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.”