Iran is in the throes of a mega manhunt to ferret out the army of double agents and inside traitors Tehran is convinced has infested the upper reaches of government, Revolutionary Guards and armed forces.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Tehran sources report the hunt was on less than 12 hours after the huge explosion which Nov. 12 ravaged the top-security Moadress missile base at Al-Ghadir, in Malard province, 45 kilometers from Tehran, and wiped out its top command.
The sweep is still ongoing two weeks later as we write this – expanded, in fact, since Monday, Nov. 28, to finally get to the bottom of the mostly unpublished explosions and other mysterious attacks on military and nuclear installations in the past year.
The dragnet was extended after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the heads of the Iranian intelligence and security services, under Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi, became convinced that one and the same unseen hand was orchestrating most of the devastation.
The probe has recalled into focus the Oct. 12, 2010 explosion, which killed at least 32 Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) missile chiefs at a military barracks and training center in the western city of Khorramabad. Almost half of Iran's stock of Shihab-3 ballistic missiles was destroyed in that blast.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 466 of Oct. 22, 2010: An Undeclared Covert War Takes its Toll on Iran – Whose Rockets Knocked out Iran’s Ballistic Missile Launchers?).
That strike is thought to have kicked off the series of mostly undisclosed assaults besetting additional military and nuclear facilities ever since.
Bombings, fires, assassination and coup attempts
For example, unexplained technical glitches cropped up while the centrifuges for enriching uranium were being reassembled after their transfer to the secret underground facility at Fordo near Qom. Some broke down leaving far fewer working machines than Iran's nuclear planners had projected.
Then, too, fires with no apparent cause, shut down certain IRGC bases for many months.
Monday, Nov. 28, the Washington Post carried this item:”At least 17 gas pipeline explosions have been reported since last year (in Iran), compared with three in 2008 and 2009. At the same time, nearly a dozen major explosions have damaged refineries since 2010, but experts say it is complicated to determine the cause of such incidents. (Iranian)… officials have blamed industrial accidents for most of the blasts, saying they were caused by such deficiencies as ‘bad welding’ or ‘substandard manufacturing.’ But media restrictions and the lack of independent investigations have made it hard to verify the claims.”
The sources of the WP report knew they were pouring salt on the most sensitive questions vexing Iran's leaders: Is the regime under attack by clandestine plotters planted inside IRGC military installations by alien foes? Or, worse still, was the missile base blast contrived for the assassination of the supreme ruler and elimination of the top echelon of Iran's armed forces?
Answers to these agonizing questions are desperately sought by the interrogation of a widening circle of detainees
The missile base blast targeted Khamenei for a coup d'etat
The IRGC intelligence investigation has turned inward. Suspicion focuses on a probable insider group or groups which have penetrated the corps at all levels, driven by a conspiracy to eliminate the country's Islamist leaders at the first opportunity and effect regime change – in other words, a coup d'etat.
The Nov. 12 missile base blast prompted this suspicion, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report, because it was timed to coincide with the pre-scheduled attendance of Ayatollah Khamenei and the entire top level of Iran's military and IRGC command at the unveiling of a new surface-to-surface missile model capable of reaching western European's main cities.
It so happened that the celebratory inauguration was called off the day before the event over a hitch in mounting the warhead (packed with conventional explosives – a step ahead of a nuclear payload) on the missile.
Brig. Gen. Hassan Moghadam, head of the missile program, and a top team of engineers and team leaders were summoned to the base to fix it. Twenty-four hours later, they still hadn't figured out what was causing the problem when they were struck down by the fatal explosion.
With little physical evidence to work on, Iranian intelligence investigators have narrowed down the cause of the deadly blast to two theories:
1. The plotters had planted a defect in the missile or its warhead. They feared that if the experiment went ahead, the defect would be uncovered, and so decided to let the premeditated explosion go ahead even though Khamenei was out of range. Wiping out the executive level of Iran's missile program and a good part of the secret base was deemed important enough to go through with the mission.
