Clandestine war's pressure on Iranian leaders
In his new daily blog, Anshel Pfeffer reflects on news and analysis on Iran and the Middle East.
The series of mysterious bombings at key locations throughout Iran and assassinations of nuclear scientists over the last few months have obviously got under the skin of the regime's intelligence services.
This morning, the official FARS News Agency tells us of a "terrorist team" that was arrested in an operation by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC); the news was also broadcast last night on Iranian state television.
There are very few details in this report that allow us in any way to ascertain its veracity, but a few details are intriguing. In the past, similar reports have usually indicated the source of such groups, (the U.S, Israel, Britain), but today the Iranians are ascribing them to "the arrogant powers."
The location of the operation is also interesting: southeastern Iran, which would mean probably Balochistan, somewhere near Iran's borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) has been waging a low-key campaign for independence against both the Iranian and Pakistani governments, and Tehran and Islamabad have accused foreign powers for aiding it.
But this is a region of Iran that is far removed from the centers of nuclear research, so it is hard to see how it could be connected to the current crisis, unless someone is simply interested in creating yet another headache for the regime.
Perhaps the most interesting detail in the report is the fact that it names the Iranian Quds Force as the specific agency that carried out the operation against the "terrorist team." The Quds Force is normally Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) special department tasked with furthering the Islamic revolution outside of the country's borders, and is also responsible for arming and training Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad – as well as supporting Iran-backed terror operations around the world.
The appearance of the Quds Force as an anti-terror unit within Iran is new, and indicates a need to burnish its credentials. It will be interesting to see if any new details emerge about this operation, including the identity of those arrested and pictures of the "enormous amount of equipment, flammable material and grenades" which were apparently captured.
The fact that Iran's intelligence services feel the need to defend their record was made clear from another FARS report about a speech made by Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi Tuesday in Medina, in which he claimed that "Iran has the most powerful intelligence service in the region" and that they had "identified and disbanded large U.S. and Israeli spy networks with tens of branches, centers and nodes in different world countries, and has arrested a large number of spies during its operations."
Moslehi's speech came in the wake of a rare public appearance two weeks ago by the mastermind of Iran's intelligence network himself, the commander of the Quds Force, Major General Qasem Suleimani, who said that "the armed forces will show Iranian zeal in the face of any possible aggression against the country." It is unclear to whom and where he said this, though the quotes appeared days after the Lebanese media published that Suleimani had visited Hezbollah in Beirut, a report strenuously denied by the Iranian government.
Whatever the truth regarding his movements, this is the second time in two months that the Iranian media has published quotes from Suleimani which indicate that he is under increasing pressure to show results while the clandestine war against Iran is intensifying.
On the same issue, the Sunday Times reported this week that "Israel is using a permanent base in Iraqi Kurdistan to launch cross-border intelligence missions in an attempt to find 'smoking gun' evidence that Iran is building a nuclear warhead." The report by the paper's Tel Aviv correspondent is based on "western intelligence sources," and was preceded two months ago by a similar story in Le Figaro informed this time by "a security source in Baghdad."
There is no way that an Israeli news organization can independently and professionally verify these reports without breaching the military censorship's guidelines. Whether or not all the details in the Sunday Times report are accurate, the story is not outlandish considering Israel's historic relations with the Kurds in northern Iraq - dating back to the early 1960s - and the basic geography of the region which makes it an ideal base for operations into Iran.
Israel's engagement with the Kurds, which included military training and advisers, ended in 1975 following the signing of agreement resolving Iran-Iraq border disputes with the U.S.'s blessing - but the reports of an Israeli return to the region have been circulating for nearly a decade. The deterioration of Israel's strategic alliance with Turkey - the Kurds' traditional enemy - and the urgency of launching clandestine missions against Iran could only have increased the impetus to rejuvenate the relationship (The connection between Israel and the Iraqi Kurds is not only of a security nature, at least one Israeli NGO is also building other bridges – have a look at the moving stories of Iraqi-Kurdish children treated in Israeli hospitals through Save a Child's Heart).
The fragile internal situation in Iraq - and Jerusalem's desire to salvage relations with Ankara - mean that any Kurdish connection will by necessity remain secret. But Israel is making less of an effort to hide its burgeoning relationships with two other of Iran's neighbors – Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, exploiting both countries' disagreements with Iran over Caspian Sea resources and their fears of Islamic intervention in their secular dictatorships.
The timing of the public announcement last month - of the mammoth sale of Israeli weapon systems to Azerbaijan is just another stage in the alliance which has seen the country become one of Israel's main oil suppliers - was hardly coincidental. The unmanned aerial surveillance drones and radar systems will not only cement the defense ties between the two nations, it will also allow Israel an eye across the border. The security services both countries have cooperated to prevent Iranian-backed terror attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets in Baku. Last month, an alleged Israeli agent working in Azerbaijan was quoted in a Times report saying that "this is ground zero for intelligence work. Our presence here is quiet, but substantial. We have increased our presence in the past year, and it gets us very close to Iran. This is a wonderfully porous country.”
Ties with Turkmenistan have taken longer to get off the ground. The Turkmen government refused two potential Israeli ambassadors due to their former intelligence ties but recently has been warming up. Two months ago, an Israeli Foreign Ministry delegation publicly visited Ashgabat. Tehran cannot have failed to notice.