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Mideast covert war moves out of shadows

Feb. 15, 2012 at 1:25 PM   |   Comments

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- A wave of terrorist attacks on Israeli targets in India and Georgia and thwarted plots in Thailand and Azerbaijan in recent days mark a sharp escalation in the long-running intelligence war between Israel and Iran that is becoming less and less covert.

But Western intelligence analysts observe that Israel, and its Western allies, seem to be winning this conflict hands down -- so far.

Four Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed in broad daylight in Tehran over the last two years, allegedly by the Israelis. A fifth narrowly survived an assassination attempt.

The mastermind of Iran's ballistic missile program, Revolutionary Guards Gen. Hassan Moghaddam, was killed in a mysterious explosion at a missile base west of Tehran Nov. 12, 2011. Tehran said the blast was an accident but there's been wide speculation it was the work of Israeli or U.S. intelligence.

Similarly, Israel's intelligence apparatus, aided by the United States, was widely seen as sabotaging Iran's nuclear program with a malignant computer virus known as Stuxnet in 2009.

Stuxnet's origins remain unconfirmed but U.S. and European officials say they believe Iran has been able to neutralize and purge the virus from their nuclear program. However, Iran has claimed it has since been hit by a more advanced computer worm.

Most of the recent attacks against Israeli targets were seen to be amateurish, poorly planned and aimed at soft targets, such as a Jewish school in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, rather than those any with strategic value.

Nor have the targets been inside Israel, while the attacks on Iran's nuclear project have all been within the Islamic Republic, mostly in the capital itself.

Twin bomb attacks within minutes of each other Monday in New Delhi and Tbilisi resulted in four wounded, including the wife of an Israeli defense diplomat in the Indian capital. A similar operation in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi was foiled.

U.S. authorities claimed in August that an Iranian plot, involving the elite Revolutionary Guards, to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington at his favorite restaurant had been thwarted.

That disclosure was greeted with wide skepticism, largely because the details disclosed by U.S. officials made it seem so poorly planned that its prospects of success were virtually zero.

"Monday's events merely reinforce the existence of an already obvious campaign on both sides," observed the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor.

"But the remarkable aspect is the disparity between the two efforts. By and large, Stuxnet as well as the larger sabotage and assassination campaign against Iran have been consistently professional and effective.

"On the other hand, the Iranian counterattack has been repeatedly foiled or exposed as ineffective, or even inept.

"Tehran may not be employing its most capable assets," Stratfor noted.

"It is possible that these attacks gave conducted via ill-conceived contract work or poorly trained proxies simply for the sake of deniability.

"But while the trend of attempted attacks against Israeli and U.S. interests could be interpreted as a warning of worse to come, they stand in stark contrast to the consistently effective attacks against Iranian interests on Iran territory."

If the recent Iranian operations were indeed as ham-fisted as they've been made out to be, this raises questions about just how dangerous the threat of Iranian retaliation against the West and Israel in the event of conflict in the Persian Gulf would be.

While Iran's military would likely be overwhelmed by U.S. military might and technological supremacy, it has always been held that Iran had the capability of unleashing a potentially devastating campaign of terror and sabotage against its adversaries.

One of the most potent threats has been Hezbollah, Iran's powerful Lebanese proxy which drove Israeli occupation forces out of south Lebanon in May 2000 and fought the Jewish state's vaunted military to a standstill in a 2006 war.

But Hezbollah's capabilities for waging international terrorism, not to mention its strategic outlook as an extension of Iranian power, would be seriously weakened if the Damascus regime of President Bashar al-Assad were to be brought down in the 11-month-old Syrian uprising.

Syria is Iran's key Arab ally and of immense strategic value to Tehran's expansionist plans because it's the gateway to the Levant, and Hezbollah.

Without Syria as the conduit for Iranian arms and military advisers, Hezbollah would be cut adrift facing Israel, Lebanon's southern neighbor, on its own.

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