Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.

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  • US braces for covert war with Iran

    Trump seems determined to bring Iran to heel, by military force if necessary, despite the protests of his generals.

    Prime Target. Iranian-made Emad missile on display in Tehran. (Reuters)

    2017/10/15 Issue: 127 Page: 4

    Beirut- As the smouldering con­frontation between Don­ald Trump and Iran gets hotter, the US State De­partment disclosed Oc­tobert 12 that a US soldier was killed outside Tikrmt, Iraq 11 days earlier in a bomb ambush involving a pow­erful device that Iran’s armed prox­ies used to deadly effect during the 2003-2011 US occupation.

    The bomb, known as an explo­sively formed penetrator, or EFP, an armour-piercing weapon that was the trademark of the Mahdi Army and Special Groups operated by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps..

    The US did not accuse Iran of the attack, the first of its kind in six years, But CIA director Mike Pompeo hinted at Iranian involve­ment in the deadly attack.

    Two days earlier, the State Depart­ment posted rewards totalling $12 million for the capture of two lead­ers of Hezbollah, Iran’s most effec­tive proxy force, who supposedly head the group’s External Security Organisation “which maintains cells world-wide” and “primarily targets Israelis and Americans.”

    The rewards tighten an escalating US-led campaign against Hezbollah that includes attacking its finances as the US and Iran square off for what could become a violent con­frontation over Trump’s vehement drive to renegotiate, or even scrap, the landmark July 2015 nuclear agreement with the Islamic Repub­lic.

    The Department State did not formally link Hezbollah with the brewing storm, but the rewards un­derlined how the Lebanese group has become an integral part of Iran’s military and intelligence infrastruc­ture tthat now seems to be in the US crosshairs.

    The timing of the announcement appeared to be aimed at taunting Iran, the US bête noire since Aya­tollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 Is­lamic Revolution turned Iran from long-time ally into a bitter enemy, that a showdown may be looming.

    Trump seems determined to bring the Islamic Republic to heel, by mil­itary force if necessary, despite the protests of his generals who want to avoid another messy Middle East­ern war at all costs, especially since even senior administration figures acknowledge that Tehran is in full compliance with the 2015 agree­ment, the crowning achievement of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

    Trump vowed before the UN General Assembly in September to “totally destroy” close Iranian ally North Korea, which has long provid­ed Tehran with crucial support for its nuclear and missile programmes, if it threatened the US or its allies.

    Trump, incensed by Iran’s pro­vocative and persistent testing of ballistic missiles and refusal to al­low inspections of the country’ nu­clear facilities, has branded the 2015 agreement “the worst deal ever.”

    This is, in part, because the pact does not impede Iran’s accelerating ballistic missile programme, back­bone of its military strategy.

    For US strategists, that means that when curbs on Iran’s nuclear project imposed by the 2015 agreement end in 2025, Iran’s missiles will probably be ready to carry atomic warheads that Iran should by then be able to manufacture.

    Tehran, notching up major gains in its drive to become the region’s paramount power, refuses to coop­erate and has repeatedly challenged Washington with its arsenal of an estimated 1,000 missiles.

    On September 22, it unveiled a new medium-range ballistic missile, the Khorramshahr, which it says can reach most of the Middle East and can carry multiple warheads – a di­rect challenge to Trump.

    Iran’s leaders have vowed to meet force with force, threatening a con­flict with the potential to engulf the entire war-wracked region as Sunni monarchies spend billions of dollars on advanced arms to counter the Is­lamic Republic.

    Trump has boasted about US mili­tary power, but the indications are that before he unleashes any offen­sive, he will escalate clandestine operations against Iran, with regime change its primary objective.

    Trump has threatened to declare the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s strike arm, a terrorist organisation, and impose sanctions on it,– a move fraught with serious risk.

    The US has already sanctioned individuals and entities linked to the IRGC, which has vast economic interests, but never the force as a whole.

    Tehran has promised a crush­ing retaliation. “If America’s new law for sanctions is passed, this country (the US) will have to move their regional bases outside the 2,000km range of Iran’s missiles,” the IRGC commander, Major-Gen­eral Mohammad Ali Jafari, declared on October 9.

