By Arab News
By Baria Alamuddin*
There’s nothing new in Iran’s paranoid ayatollahs seeing spies, saboteurs and enemies under every rock. But their recent paranoia may be well founded, as the Iranian parliament and media accuse their leaders of allowing the nation to be turned into a “haven for spies,” while openly wondering about the extent of infiltration of the state’s nuclear and intelligence apparatuses.
Iranian officials fear that a substantive clandestine Israeli sabotage network is operating with impunity throughout the Islamic Republic, staging assassinations and attacks against strategically sensitive sites, and making Iran’s sprawling intelligence services look ridiculous. This Mossad network apparently has recruited significant numbers of competent Iranians willing to attack state installations — not a big surprise, given that Iran’s brightest graduates have little to look forward to beyond unemployment, poverty and theological repression.
A couple of weeks ago President Hassan Rouhani appeared on Iranian TV, proudly inaugurating a new cascade of centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear plant. Just hours later, a large explosion knocked out the site’s power system, causing centrifuges for uranium enrichment to spin out of control. According to a senior Iranian nuclear official, several thousand centrifuges were damaged or destroyed and “the main part of our enrichment capacities” was eliminated.
This has echoes of an attack last July at the same location which caused comparable damage. According to The New York Times, the earlier Natanz explosion occurred after nuclear scientists bought themselves some new furniture, and a package of explosives had been concealed inside a desk which exploded several months later, causing catastrophic damage.
Numerous other attacks against military and sensitive sites may just be the tip of the iceberg, given that neither Iran nor Israel has a stake in disclosing these incidents to the media: Details of attacks against each other’s ships emerged only recently.
Considering that the world has grappled with the nuclear threat for more than two decades, various global intelligence agencies have had copious opportunity to recruit promising Iranian physics students destined to work in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps nuclear program. The leadership is thus justified in worrying who its scientists are really working for. Sources suggest to me that this pernicious corrosion of loyalty may extend throughout intelligence, political and military infrastructures.
Disconcerted IRGC sources speak of the need for a “cleansing” of the intelligence services, and one IRGC publication asked: “Why does the security of the nuclear facility act so irresponsibly that it gets hit twice from the same hole?”
At least six nuclear scientists have been assassinated, the latest being Iran’s chief nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (an IRGC brigadier general), shot dead in a complex and audacious operation. In its desperation to play down the extent to which Israeli-sponsored operatives were acting with impunity on Iranian soil, state media accounts of the Fakhrizadeh assassination alluded to machineguns mounted on self-driving cars and killer robots!
Such are domestic levels of paranoia that when Iranian state media reported last week that that Quds Force deputy commander Mohammed Hosseinzadeh Hejazi had unexpectedly died of heart disease, there was rampant speculation that he too had been assassinated by Mossad. Quds Force sources muttered ominously that Hejazi’s death wasn’t “cardiac related.”
There is such a sense of national impotence and failure in the face of these attacks that, following assassinations of figures such as Fakhrizadeh and Qassim Soleimani, state media has resorted to reporting fake or massively exaggerated retaliatory operations avenging these deaths, along with dubious exposés identifying those allegedly associated with sabotage attacks.
Israeli and American intelligence agencies have also succeeded in meddling with nuclear equipment destined for export to Iran. Overseas spare parts factories have been penetrated to plant explosives or defective equipment which is then exported and installed in Iranian nuclear sites, often causing subtle damage thatIranian scientists discover only when it’s too late. Cyberattacks have likewise had a cataclysmic impact.
Iran’s response to the latest Natanz attack was to warn that they would replace the damaged centrifuges with more advanced versions, as well as notifying the International Atomic Energy Agency that it had commenced upgrading uranium to 60 percent purity — a considerable step toward weapons-grade uranium. Such a provocative path only makes matters worse for Iran: The closer Tehran gets to breakout capacity, the more international parties will feel compelled toward decisive action.
Tehran’s hapless failures to prevent Israeli sabotage may appear comical and self-inflicted. However, the risk is that, like a wounded bear, Iran is provoked into rash, escalatory responses. Just last week Iran-affiliated elements in Syria launched a surface-to-air missile which reportedly targeted a plane, but landed perilously close to Israel’s Dimona nuclear plant — a reminder of how easily a miscalculation in this shadow conflict targeting atomic sites could take us all to nuclear midnight.
In Lebanon we used to nervously joke that every other person we spoke to could be an Israeli spy, and it’s rumored that Israel has exploited the chaos in Syria to recruit large numbers of sources who can tip them off about Iranian maneuvers and missile deployments.
Israel has drastically stepped up its strikes against Iranian positions in Syria, notably against weapons production sites for precision-guided missiles. Israel staged more than 500 missile strikes in 2020 alone, and deployed 4,239 weapons against 955 targets throughout Syria over three years. Israeli military officials acknowledge that this has only slowed down Iranian encroachment. Some Iranian missile sites are immense in scale, dug into mountainsides and stretching several kilometers under the earth, out of reach of Israeli bunker-buster bombs.
Iranian MPs with knowledge of the state budget suggest that Tehran has already frittered away up to $30 billion in the Syrian arena, and has diverted vast additional resources to Hezbollah, along with funding for terrorists in Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere. Meanwhile about 65 percent of the budget is devoured by opaque institutions managed by corrupt officials, leaving a COVID-ravaged nation to starve and the economy to disintegrate.
When leaders have squandered their nation’s wealth and betrayed their own citizens in this manner, little wonder so many Iranians are willing to sell out their nation to Israel.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.