2. The plotters, who were part of the group huddled around the problematic missile, or even a member of the technical team, did nothing to trigger the explosion. In the event, it was inadvertently touched off by Gen. Moghadam himself when he tampered with the mechanism – not imagining it was booby-trapped.
A cabal of disenchanted stalwarts turned secret enemies
This suspicion led Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to widen the circle of suspects.
The investigation is now heading off in two directions: The first – considered most unlikely – that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's loyalists hoped to kill Khamenei and provisionally seize power, drawing IRGC support by promising to uphold all its privileges.
Ahmadinejad has fallen out of favor with the Supreme Leader. Khamenei's followers may be promoting this theory in order to finish him and his faction off once and for all.
The more plausible avenue of investigation postulates a large-scale penetration of the military establishment and the IRGC by an army of double agents, based on once-loyal citizens recruited by Iran's enemies during supplementary military training and other courses overseas.
Some of them completed academic studies in Western countries; others went to Russia and China for instruction in sensitive military and nuclear subjects. While outside the country, Western and Middle East spy agencies are believed to have made opportunities to approach these Iranians and rope them in as undercover agents.
As well-known stalwarts of the regime, these individuals were long considered above suspicion. But they are suspected of becoming secretly disenchanted with the rulers. Over time, they appear to have come to believe it was their duty to stop a regime that was leading the country inexorably toward disasters, namely, a major armed conflict over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Moles with inside knowledge of the security services and their methods
According to this hypothesis, the real threat to the Islamic regime is not posed by the opposition Mojadhedin-e Khalq, whose ability to penetrate the ruling establishment is often exaggerated, but, contrary to assessments in the West, by patriotic Iranian officers who have despaired of the regime ever mending its ways.
The very existence of a cabal of disaffected officers and officials suspected of operating undercover at the heart of Iran's armed forces is the regime's biggest nightmare.
These secret foes are almost impossible to identify and stop. They are highly motivated and as established insiders, know how to work under cover undetected and fully conversant with Iranian security services' methods of investigation.
In the past year, Heydar Moslehi's men have detained and interrogated hundreds of these kinds of suspects. Until the blast at the missile base this month, twelve former security officers and government officials turned dissidents were still under detention on charges of collaborating with the enemy. Their custody was kept a closely guarded secret in the hope of flushing out more such moles.
However the latest spate of attacks show Moslehi's effort to have been a drop in the ocean and the number of suspects unmasked no more than a fraction of the legion of moles still at large. They must now be presumed to have reached as high as the Supreme Leader's inner circle whence they continue to spill vital state secrets to their foreign handlers.
Some must be expected at a given point to turn to assassinating leading officials.
Assassination fears haunt Iran's top men
This working hypothesis is not new to Iran's political, religious, military and intelligence leaders. They have been haunted by this ever-present peril since Nov. 29, 2010, when two Iranian scientists were attacked minutes apart while driving in their cars on two busy streets in northern Tehran.
Dr. Fereidoun Abbassi-Davani survived the attack to win the appointment of Director of Iran’s Nuclear Commission, but Prof. Majid Shahriari, who also taught physics at Shahid Beheshti University, did not.
At the time, the attacks were generally reported to have been carried out by motorcyclists who attached sticky bombs to the scientists' cars. DEBKA-Net-Weekly later discovered the attackers used guns.
The Iranian investigators concluded at the time that the attacks were planned by hostile agents who had burrowed deep into the heart of the IRGC. No outsiders could have known enough to pass the up-to-the minute detailed information on the targets' movements needed by the gunmen.
It was decided that the twin assassination plot against Iran's key nuclear scientists plot must either have been conceived by a foreign element running double agents, or that it was an inside job planned by a secretly disaffected high Iranian official.
Either way, IRGC chiefs were forced into accepting that the corps, the armed forces command, the Basij military, and even the Supreme Leader's bureau, must be riddled with double agents.
They are turning every stone to find those hidden hands.