Covert War In Iran: But Who Is Waging It?

“If you are shooting, don’t complain about being shot.”–Arabic proverb

The New York Times front page lays out what appears to be a fairly aggressive covert war going on in Iran. It was demonstrated most clearly with the assassination just recently of yet another Iranian nuclear scientist, at least the fifth to be killed since 2007. But add to that the mysterious explosion at an Iranian missile base that killed a top general and 16 others two months ago and other happenings in Iran and you have the makings of a covert war. But who is actually waging it?

Immediate suspicions point to the Israelis, who have powerful incentives for attempting to take down the nuclear program. They certainly have the covert capabilities. The Mossad is perhaps the most effective covert operations agency in the world. While they lack the resources and size of the CIA, they have the most experienced operatives in the world and the best human assets in the Middle East. They have obviously shed no tears at the assassination of these scientist. Brig. General Yoav Mordechai of the Israeli military is quoted in the times: “I don’t know who took revenge on the Iranian scientist, but I am definitely not shedding a tear.” Patrick Clawson, one of the shrewdest observers of the Middle East, believes the Israelis are behind it: “I often get asked when Israel might attack Iran. I say, ‘Two years ago.'”

Another possible actor in this covert war is the United States, which since the Bush Administration has been waging a covert war (not exactly covert because its been widely reported in the press) against the Iranian government. The United States denies any involvement with these covert activities. And given the proclivities of the Obama Administration and legal restrictions on the assassination of civilians in a non-combat zone, I am apt to believe them.

The most intriguing story-line for these covert actions? That one faction of Iranians is waging it against the another. There are deep political divisions in Iran, as President Ahmadinejad and his allies have been under repeated political attack for corruption. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes that some of the nuclear scientists were actually assassinated by the Iranian government. He makes an interesting observation. “I think there is reason to doubt the idea that all the hits have been carried out by Israel,” he told the Times. “It’s very puzzling that Iranian nuclear scientists, whose movements are likely carefully monitored by the state, can be executed in broad daylight, sometimes in rush-hour traffic, and their culprits never found.” Some of the scientists who were assassinated, Sadjadpour points out, were sympathetic to the Iranian opposition.

There has been a long-standing tension between the Iranian military proper and the more radical Revolutionary Guards. There are also tensions within the governing regime itself. Could this be a covert civil war we are witnessing? Regardless of who is doing what, the Obama Administration’s misguided policy of engaging Tehran makes no sense under any of these scenarios. Why cozy up to a side in the middle of a civil war, especially to the more radical side? Or if the Israelis are behind these attacks, why cozy up to a regime that your closest ally in the region is covertly fighting against?

It’s time for strategic clarity from the Obama Administration. And let’s learn something from Ronald Reagan’s playbook. Undermining a regime is preferable to having to fight it and destroy it. As Margaret Thatcher put it, Reagan won the cold war “without firing a shot.” Better to wage a covert war now and than launch air and missile strikes a year from now.

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