Today's Associated Press report quoting Kenyan officials that two arrested Iranian citizens are members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and that they were planning attacks on Israeli, American, British or Saudi Arabian targets in and around Mombassa may seem a bit baffling to western eyes. Iran is trying to safeguard its nuclear program in the face of diplomatic pressure, sanctions and perhaps a military strike by the U.S. or Israel. At the same time, it is in danger of losing its crucial ally in the region, Assad's Syria. So what are its agents doing in Kenya, Georgia, Thailand, Azerbaijan, India, Mexico and the U.S, to name just some of the countries where their arrests have been made public, allegedly trying to strike at targets with little strategic value.
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Western intelligence services believe that the more pressure Iran is under, the more it will resort to these methods. In a rare public address last week, Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, Britain's security service, said that "in parallel with rising concern about Iran’s nuclear intentions, we have seen in recent months a series of attempted terrorist plots against Israeli interests in India, Azerbaijan and elsewhere" and that "a return to state-sponsored terrorism by Iran or its associates, such as Hezbollah, cannot be ruled out as pressure on the Iranian leadership increases."
These actions are not just against Israeli targets he said, and mentioned last year's "plot by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to mount an attack on the Saudi Ambassador in America, and of course the IRGC leads straight back to the Iranian leadership." Britain is particularly concerned that one of the next attacks could be carried out on its soil and has beefed up the security teams dealing with the Iranian threat. Iran's media reacted angrily to Evans words, blaming Britain for being involved in terror attacks in Iran.
If indeed we are seeing here a stepped-up campaign by Tehran to attack targets of what it currently sees as its four foremost enemies – the U.S., Israel, Britain and Saudi Arabia, there could be a number of motives for this.
1. Trying to establish a balance of terror – For the last few years, Iran has been experiencing a series of mysterious explosions at strategic sites, cyber-attacks on its computer networks and assassinations of nuclear scientists and other key officials. They see the hand of its enemies at work and are frustrated at their lack of retaliation.
2. Distracting rival intelligence agencies – Iran's representatives at the International Atomic Energy Agency have recently complained of the extent of spying going on against their "civilian" nuclear program. Terror attacks on different continents will by necessity force a diversion of efforts and resources away from their most precious assets.
3. An attempt to gain prestige – Iran will not take responsibility for any of these attacks, if they materialize, but a successful bombing or assasination of an Israeli, western or Saudi target, will be accorded to the IRGC or Hezbollah and go some way to re-establishing their credit as forces to be reckoned with.
4. Strengthen the IRGC within Iran – While the Revolutionary Guards are one of the major forces within the Iranian power structure, they have rivals, both among the conservative wing and certainly in the "reformist" camp. Launching attacks around the globe is one way for the Guards to assert themselves and pursue and independent foreign policy. (Barely a month ago, Raila Odinga, Kenya's prime minister met with Iranian vice president Mohammed Reza and the two discussed stepping up their economic cooperation. This doesn't seem like a coordinated foreign policy on the Iranian side).
Western security services are increasingly battling the Iranian campaign by deepening their cooperation. The claims of the two arrested Iranians that they were also interrogated by Israeli agents should not be dismissed, especially as Israel and Kenya announced just eight months ago that they would act together on security matters.