The Persian Gulf region is awash with wild rumors of a tit-for-tat war of stealth gaining momentum between the US and Iran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly cites a couple of the tall tales before testing their credibility.
For instance, on Aug. 1, an American warship cruising in the Persian Gulf lofted three unmanned aircraft and crashed them deliberately on the dome atop the Iranian nuclear reactor in Bushehr.
The townspeople (app. 250,000) panicked in the belief that an Israeli or American attack on Iran's nuclear installations had begun. They speculated that the US retaliated for a supposed Iranian submarine assault on the Japanese M Star supertanker in the Straits of Hormuz four days earlier, on Wednesday, July 28.
(See the next item on the Japanese tanker incident.)
And if the Iranian sub attack was true, was it Tehran's reply to statements by US officials, according to which the military option against the Islamic Republic was back on the Pentagon's table?
This surmise led to the next guess that the Americans drones bombed Bushehr both as a military exercise and as Washington's answer to the latest round of threats from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other top Iranian officials. They have threatened to bring the United States to its knees if their nuclear sites are attacked, wipe Israel off the map and set the Middle East on fire, especially Tel Aviv.
And where did the reported murder in another part of Iran of Reza Baruni, father of Iran's military UAV program, fit into the rising climate of confrontation?
Sorting fact from fiction
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military, intelligence and Iranian sources sift through the regions' gossip mill in order to separate fact from fiction – or at least, determine which narratives stand up to scrutiny.
Two major misfortunes shook Iran on the same day, Sunday, Aug. 1 – that is not in doubt.
The first was a mighty explosion that destroyed Reza Baruni's closely secured villa in the high-scale neighborhood of the southern Iranian town of Ahwaz in oil-rich Khuzestan. Rescue teams fighting their way through the debris pulled out the bodies of Baruni, his wife, two children and a guest who was staying with them.
Very few people in Iran knew about Baruni's job and therefore failed to appreciate his death's disastrous impact on Iran's top-secret military drone program.
The official version produced the old standby of an exploding gas canister as the cause of the blast. However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence source report that bombs were planted in at least three corners of the building and expertly rigged to explode simultaneously and bring the ceilings crashing down on its occupants. The bomber must therefore have had access to the Baruni home.
Hiding behind his public face as a retired army major, the dead man created Iran's program for manufacturing military drones from scratch and trained a new generation of engineers and planners to take over. But despite his efforts and the hefty sums Iran invested in the industry for some years, the product never really came up to par. His death is likely to bury the program for years to come.
The authorities tended to fix the blame on underground organizations representing the local Arab-speaking Ahwazis' fight for self-rule against the repressive regime. They suspect certain Gulf Arab emirates' intelligence services commissioned them to execute Baruni's murder.
The drone attack on Bushehr was real
That same day, close to midnight, three unmanned aerial vehicles did indeed crash into the Bushehr reactor dome leaving at least five staff members confirmed dead. Speculation was rife in the panic-stricken population – that the huge bang was either the opening shot of an American invasion of Iran, or that a series of well-spaced US-Israeli operations was underway for knocking out installations in other parts of the country.
Some locals claimed they had received information about widely-spread attacks on the phone from relatives in Arak, the site of a new heavy water plant in the Markazi province of western Iran, and in Darkovin, the southern Ahwaz province, where secret nuclear facilities are under construction and where the UAV pioneer Buruni had just been killed.
To calm the populace, Bushehr's city leaders asked Tehran for some straight answers. They elicited a Ministry of Defense communiqué which confirmed that a single drone had indeed crashed into the nuclear reactor dome, but insisted it was launched by Iran's Revolutionary Guards to test the alertness of the air defense personnel guarding it and the effectiveness of its anti-air radar system.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian and intelligence sources, Tehran could not dismiss the incident out of hand after three mighty explosions racked the town. So the deputy district governor for security affairs, Mohammad Hossein Shenidi, who is responsible for safeguarding Bushehr and its reactors against air or missile attacks, pitched in with a minimized version:
A single drone had indeed been fired, he admitted, but it carried no explosives because its only purpose was to simulate a loud bang to check the level of local alertness.
Retaliation for Japanese tanker hit
But Bushehr's citizens got it right. Three drones carried out the bombing.
They were not fooled by the deputy governor's claim of "a snap inspection exercise" and only confirmed in their alarm when all the Revolutionary Guards and military units in the region went on high alert and special operations forces driving tanks and armored troop carriers jammed the main roads leading to Bushehr and encircled the reactor.
Shenidi's inventiveness was further taxed Monday, August 2, to counter the rumors (originating in the city's Revolutionary Guards naval base) to the effect that the American drone was fired in reprisal for an Iranian submarine strike on the Japanese oil tanker in the Straits of Hormuz.
The deputy governor tried unavailingly to protest that the supertanker had caught fire outside Iranian territorial waters.
Our military experts say Shenidi may have been correct in describing the drone attack on the Bushehr reactor as a test of local security alertness – except that the test was more likely carried out not by the Iranians but the Americans, who wanted to gauge the effectiveness of Iranian radar, its susceptibility to jamming and the alertness of the Iranian security details guarding it.
From the debris collected after the explosions, the Iranians were flummoxed for clues to the drones' senders. The crashed UAVs were equipped with self-destruct devices which had chopped them up into tiny metal slivers. They caused substantial damage to the targeted structures without leaving identifying marks.