US, Israel, Iran in a Wilderness of Mirrors
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's regulars have been kept abreast of the secret war afoot between the United States and Israel, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other. Our intelligence and Iranian sources have covered the highlights of that contest, especially in the past five months. Those events stand out today with greater vibrancy than ever because more knowledge about them has accrued and because, in retrospect, they are seen today to have come together to raise the clandestine war to a new plane.
In early August, before the world noticed, Iran's overt nuclear facilities, such as the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, and hidden sites working on weapons development, were attacked by the new and powerful Stuxnet computer virus.
Today, we know that the invading cyber worm was most probably responsible for forcing Iran to decommission and replace more than 1,000 IR-1 centrifuges, roughly one-fifth of the number operating at the Fuel Enrichment Plant at Natanz, as well as shutting down many of the laboratories serving the nuclear weapons program.
Tehran appeared to withhold response. However, on August 4, the Japanese supertanker M Star was attacked in the Straits of Hormuz by a missile fired from a fast attack ship of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (RGC), although Al Qaeda in Lebanon, which is close to the Guards officers stationed there, claimed responsibility for the incident.
This attack was not ordered by the government in Tehran but by Revolutionary Guard officers, who were aware of the Stuxnet offensive on the control systems of their surface-to-surface missiles and sought to prod the government into a counter-attack.
A cyber attack for starters
The malworm is still at work in the bowels of Iran's nuclear and missile systems. But we have heard very little about its disruptions in the last two months for two reasons:
1. Some of its worst ravages have affected the most secret facilities of Iran's nuclear bomb program, which are sealed tight against leaks – barring those deliberately engineered by national intelligence services, which know exactly what is going on.
Our sources can now reveal that Stuxnet is programmed for a 27-day pause between attacks during which the virus is quiescent. This feature was inserted partly to throw the virus's fighters off-guard into believing they had beaten it. The Iranians were lulled into this assumption in September and October. The other objective was to wait and see whether the Iranian operators had fully or partially replaced the damaged systems with new ones. Then, 27 days later, Stuxnet went back on the offensive in a different form against the new systems.
On Wednesday, December 29, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Strategic affairs, Moshe Ya'alon, referred obliquely to the Stuxnet attack when he said Iran is not at present able to build a nuclear bomb on its own because of delays caused by "technical difficulties."
This careful locution was the first time any Israeli official had indicated knowledge of the damage and chaos the malworm had wrought to Iran's most secret nuclear bomb development facilities.
Yaalon estimated that Iran might attain a bomb within three years. He was therefore clear on Iran's determination to achieve its objective however long it took – either by its own efforts or by hiring foreign cyber war experts to beat Stuxnet.
Blowing up missiles and assassinations
2. Next, three massive explosions blasted through the top-secret underground store holding the Shihab-3 intermediate-range ballistic missiles on Oct. 12, the day before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flew to Beirut on the first state visit to Lebanon ever paid by an Iranian president.
Those missiles were held at the Revolutionary Guard's Imam Ali Base near the city of Khorramabad. ready for launching against US targets in Iraq and against Israel in the event of war.
This time, Tehran abandoned self-restraint and hit back: It transferred Al Qaeda's Chief of Staff Saif Al Adel to Pakistan's tribal lands in North Waziristan. He was given the mission of coordinating combined attacks on US forces in Afghanistan and terrorist operations against US targets in Europe and the Middle East.
3. Last month, on Nov. 29, the covert war peaked with attacks on two top Iranian nuclear scientists. Prof. Majid Shahriani, head of the anti-Stuxnet program, died in the attack, and Prof. Feredoun Abbassi-Davani, Director of the Centrifuge Operations at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, was injured.
It had been hoped that removing these two cogs from the machinery of Iran's nuclear program would bring the partially crippled Natanz plant to complete breakdown.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian and intelligence sources report the conviction of top Iranian strategists that subversive activity on this scale cannot be orchestrated from outside Iran's borders, in places like Pakistan or Iraq. Secret command centers must therefore be operating inside the country. This conviction is shared by Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi, Revolutionary Guards chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, and Al Qods Brigades commander Gen. Qassim Suleimani.
