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World Cup 2022: Does Iran Plan an Attack on the Games? Behind Israel's Rash Warning

Despite Israel's perplexing suggestion, Qatar knows how to protect itself and Iran has proved repeatedly that it is very cautious in its conduct

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Iran's fans celebrate their country's win over Wales at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, last week.
Iran's fans celebrate their country's win over Wales at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, last week.Credit: FADEL SENNA - AFP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

One-third of the games in the World Cup have been played, and so far everything has proceeded with exceptional order, almost trouble-free. The meticulous security arrangements and the Qatari defense apparatus are being assisted by the intelligence services of Arab and Western states, including the United States and Britain, to monitor, uncover and thwart plans by any country, terror organization or “lone wolf” to disrupt what is probably the most-watched global sporting event.

For 30 years, the organizers and/or the host country of every Olympics or World Cup have expressed concern about possible terror attacks. As a result, a tradition of international intelligence cooperation has developed that includes private companies and Israel’s security agencies, before and during the competition. So it was no surprise when Qatar requested Israel’s help in mapping threats and transmitting intelligence warnings.

Iran's Ramin Rezaeian celebrates scoring his team's second goal against Wales at the Qatar World Cup on November 25, 2022.Credit: REUTERS/Hannah Mckay

Qatar knows how to protect itself. Its skill lies in pleasing everyone. It supports Hamas and transfers funds to the organization, but it also maintains good if surreptitious ties with Israel; it maintained ties with Islamist terror organizations such as al-Qaida, but hosts the biggest U.S. military base in the Middle East; it supports the Muslim Brotherhood (much to Egypt’s annoyance), while maintaining open links with the Taliban; it quarrels and reconciles with Saudi Arabia while preserving close ties with Iran, and its trade with both is on an upward trajectory.

So it was perplexing to hear the head of Israeli Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, say last week that Iran is “considering disrupting” the World Cup games in Doha, and that the only thing holding back Tehran was apprehension over Qatar’s response. In other words, Haliva, who was addressing a conference of Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said that Iran thought about derailing the soccer championship but probably will not act, after considering the implications. He didn’t explain or provide details on why Iran would try to carry out such an attack on Qatari soil during such a major international event. Tehran would provoke the anger not only of Qatar but of the entire world, including African and Asian states that Iran is wooing.

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Iran has proved repeatedly that it is very cautious in its conduct. It initiates terror attacks, with Hezbollah or without it, against what it considers its enemies (chiefly Israel and Saudi Arabia), and responds to acts it perceives as threats to its sovereignty or interests.

It doesn’t hesitate to act against U.S. and European targets in retaliation for what it perceives as military operations that are counter to its interests. For example, Iran tried to avenge the U.S. January 2020 assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. Iran also has no inhibitions about killing dissidents at home or abroad, even if it violates another country’s sovereignty. Given all that, even if someone in MI got a whiff of a suggestion that Tehran was considering disrupting the games, the gap between that and executing such an operation is huge.

Brig. Gen. ‏(res.‏) Aharon Haliva.Credit: Amos Halfon

Moreover, it’s hard to find any Iranian interest in such an action, unless it intends to pin the blame on someone else. But that’s not what Haliva said. Qatar, as far as is known, was never a target of Iranian terror. The Iranian team is taking part in the tournament (playing the U.S. on Tuesday), with a chance of making it to the next round next week. Beyond that, soccer is very popular in Iran and the regime takes advantage of this – even if the team refused to sing the national anthem when it was played, in a bold protest, before its first game. By the second they toed the line, presumably on the instruction of the powers-that-be and following pressure on them and on family members in Iran.

In his remarks, Haliva was echoing recent warnings by British and U.S. intelligence chiefs that Iran was planning attacks abroad. Haliva also warned that Iran was planning to attack Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks, on the grounds that Riyadh allegedly sought to interfere in Iran’s domestic affairs. These are familiar words. Iran has acted several times in Saudi Arabia, directly or through its agents, from the 1996 explosion at Khobar Towers that killed 19 members of the U.S. Air Force and injured 500 people to the 2019 drone strike that caused massive damage to Aramco oil facilities. Saudi Arabia, for its part, supports and funds Iranian dissidents. But from this to an attack in Qatar?

The term “overkill” was used widely in the context of the Cold War. It referred to the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union each held more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other many times over. The word can also apply to Haliva’s recent remarks. The MI head has sufficient proof, based on intelligence, that Iran is acting to undermine regimes in the Middle East, arming militias and sponsoring terror around the world. His statement about the World Cup was rhetorical overkill, an exaggeration that can only weaken his arguments and evidence against Iran and comes across as anti-Iran propaganda.

Haliva described the ongoing protests in Iran as a “civil uprising.” If this is an accurate characterization of the situation, Israel would do best to let the ayatollahs’ regime stew in its own juices. Any statement that could be perceived as foreign intervention could boomerang and weaken the protest movement. In general, it’s best if people in uniform avoid unnecessary chatter. That’s true for any topic, especially when it comes to Iran.

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