Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Are Iran's secret agents losing the shadow war with Israel & the US?

I don't pretend to know the answer to that question, but there are some indications that they may be. An overview by Christopher Dickey, who is usually well informed about such matters, argues that "In Syria and around the world, Iran’s covert operatives are in trouble". If this is true, and not just a transitory impression, it could be significant in a range of ways. Some highlights from Dickey's piece:

The powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, its infamous expeditionary unit, the Quds Force, and the network of Hezbollah operatives it supports around the world, are starting to look like the proverbial gang that couldn’t shoot straight. They’re still dangerous, to be sure, but a series of recent incidents widely attributed to these groups suggest that as spies, assassins, and terrorists, they just aren’t what they used to be. And Tehran is getting worried.

Last weekend, for instance, Syrian rebels captured a group of 48 Iranians who were alleged to be IRGC members on “a reconnaissance mission” in Damascus. Rumors have circulated extensively in Tehran (a very rumor-prone city) that the head of the Quds Force, Qasem Suleimani himself, was wounded recently when his convoy was attacked in Damascus. Over the last year, at least nine apparent Iranian assassination and bomb plots around the world have failed or been thwarted. The grim attack on a bus full of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last month, which killed seven people and wounded 30, appears to have been the exceptional “success” for these murderers rather than the rule.

On almost every front in a wide-ranging covert war with Israel and the United States, Iran appears to be suffering major setbacks. Its nuclear program was disrupted by the Stuxnet computer worm in 2010 and at least one virus since. Its scientists have been attacked and five of them murdered. According to one source, recent leaks provided Western intelligence services with detailed information about work on the Iranian nuclear program at the Parchin military complex, which may have encouraged the Americans and their allies to toughen their stand in the faltering talks meant to defuse the crisis. [....]

Last month, intelligence analysts at the New York City Police Department prepared a detailed chronology of nine alleged Iran-backed plots in other cities around the world this year, all of them apparently aimed at Jewish targets. [JW: It's worth noting that the NYPD's counter-terrorism operation is widely regarded as world-class—probably of higher quality, allowing for size, than the US government's.] The NYPD stepped up security around several similar sites in New York City. Some of the alleged IRGC plots appear so convoluted it’s hard to believe they were ever serious, or, indeed, ever existed. Would the Iranians really have tried to hire members of a Mexican drug cartel to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington in a crowded D.C. restaurant last year? Mansour Arbabsiar, an Iranian-American former used-car salesman from Texas, whose lawyers say is bipolar, is awaiting trial in New York for his alleged role as a middleman in that plot. [....]

The back and forth of denial and recrimination is reminiscent of events 30 years ago in Lebanon, when Iranian agents were captured by hostile militias and the retaliation came in the form of multiple Iranian-backed kidnappings that targeted American journalists, a CIA station chief, an American colonel, and other Westerners.

Back then, however, the Iranians and their agents working under the government’s Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) showed impressive, if frightening, tradecraft. Throughout the 1980s and early '90s, the Iranians pulled off a series of assassinations targeting opponents of the regime in Paris, Geneva, Rome, Vienna, and elsewhere. Sometimes they used guns and sometimes car bombs, as in two attacks on Jewish targets in Argentina that took more than 100 lives in the early '90s. On August 6, 1981, Iranian agents murdered a former Iranian prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, in his own heavily guarded house outside of Paris with a knife from his kitchen, then calmly walked out the front door.
[JW: Dickey might also have mentioned the successful bombings of the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994, respectively, which are generally regarded as having been joint Iranian-Hizbullah operations. So why do they appear to be getting sloppier and less efficient?  According to Dickey's report, some of the reasons may be connected to ongoing factional struggles within the Iranian regime.]
In recent years, however, especially since the political upheaval following rigged presidential elections in 2009, the MOIS has been pushed aside in many areas by the separate, independent, and much clumsier IRGC. “ [....]

According to one of our correspondents in the region who is in close contact with various governmental sources in Iran, senior leaders of the regular Iranian army, which has been sidelined for decades as the IRGC gained strength, are now accusing the IRGC of squandering precious military resources and political capital in its efforts to save the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. [....] According to our correspondent, who is not named for security reasons, a “mole hunt” has begun inside the Quds Force, looking for the source or sources of mismanagement and potentially disastrous leaks to hostile intelligence forces. As in many bureaucracies, it is easier to blame conspirators than incompetents. [....]

Perhaps.  Anyway, it's worth reading the whole piece.

=>   And, by the way, regarding those 48 Iranians seized by anti-regime insurgents in Syria:
The Iranian government insists the Iranian citizens who are now “hostages” in Syrian rebel hands were mere religious pilgrims visiting the Shia shrine of Sayyida Zeinab in Damascus. But Tehran says it will hold the United States responsible for their treatment.
Well, that was then. Today Iran's Foreign Minister complicated that picture a bit by conceding that the Iranians being held hostage include "retired" members of the Revolutionary Guards and the army. Since Iran has not been sending pilgrims to Syria since large-scale fighting broke out there (as the Foreign Minister also mentioned), this explanation sounds fishy, to say the least—though, of course, at this point we can't say for sure whether or not there's any truth to it. At all events, whether or not those "pilgrims" are active members of the IRGC (which seems plausible to me), this incident further highlights Iran's role as one of the major outside forces involved in the proxy-war dimension of the struggle for Syria.

 —Jeff Weintraub