Who's Been Killing Iran's Scientists?
October 9, 2013
Patrick Cockburn / The Independent & Damien McElroy and Ahmad Vahdat / The Telegraph & The Guardian
The head of Iran's cyber warfare program has been shot dead, triggering further accusations that outside powers are carrying out targeted assassinations of key figures in the country's security apparatus. The timing of the latest shot in a covert war invites questions about the role of proxies.
Just Who Has Been Killing Iran's Nuclear Scientists?
Patrick Cockburn / The Independent
LONDON (October 6, 2013) -- What to make of the latest alleged assassination in Iran of a senior officer in the Revolutionary Guards just as Iran and the US move towards negotiations? Is it a last-minute attempt by Israel or the Iranian dissident group the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) to sabotage talks -- or at least to show that they are still players in the decades-long struggle between the government in Tehran and its many antagonists?
The first account on an Iranian website stated that Mojtaba Ahmadi, the head of Iranian cyber warfare, had been found shot in the head outside Tehran. The Revolutionary Guards issued a statement denying that he had been assassinated, but admitted there had been a "horrific incident" which it was investigating.
The killing appeared to be the latest in a string of killings, since 2007, in which five Iranians associated with the country's nuclear program have been murdered in professional attacks. Men on motorcycles operating on the basis of good intelligence have stuck magnetically attachable bombs to their victims' cars.
The timing of Ahmadi's assassination looks suspicious, coming a few days after the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations and later spoke to President Barack Obama by telephone. Not everybody on either side is happy: the head of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohammed Ali Jafari, even stated openly that, while he agreed with Rouhani's UN speech, "he should have turned down a telephone conversation until after the American government had shown its sincerity towards Iran."
Jafari may be worried that Washington believes it has Iran on the run because of the devastating impact of economic sanctions.
An obvious motive for carrying out such assassinations is to demonstrate that the enemies of the Iranian government have a long reach and can identify and kill top specialists in modern warfare, notably but not exclusively those involved in the Iranian nuclear program. This is in keeping with the plot of so many spy movies in which a single irreplaceable scientist is targeted for assassination by the forces of good or evil. In reality, such uniquely capable scientists, even where they exist, are extremely well-guarded and seldom drive their own cars. It is unlikely that any of those killed are the Iranian equivalent of J Robert Oppenheimer, the mastermind behind America's successful effort to build an atomic bomb.
Who is doing the killings? A well-sourced and convincing investigation last year by NBC News in the US concluded that "deadly attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists are being carried out by an Iranian dissident group that is financed, trained and armed by Israel's secret service." It cites two senior Obama administration officials as confirming that the MEK is responsible for the killings but denying any US involvement.
Richard Engel and Robert Windrem of NBC quote Mohammad Javad Larijani, a senior aide to Iran's spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, as asserting that Israel's secret service, Mossad, trained MEK members. He claimed that in one case it built a replica of a nuclear scientist's house so that the killers would be familiar with it. His information largely came from the interrogation of a would-be assassin detained in Iran in 2010. Larijani said that Mossad worked through the MEK because "Israel does not have direct access to our society. [The MEK], being Iranian and being part of Iranian society, they have … a good number of places... to get into touch with people."
The MEK categorically denies any involvement with Israel but Israeli commentators have confirmed the MEK-Israeli connection.
The MEK is a strange, highly disciplined, cult-like organisation which began as a militant opponent of the Shah, inspired by an ideology that is a mixture of Marxism and Islam. After Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, the MEK fought a ferocious war against his clerical regime, basing itself in Iraq with support from Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.
During the Kurdish uprising in 1991, the Kurds blamed the MEK for blocking their advance against Saddam's forces at a crucial moment. After the fall of Saddam, the MEK established shadowy connections with the US occupation authorities, often through American contractors who had previously worked for Washington and still had their security clearances, according to Iraqi officials. This allowed the US to deny it was working with a group designated as "terrorist" by its own State Department in 1997 (though that designation was lifted last year).
Nevertheless, the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh says that, even while it was listed as a foreign terror group, MEK members received training from the Joint Special Operations Command in Nevada. During the confrontation between Tehran and Washington over Iran's nuclear program, the MEK was attractive to US intelligence agencies because it already had committed adherents on the ground in Iran.
The US and Iran have been conducting a covert war against each other since the fall of the Shah, though its intensity goes up and down. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), the CIA had a station in Baghdad that fed satellite surveillance photographs of Iranian frontline positions to Saddam.
The conflict escalated again during the US occupation of Iraq (although Iran had quietly welcomed the toppling of its arch enemy in Baghdad). At the same time, Iran made every effort to ensure that it, and not America, became the predominant foreign power in post-Saddam Iraq. Pin-prick attacks by the two sides were highly visible from 2003 to about 2008, but less evident during this time was a degree of co-operation, since both sides wanted to stabilise a Shia-Kurdish government. Likewise today, neither country has an interest in seeing a reinvigorated al-Qa'ida establish itself in the Sunni heartlands of western Iraq and eastern Syria.
