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What's Really Going On Behind The Scene in Tehran? (Part II)

Technical Problems, Clandestine Activity, Maybe Both?

By David Eshel

The cause of a series of explosions that took place throughout Iran in the past months is still shrouded in mystery, and any explanation is purely speculative.

One possible explanation for these frequent events is the accelerated weapons development programs underway in Iran, as the country's military industries are placed under tremendous pressure to complete multiple, parallel programs. Lack of know-how and experience and stressing existing personnel and scientists beyond their technical capabilities could result in frequent failures, which, sometime end in disastrous accidents. Defense Update sources have informed that the trade embargo implemented in recent years is also taking their toll.

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Under US and European pressure, suppliers decline sales of even military related as well as commercial components with 'dual use' weapons applications. As a result, Iran shifts to lower quality hardware with associated with quality, reliability and safety implications.

Clandestine Activity in Iran?

Another cause could be the result of clandestine activity. Over a number of years, both US and Israeli intelligence are believed to have covertly passed flawed parts and equipment to Iran to cause technical difficulties and slow the Iranian program down, One event in April 2007, according to Iranian press reports, caused an unexplained explosion of a newly acquired set of centrifuges which was attributed to problems with the power supply.

Moreover, last September a mysterious explosion in a secret weapons facility in Syria killed dozens of Syrian and Iranian military engineers as they were attempting to mount a chemical warhead on a Scud missile. Fifteen military personnel and “dozens” of Iranian advisers died when the fuel for the missile caught fire and the weapon exploded.the explosion sent out a cloud of chemical and nerve gases, including the deadly VX and Sarin agents as well as mustard gas, across the facility in the northern city of Aleppo.

Iranian official circles have become obsessed with suspicions of Israeli and American undercover infiltrators preparing impending attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities. There have been claims in the past of spies hiding in strategic places ready to guide incoming heavy American bombers to targeting those facilities. Iran also fears that enemy agents have penetrated its nuclear research centers to gather “crucial” strategic data.

Indeed, various strange incidents connected with senior officials in the Iranian nuclear industries have also been noted lately. In January 2007, a senior scientist connected to the Iranian nuclear program was assassinated, allegedly, by Mossad. In the following month, General Ali-Reza Asgari, a senior Iranian defense-establishment figure disappeared, and among others, the Israeli intelligence agency was likewise implicated. But there is more at stake now .

According to reports from Washington, U.S. congressional leaders agreed late last year to President George W. Bush's 400 million dollar funding request for a major escalation of covert operations against Iran aimed at destabilizing its leadership.

In an article by veteran reporter Seymour Hersh, published in the New Yorker Magazine, the funding centers around a highly classified Presidential Finding signed by President Bush, focused on destabilizing Iran's nuclear ambitions and trying to undermine the government through regime change .

The role of CIA, JSOC

Clandestine operations against Iran are not new. According to reports, US Special Operations Forces have been conducting cross-border operations from southern Iraq, with Presidential authorization, for some time. These have included seizing members of Al Quds, the commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, taking them to Iraq for interrogation and the pursuit of “high-value targets” in the President’s war on terror, which may be captured or killed. But the scale and the scope of clandestine operations inside Iran, allegedly involving the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), seem to have significantly expanded, according to former US intelligence officials.

A significant boost for JSOC came last year when the Pentagon transferred a super-secret intelligence unit, stationed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia from the Army and put it directly under JSOC’s control. The unit, codenamed Task Force Orange, specializes in infiltrating into foreign countries, tailing people and intercepting communications. Operatives have dug up fiber-optic telephone lines overseas and attached listening devices for the National Security Agency. JSOC’s principal operators are Navy SEALs and Army Delta Force, soldiers who began special operations careers as elite Rangers or Green Berets.

But many of the activities may still be carried out by dissidents inside Iran, and not by Americans in the field. However, the use of some elements, Baluchis for example, seems highly problematic. Robert Baer, a former C.I.A. clandestine officer who worked for nearly two decades in South Asia and the Middle East mentioned that the Baluchis are Sunni fundamentalists who hate the regime in Tehran, but may well be affiliated at the same time to Al Qaeda. Baluchi insurgents took responsibility for the bombing of a busload of Revolutionary Guard soldiers in February, 2007. At least eleven Guard members were killed in the attack.

One of the most active and violent anti-regime groups in Iran today is the Baluchi Jund-allah, (Army of Allah) also known as the Iranian People’s Resistance Movement, which describes itself as a resistance force fighting for the rights of Sunnis in Iran. Little is known about Jund-allah's origins. The group is led by Abdulmalak Rigi, a young Iranian Baluch in his twenties. It is believed to have emerged on the scene in 2003 and is known for bold attacks against high-profile targets, especially government and security officials. In June 2005, Jundallah claimed responsibility for the abduction of a team of Iranian security and intelligence officers traveling in a convoy in Iranian Balochistan along the Pakistani border. According to Baer and to press reports, the Jund-allah is among the groups in Iran that are benefiting from U.S. support .

The C.I.A. and Special Operations communities also have long-standing ties to two other dissident groups in Iran: the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, known in the West as the M.E.K., and a Kurdish separatist group, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK. The Kurdish party, PJAK, which has also been reported to be covertly supported by the United States, has been operating against Iran from bases in northern Iraq for at least three years.

Ill Wind of Operation Ajax

But CIA clandestine operations inside Iran have a problematic history back in the 1950s. Little is today known about a so-called Operation Ajax, but its memory still evokes intense anger from nearly every Iranian, who has lived through that era . At the time, then CIA director John Foster Dulles approved spending of a million US dollars to be used "in any way that would bring about the fall of Mohammed Mosaddeq, the elected prime minister of Iran, who was regarded as "premier enemy of the West".

In a futile and botched effort to re-instate Shah Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi, a strategic decision was made in Washington in 1953 that Iran's elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq had to go. A Brigadier General Norman Schwarzkopf (father of the 1991 Gulf War commander) and CIA mastermind Kermit Roosevelt (grandson of former US president Teddy Roosevelt ) were ordered to begin a covert operation designed to remove Mossadeq and restore the Shah to absolute authority. A complex plot, codenamed "Operation Ajax", was conceived and executed from the US Embassy in Tehran. Using CIA assets in the Iranian military and various minor political parties, an uprising was staged, which alas proved politically disastrous.

This affair had several serious ramifications for the future of American-Iranian relations. First, the Shah, from that point onward, was viewed as a creature of America, second the US Embassy in Tehran was regarded as a highly dangerous spy center- resulting eventually in the embarrassing stand-off siege in 1979. Whether President Bush's new effort will fare better this time remains to be seen.

You can read Part I of this analysis here.