The New Cold War?
Could the United States and allies such as Israel already be involved in a covert war against Iran? Many former US intelligence officials and Iran experts have suggested so, and the alleged shooting down of a US Air Force unmanned drone over Iran last weekend has added to the growing belief that covert operations are being staged against Tehran's nuclear and missile programmes.
Despite the lack of visual evidence to back up Iranian claims that the RQ170 reconnaissance aircraft was shot down and captured on Sunday or any confirmation from the US that one of its drones was missing, even the suggestion that a US military aircraft could have penetrated Iran's eastern airspace near the border with Afghanistan adds to the suspicion that a covert campaign could be underway.
Combined with reports of explosions at military bases in Iran, the release of tailor-made computer viruses and the assassination of Iranian scientists linked to Tehran's nuclear programme, some security analysts are joining the dots to form a picture of an undeclared conflict unfolding within Iran's borders.
The Iranian government attributed explosions in the city of Isfahan, home of one of Iran's contested uranium conversion plants, and at a Revolutionary Guard Corps military base near Tehran in November to accidents rather than sabotage carried out by external aggressors.
The November blasts followed a series of three similar explosions over a 24-hour period in October which came days after the US revealed that agents allegedly acting for the Revolutionary Guard were involved in a plot to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington in a restaurant in the US capital.
It is a long-held belief that years of international sanctions have weakened Iran's commercial and military infrastructure and have made working conditions more dangerous; a situation that could explain the dozen or so unexplained blasts at Iranian gas pipelines, oil installations and military facilities that have occurred over the past two years.
However, the blast at the military base on 12 November, which levelled most of the buildings and killed 17 people, also claimed the life of General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, a founder of Iran's ballistic missile programme. An explosion that killed such a high-profile official with links to the very programme that the US, Israel and other allies are looking to disable on the exact day he would be at the base could be seen as more than just a coincidence.
Each blast location over the past few months also featured the three key elements of Iran's nuclear programme: facilities used for uranium conversion, enrichment and the manufacture of delivery systems, i.e. missiles.
Also, if these explosions were caused by accidents, why would the Iranian regime be hiding key scientists such as Mohsen Fakrizadeh, said to be the father of the Iranian nuclear programme, and burying its facilities deeper underground as it is reportedly doing?
Of course, it is in the nature of a covert war that no-one claims responsibility. There has been no acknowledgement of involvement by anyone in the explosions or in the deaths of two senior Iranian nuclear physicists killed by car bombs in the past 12 months. The mystery extends to the source of the Stuxnet computer worm, which was secretly fed into Iran's nuclear programme in 2010, causing centrifuges used to enrich uranium to spin out of control and shatter.
"It seems very plausible that covert operations against the Iranian nuclear programme have already been going on for some time," says Michael Bauer, head of the Middle East Programme at the Center for Applied Policy Research in Munich.
Professor Volker Perthers, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, is more cautious in his assessment. "Rather than speaking of a covert war, I see patterns of a Cold War and containment – remember that in the Cold War, covert operations of this or a similar kind were used rather frequently."
The Iranian regime is holding the usual suspects – the US, Israel and other allies such as Britain and France – responsible for either being directly or indirectly involved in some or all of these incidents.
Iran says it has arrested dozens of CIA informants in recent months, a claim that has been reluctantly confirmed by the US.
According to Dr Elizabeth Iskander, an Iran expert at the London School of Economics, both sides have engaged in covert activities aimed at subverting each other. "Iran is believed to have carried out targeted assassinations of Iranian dissidents in Europe, particularly in the 1990s. In 2010 there was Stuxnet and also the apparent abduction of Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri. Iran believes the US government was behind both of these incidents," she says.
Some security experts believe that the level of sophistication of the attacks taking place in Iran suggests that Israel's Mossad and possibly also a Western partner such as the CIA or Britain's MI6 are behind them, but that a local group – perhaps the Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group blacklisted by the US as a terrorist organisation – is providing assistance on the ground.
"The MEK has a long history of confrontation with the Iranian government and has carried out terrorist attacks in Iran, while maintaining an active opposition-in-exile organisation based in France," says Dr Iskander. "The EU took the group off its terrorist list in 2009, and there are reports the US is considering following suit. There has apparently been cooperation with the MEK in the past in terms of information sharing."
Doubts over US involvement
Not everyone believes that a covert war is being waged on Iran. There is some doubt that the US would sanction a bombing campaign that would be tantamount to sponsoring terrorism – a charge Washington regularly levels at Tehran – or would authorise the targeted killing of Iranian scientists, although US President Barack Obama has authorised the killing of al Qaeda members and other suspected militants, including at least one US citizen in Yemen.
Those who don't support the idea of an unfolding covert war suggest that the US secret services' capability could not stretch much beyond its usual level of interference: the supplying of faulty parts, plans or software to hinder Iran's weapons programmes.
Others say that if the US and Israel wanted to disable Iran militarily, they wouldn't be wasting their time chipping away at the regime with targeted assassinations and selective bombings. The main objective could just be disruption in a bid to buy time.
"The US has made it rather clear that it wants to avoid a war," says Perthes. "Diplomacy and sanctions would be the preferred means to reach this goal, but if that doesn't suffice, covert operations of this sort seem to be the chosen additional option. Neither the US, Israel or Iran want to escalate this toward open war; this may explain why foreign parties are not being directly linked."
Even if the US or Israel are not involved, the belief that they could be may also be having the desired effect on the Iranians. Headlines about unsolved killings, unexplained explosions and sinister computer viruses will have scientists working on the nation's nuclear programme rattled; the psychological effects of not knowing what could happen or when may be just as destabilising as actual covert attacks.
© Deutsche Welle 2011
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de