria’s Bashar al-Asad, a regime propped up by IRGC. A few months earlier, in August 2019, Israel began air attacks on the militias in Iraq controlled by IRGC. And Israel has carried out airstrikes in Syria against IRGC positions since 2013, albeit not as many nor with the effectiveness that Israeli spokesmen have claimed in their intermittent admissions of responsibility.
IRAN TRIES TO RESPOND
In response to the Sulaymani killing, Iran overtly launched missiles days later at Ayn al-Asad and Erbil Airbases in Iraq where American troops were present, which caused no deaths or physical injuries—seemingly intentionally—though it did cause traumatic brain injury to several dozen U.S. soldiers. This was just a “slap in the face”, the beginning of Iran’s retaliation, according to Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i.
The Iranians have also self-sabotaged twice we know about in this same period: during the retaliation against Ayn al-Asad and Erbil, IRGC shot down a Ukrainian airplane they mistook for an incoming missile, killing nearly 200 civilians, and another misdirected missile from the IRGC Navy sank its own Konarak support vessel during a training exercise.
In late 2020, Iran was detected planning to assassinate the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, and in early 2021, plans were uncovered for an attack on Fort McNair, in Washington, D.C., that inter alia would kill the Army’s vice chief of staff. Both were thwarted easily. The alleged plans Iran harbours to avenge Sulaymani’s death by assassinating Pompeo or Brian Hook, the State Department’s former special representative for Iran, are fairly close to incredible, in the literal sense.
WE HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE
The failure of Khamene’i’s boast about the scale of the slapping the U.S. would receive over Sulaymani’s death is rather in-keeping with Iran’s recent track record.
The only comparable incident to the Sulaymani assassination was the February 2008 remote-detonation of a bomb attached to the car of Imad Mughniya, the military commander of Lebanese Hizballah and a commissioned officer of IRGC. The CIA tried to claim a leading role in Mughniya’s downfall when details were leaked to the press in 2015, much to the annoyance of MOSSAD.
In February 2012, timed as closely as possible to the anniversary of Mughniya’s assassination—though, it will be noted, four years later—Iran carried out a string of attempted attacks on diplomatic facilities in Georgia, India, and Thailand; all failed quite badly, with the slight exception of India, where some minor injuries were caused. A few weeks earlier, Azerbaijan had rolled up an IRGC/Hizballah network planning to assassinate the Israeli ambassador and a local rabbi, probably also intended to be simultaneous with the Mughniya anniversary attacks.
A second wave of planned attacks in 2012 saw an Iranian terrorist cell busted in Kenya in June 2012 and an attempt to murder Israeli tourists in Cyprus thwarted in July. Later in July 2012, Iran had a rare “success”, when a Hizballah suicide bomber massacred five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus driver in Burgas, while wounding over thirty Israelis. Even Burgas would prove to be the exception that proved the rule, though.
In Nigeria in 2013 and in Peru in 2014 IRGC cells targeting Israeli and Jewish targets were disbanded. Iran’s presence across Africa, particularly as part of the Hizballah-run global drugs trade, and even more so in Latin America, where it has state support from Venezuela and Cuba, should not be underestimated. We are not far removed from the bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building that killed and wounded 400 people, after all. Nor should it be overlooked that in the same period since 2012, IRGC/Hizballah was smuggling ammonium nitrate—the substance behind the Beirut blast in August 2020—into Europe to prepare for terrorist attacks, but it is equally noteworthy that it was MOSSAD that revealed this to European governments.
The only place IRGC can record any kind of consistent accomplishment abroad is, as at home, against anti-regime Iranians. While the explosives in Europe were never put to use, Iran has carried out a number of assassinations against dissidents on European soil and lured European residents of Iranian background into traps that in at least once case ended with their judicial murder within Iran. Though even, when it comes to IRGC’s activities against enemy émigrés, Israel has proven to be a spanner in the works.
THE SPY WAR
The problem for IRGC/Hizballah was, as was later admitted, that the man overseeing the Mughniya revenge program, Muhammad Shawraba, was an Israeli spy. Shawraba appears to have been part of an agent network; four others were arrested with him when he was discovered.
Shawraba significantly undid even the one “success” for Iran in 2012. Shawraba passed to Israel the details of the Burgas bomber, a French-Lebanese national named Mohamad Hassan el-Husseini, and his accomplices. These details were transmitted to Sofia, and a political debacle ensued for the Iranians, drawing unwanted attention to Iran’s Balkan networks and allowing a conviction in absentia of two Hizballah members that in turn forced several reluctant European Union states to designate the whole of Hizballah as a terrorist group.
This has been a recurrent problem. One of Hizballah’s founding members, Muhammad Slim (Abu Abed), defected to Israel after his true loyalties were uncovered, and Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of one of HAMAS’ founders, Shaykh Hassan Yousef, likewise defected after a decade or so as an agent-in-place.
A senior Iranian parliamentary official in April decried the fact the country had become a “haven for spies”; on the available evidence, he is not wrong.