Not hundreds but thousands of enemy operatives embedded in Iran
They arrived at this conclusion from analyses of all the attacks in the past five to six months, including terror attacks on mosques and religious centers.
According to their calculations, a logistical base consisting of many hundreds, if not thousands, of field operatives must be secretly ensconced somewhere in Iran. Substantial undercover strength is necessary for operating in a country the size of Iran, in order to scout targets, stake out the Iranian forces on hand for repelling attacks, and bringing advanced weapons to the scenes of attack, like the mysterious missiles which blew up the Shehab missile store and the sticky bombs used for assassinating the scientists.
Since October, therefore, Iranian intelligence and security organizations have applied two methods to battling the massive clandestine foreign presence they believe buried in their midst.
These methods might have been taken straight out of the great intelligence war fought by the US and the Soviet Union in the last century, which David C. Martin recorded thirty years ago in his acclaimed book "Wilderness of Mirrors."
Iran intelligence has undertaken to penetrate the CIA and Mossad's Iranian networks from bottom to top, including their American and Israel command level. It has been sending Iranians to offer themselves as double agents working for Western interests against the Iranian regime. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that elite Iranian intelligence talent has been assigned to this task.
The method offers both sides a major advantage but also a high risk.
Three intelligence agencies grope in a "wilderness of mirrors"
It could work because neither the CIA nor Mossad turn away the many Iranians offering to spy for them. They are playing the same game as Iranian intelligence, turning Iranian agents around to be run as double agents against Tehran. Even their US and Israeli handlers are not sure where those Iranian agents' loyalties truly lie, but they have found the risk worth taking because they offer the advantages of a window on the inner workings of Iranian intelligence, a chance to pry out chinks in the enemy's intelligence armor and also possibly advance warning of exposure.
The main risk is the classical one of any such exercise: A double agent may be turned again and again and, at the same time as the Americans and Israelis are enlisting Iranians as double agents, Tehran is trying to entice American and Israeli operatives to secretly cross over to its side.
Especially vulnerable are the CIA and Mossad sub-commanders in the field who have enough leeway to act independently of the top level and may take matters in their own hands without reporting to their seniors who may be engaged in totally different enterprises. The result in such cases could be a clash within the same organization and an intelligence catastrophe.
This scenario is far from hypothetical, says a Western intelligence figure. It is happening right now in Iran. The three intelligence organizations fighting it out – US, Israeli and Iranian – are all groping for a way through the wilderness of mirrors.
Iran goes public on the undercover contest
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report that, whereas the CIA and the Mossad are careful to keep their clandestine war in deep shadow, Tehran has chosen to be the first to bring it out in the open with a vicious assault on Israeli intelligence.
Tuesday, December 28, PressTV-Iran, the official Iranian English-language television station, carried a report entitled "Iranian General Killed in Israeli Jail" that began as follows:
There have been "new and astonishing developments in the case of Prisoner X," writes Richard Silverstein on the Eurasia Review website, claiming that a source within the "inner circle" of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had identified the prisoner as the former Iranian Deputy Defense Minister Alireza Asgari who vanished from his hotel in Istanbul in December 2006.
Silverstein goes on to suggest that Asgari may have been murdered, not committed suicide as reports of the prisoner's mysterious death would have us believe.
The Iranians know that this report is baseless and that Asgari was never in an Israeli prison. But it doesn't have to be true to be used as a tool for notching up the secret war and putting Israel in the international hot seat over double agents claimed held in its prisons.
Wednesday, Dec. 29, Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi turned the screw in earnest by referring to "the suspected death of Iranian prisoner Ali-Reza Asgari in an Israeli prison."
He added: "If the credibility of this report is proved, the dossier on Israel's kidnappings, assassinations and murders will become thicker."
The Iranians instead of groping in the dark are now cutting a path through the wilderness of mirrors by going on the offensive.