    US covert operations against Iran began when Khomeini’s revolu­tion toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – the consequence of a 1953 coup by the CIA and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service that brought him to power and left Iranians with an abiding hatred of the US.

    The shah’s ouster was a critical in­telligence failure for the Americans, who had badly misread all the sig­nals that the Peacock Throne would fall.

    In June, Pompeo, a fervent advo­cate of military action against Iran, named a veteran CIA covert opera­tions expert, Michael D’Andrea, ar­chitect of the CIA’s targeted killing campaign, as head of the agency’s Iran operations.

    To insiders, that signalled an ex­panded effort to subvert the Islamic Republic. It will most likely focus on cyber warfare, infiltration by CIA agents, and possibly assassinations.

    D’Andrea masterminded the hunt for Osama bin Laden that ended in the al-Qaeda leader’s death in Paki­stan during a US special forces raid on May 2, 2011, and pioneered the controversial strategy of using mis­sile-armed US drones to obliterate al-Qaeda’s leadership cadres in their Pakistani hideouts.

    Iran’s ballistic missile programme could also be a prime target. The National Council of Resistance to Iran, the main opposition group, claimed on June 20 that since the 2015 agreement was signed, the “scope of (Tehran’s) missile pro­gramme pursued by the IRGC… is much more extensive” than was previously thought.

    It said there was now a network of at least 42 centres for manufactur­ing, testing and launching missiles spread across the country, with a heavy presence on experts from North Korea, which is striving to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

    The Iranian network, run by the IRGC’s Aerospace Forces, includes three missile test sites and 25 stor­age sites, some of which are built deep underground or in caverns dug inside mountains, the group claimed in a June 20 report.

    The Americans are also increas­ingly concerned at the acceleration of Iran’s expansionist activities through paramilitary proxies across the heart of the Arab world, primar­ily Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and the construction of a land corridor from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterra­nean that will consolidate those ef­forts.

    “The potential for Iran to control a sphere of influence from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean is a prospect that not only frightens regional players such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but also raises concerns in the United States,” the US-based security consultancy Stratfor has observed.

    US sources say Trump’s plan will also focus on Lebanon’s Hezbol­lah, the IRGC’s key ally, and will rely heavily on financial sanctions on whoever does business with the corps.

    Cyber attacks will be aimed at causing economic and social havoc by disrupting critical commerce and transportation as well as state-run infrastructure such as electrical and water supply and communications.

    The use of the digital viruses, de­veloped jointly by the US and the secretive and innovative Unit 8200 of Israel’s Military Intelligence, is likely.

    In the summer of 2010, Iran’s nu­clear project was shut down with a revolutionarynew weapon, a ma­licious computer virus known as Stuxnet, that crippled the Fordow uranium enrichment plant.

    That facility, the core of the Islam­ic Republic’s nuclear programme, is built deep inside a mountain out­side the holy city of Qom that is im­pervious to most US ordnance.

    Reports published in February claimed the Stuxnet operation was in fact part of a broader US con­tingency plan to target Iran’s air defence network, key communica­tions systems and sections of the national power grid.

    That plan, known as Nitro Zeus, was to be implemented if diplomatic efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear pro­gramme failed and conflict erupted.

    But the Israelis unilaterally un­leashed the virus against Iranian targets as Tehran accelerated its production of centrifuges to pro­duce bomb-grade enriched uranium and Nitro Zeus was shelved.

    The US plan could be revived and used to deliver a potentially pow­erful blow to Iran’s defences if the emerging confrontation worsens.

    Iran’s offensive abilities in this re­gard are considered to be effective and dangerous. Since the Stuxnet attacks, it has built up its own cyber forces – at a cost of billions of dollars – to a point where its potential for a devastating digital attack is high.

    “Iran’s capabilities have been strongly influenced by its own ex­perience as the target of cyber op­erations,” the journal Foreign Policy observed on July 26. “Iran is capable of wreaking a lot of havoc through cyberspace.”

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