The problem with the US-Iranian proxy war is that neither side quite controls their own proxies to the degree the other side imagines. It is all very well working through surrogates to retain deniability, but these have their own interests and may, in addition, be incompetent, corrupt or simply crazed.
The MEK is not the only player in this murky and violent world. There are others such as PJAK -- the Iranian Kurdish franchise of the Turkish Kurd PKK group -- which is based in the southern Qandil mountains and has its militants inside Iran. Meanwhile, in Pakistani Baluchistan, there are militant Sunni groups eager for money and support from foreign intelligence services.
Some of these groups, whatever their origin, end up as guns for hire and have so many tactical alliances they must have difficulty remembering what they are fighting for.
How feasible is a US-Iranian détente? Prospects are a lot better than they have been for a long time given that US and Iranian interests in Syria are not so diametrically opposed as they were six months ago. The Sunni offensive that seemed to carry all before it in 2011 and 2012 has stalled, at least for now. But Iran does not want to give the impression that it is caving in under sanctions and Israel will want to retain its veto over any future US-Iran deal.
So, whatever the truth about the death of Mojtaba Ahmadi, the covert war between Iran and its enemies is a long way from ending.
Iranian Cyber Warfare Commander
Shot Dead in Suspected Assassination
Damien McElroy and Ahmad Vahdat / The Telegraph
LONDON (October 2, 2013) -- Mojtaba Ahmadi, who served as commander of the Cyber War Headquarters, was found dead in a wooded area near the town of Karaj, northwest of the capital, Tehran. Five Iranian nuclear scientists and the head of the country's ballistic missile programme have been killed since 2007. The regime has accused Israel's external intelligence agency, the Mossad, of carrying out these assassinations.
Ahmadi was last seen leaving his home for work on Saturday. He was later found with two bullets in the heart, according to Alborz, a website linked to the Revolutionary Guard Corps. “I could see two bullet wounds on his body and the extent of his injuries indicated that he had been assassinated from a close range with a pistol,” an eyewitness told the website.
The commander of the local police said that two people on a motorbike had been involved in the assassination.
The Facebook page of the officers of the Cyber War Headquarters confirmed that Ahmadi had been one of their commander and posted messages of condolence. But Alborz users warned that the openly accessible book of condolence could harm Iran's national security.
“Stop giving more information about him. The counter-revolutionaries will take advantage of his murder,” said one post. “It sounds like a hit job for a security officer of this importance”.
Subsequently, a statement from the Imam Hassan Mojtaba division of the Revolutionary Guard Corps said that Ahmadi's death was being investigated. It warned against speculating “prematurely about the identity of those responsible for the killing”.
Western officials said the information was still being assessed, but previous deaths have been serious blows to Iran's security forces. Tighter security measures around leading commanders and nuclear scientists have instilled a culture of fear in some of the most sensitive parts of the security establishment.
The last victim of a known assassination was Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a chemist who worked in the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, who died when an explosive device blew up on his car in January last year.
The death of Ahmadi, a leading specialist in cyber defences, could be an extension of this campaign of subterfuge. Iran has been accused of carrying out a number of cyber attacks detected in the West. Shashank Joshi, an expert at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), said this was seen as a lesser threat than the nuclear programme. “Iran's cyber attacks on Israel and elsewhere in the region are a rising threat and a growing threat, but it hasn't yet been seen as a major and sustained onslaught, so it would be pretty novel and significant to take this step in the field of cyber-warfare at this time,” he said.
The Revolutionary Guard has also been accused of lending its expertise to Syria's regime, helping it to hack Western targets through a body known as the Syrian Electronic Army.
The killing of Ahmadi coincides with a new diplomatic effort by President Hassan Rouhani, Iran's newly elected leader. He has voiced the hope that Iran's confrontation with America and the leading Western powers over its nuclear ambitions can be settled within months.
Four People Arrested in Iran
Accused of Trying to Sabotage Nuclear Site
Iranian nuclear chief says 'saboteurs' were caught red-handed and are being questioned
Reuters & The Guardian
(October 6,2013) -- At least four people have been arrested in Iran for trying to sabotage a nuclear site, an Iranian official has been quoted by the country's media as saying.
The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, Ali Akbar Salehi, said officials had monitored and then arrested a "number of saboteurs" before they could carry out their plan.
"Four of these individuals were caught red-handed and their interrogations are ongoing," he said, according to the Mehr news agency on Sunday. He did not identify which nuclear site they were planning to damage or when those detained were arrested.
Israel, widely believed to be the region's only nuclear-armed state, sees Iran's atomic work as a military threat and has said it will attack Iran's nuclear sites if it does not end its programme. Iran says its nuclear work is purely peaceful.
Iran accuses Israel and the west of being behind the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and of trying to damage its programme in other ways, such as by cyber-attacks.
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