Stratfor: Disparity in the covert war between Iran and the West


Within thirty minutes of each other on Monday, a “sticky bomb” attached to the back of a van detonated in New Delhi, India, and, more than 3200 kilometers (2000 miles) away, an aware driver in Tbilisi, Georgia, discovered and reported what was essentially a grenade duct-taped to the undercarriage of his vehicle, enabling police to defuse the device.

Both vehicles were connected to the Israeli Embassy in the respective capitals. The device that exploded seriously wounded an Israeli Embassy employee and wife of an Israeli defense attache and inflicted less severe injuries on the driver and two bystanders.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu almost immediately pointed the finger at Iran. Iran just as quickly characterised the entire affair as an Israeli fabrication intended to discredit Tehran. This sort of rhetorical exchange has been the normal state of affairs for years now.

There is a covert war raging with Israel and the United States on one side and Iran on the other. It is difficult to ignore the persistent and tactically consistent assassinations of Iranian scientists associated with the country’s nuclear program — assassinations in which sticky bombs have figured prominently — as well as the Stuxnet computer worm that targeted Siemens industrial software important to Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts. At this point, it is hard to find a more rational explanation for the assassinations and sabotage than that Israel or the United States — or, more likely, both in collaboration — are working to undermine Iran’s nuclear program.

Similarly, it is difficult to separate the most recent attacks in New Delhi and Tbilisi from arrests in Azerbaijan and Thailand that purportedly disrupted terrorist plots aimed at Israeli diplomatic targets and an apparent threat to Israeli interests in Bulgaria. There was also an admittedly odd plot to conduct attacks on American soil against U.S., Saudi and Israeli targets.

Monday’s events merely reinforce the existence of an already obvious campaign on both sides. But the remarkable aspect is the disparity between the two efforts. By and large, Stuxnet as well as the larger sabotage and assassination campaign against Iran have been consistently professional and effective. On the other hand, the Iranian counterattack has been repeatedly foiled or exposed as ineffective or even inept.

Tehran may not be employing its most capable assets. It is possible that these attacks have been conducted via ill-conceived contract work or poorly trained proxies simply for the sake of deniability. But while the trend of attempted attacks against Israeli and U.S. interests could be interpreted as a warning of worse to come, they stand in stark contrast to the consistently effective attacks against Iranian interests on Iranian territory.

Stratfor has argued that the principle Iranian deterrent to attack is its ability to attempt to disrupt maritime traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil trade passes. No matter how good the military response is to such an attack, no military in the world can control the markets’ reaction to even short-term disruptions, and that calculus has become only more compelling during the global economic crisis. Iran has thus gone out of its way to showcase this deterrent through recent and upcoming military maneuvers.

But its other deterrents may have begun to decline. It has yet to demonstrate a capability to covertly attack opposing interests abroad, a reputation for which it has long held credibly. This does not mean that Tehran does not wield such a capability, but the principal purpose of this capability is deterrence, not reprisal. Once the United States or Israel has initiated an attack on Iran as part of the covert war, Tehran’s strategy of deterrence has, by definition, failed. As time passes, the United States continues to reinforce its own installations and those of Israel with more and newer ballistic missile defenses against Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal. And while American diplomats and Western contractors remain vulnerable to direct attack in Iraq, now that the U.S. military withdrawal has been completed, it is far easier to remove the remaining presence than has been the case in close to a decade.

The deterrent Iran derives from its power over the Strait of Hormuz continues to hold sway. But while Stratfor is dismissive of the impact of sanctions (based on their scattered track record), they are not without their impact over time. Sanctions will not bring down the regime in Tehran, but Iranians have a far higher standard of living than, say, the average North Korean. In this context, the correlation of increasingly expensive food staples on the streets in Iran and the apparent ineffectual application of Iranian power abroad raises questions about the status of Iranian power in the region.

It is difficult to understate the significance of the continued survival of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, which is increasingly dependent on Iranian support. And the durability of Iranian power from the border of Afghanistan, through Iraq, where Iranian power currently peaks, all the way to the Mediterranean that the continued survival of the al Assad regime entails has potentially fundamental implications. But as the United States and its allies extract themselves from Afghanistan, American military power becomes more flexible in comparison to the fixed nature of Iranian power in the region. At some point, American power in the region will begin to converge with the limitations of Persian power in an Arab-dominated region. The question is at what point those powers converge.
“Disparity in the covert war between Iran and the West” reproduced with the permission of Stratfor,