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magnet bomb
magnet bomb strikes in Delhi

Iran scares many countries.  There is widespread fear of its military might, its expansionistic policy in the region, its will to have a nuclear weapon, the strategic importance of its energetic resources, terrorism.

It scares Israel that sees its very existence at stake with the advent of the Iranian nuclear.  It scares the US for reasons of geo-strategic hegemony in the region, for the destabilizing effects of Shiite theocracy on Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, for the control of the oil routes, for the terrorism that it fuels.

It scares Saudi Arabia for the hegemony in the region and for the accentuated confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis. 

It scares all the emirates and sultanates of the Gulf that are afraid of its military might and its expansionistic policy. 

It surely worries Turkey that sees Teheran as a dangerously contagious destabilizer and for the possible repercussions on the Kurdish problem.

All of these fears are translated into a series of initiatives on the part of these nations that try to damage the Iranian leadership and its nuclear dream.  There have been repeated checks by the International Agency for Atomic Energy, there have been reiterated sanctions against Iran.  They have been boycotted and are the target of growing threats on the part of Israel and the USA, yet without any notable results.

But the war of threats and psychological pressure now has given way to another kind of non-conventional war, a secret spy war.  The protagonists:  CIA, Israeli MOSSAD, and the Iranian VEVAK (Verazat Ettela'at va Amniat Keshvar).  It is a war with many murdered victims and with others who have vanished or have been recruited by the opposing side, with attacks against infrastructures, clandestine operations, terroristic acts and finally, the cyber-war.

The war between spies

- In 2002 – seemingly at the hands of Israelis through Kurdish expats, an engineer and rocket scientist called Ali Mohamoudi Mimand was killed by an explosion in the military complex of Shahid Hemat, south of Teheran.

- In 2007 this secret and non-conventional war becomes systematic:
On January 15, 2007:  Ardeshir Hosseinpour, enginner, responsible for the Center of Nuclear Technology at the Isfahan plant, dies due to carbon monoxide exhalations in his home.  His death is considered to be “caused” by others.
In November 2007:  an explosion in an Iranian missile base south of Teheran kills several people.

- The killings were followed by a time of relative quiet until June 2009 when Shaharam Amiri, a nuclear scientist, vanishes during a pilgrimage to the Mecca (he will resurface in the USA on July 13, 2010).  He will declare publicly that he was kidnapped and tortured by the CIA and will ask the Pakistani embassy – that mediates for Iranian diplomats in Washington – help in going home.  He will be authorized to return to his country on July 15, 2010).

Yet in the year 2010 the escalation of clandestine operations begins anew, causing further victims and destruction:

- January 12, 2010:  Massoud Ali Mohammadi, physician, expert of elementary particles, who teaches at the University Shanati Sharif in Teheran, is killed by the explosion of a bomb placed on a motorcycle parked next to his car.

- November 29, 2010:  Madjed Shariari, enginner and teacher of nuclear engineering at the University of Teheran, is killed by a magnet bomb placed on his car by a passing motorcycle. His wife is also wounded.  On the same day, and in similar circumstances, Fereidoun Abbassi Davani, nuclear engineer, and his wife are wounded.  After escaping the hit, Abbassi will be designated on February 12, 2011 director of the Organization for Atomic Energy of Iran.

- June 2011:  an airplane carrying russian technicians and Iranian scientists headed for the Busheir plant crashes to the ground.

- July 2011:  Darious Rezaeineja, nuclear scientist, is shot and killed in Teheran by a killer on a motorcycle while he is waiting for his son to come out of school.

- September 2011:  an attempt on the life of the Saudi ambassador in Washington is discovered and thwarted.  An Iranian is arrested for the attempted murder.

- November 2011:  a plan to kill US diplomats and/or to destroy US structures piloted by Iranian agents in Azerbaijian is discovered and stopped.  The plan was retaliation for the killing of Iranian scientists.

- November 12, 2011: an explosion at the base of Amir Al Momenin, near the village of Bidganeh, kills about 20 soldiers.  The base was a deposit of explosives for the Guards of the Revolution.  One of the victims of the explosion is Hassan Teherani Moghaddam, top expert of the Iranian missile program.

- November 2011:  Ahmed Rezai, son of Mohsen Rezai - head of the Pasdaran and influential politician -  dies in mysterious circumstances while staying in a hotel in Dubai.

- November 28, 2011:  an explosion damages the uranium conversion plant of Isfahan.

- December 12, 2011:  another explosion in Yazd damages a steel factory involved in the nuclear program and controlled by the Guards of the Revolution.

- January 11, 2012:  Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, nuclear engineer and university professor, vice-director of the plant in Natanz, is killed by two individuals on a motorcycle that attach a magnet bomb on his car's door.

- January 2012:  two Iranians are arrested in Baku, Azerbaijian.  They had 16 packs of explosives and 150 thousand dollars each.  They will confess that they were recruited to kill the Israeli ambassador (Rabi and businessman) in retaliation for the death of Roshan.

- January 20, 2012: Mohammad Esmail Kosari, physics professor at the University Shanati Sahrif in Teheran, who is also a deputy in parliament and a member of the Commission for National Security, is killed by a magnet bomb placed on his car.

- February 2012: two simultaneous attacks are carried out against Israeli diplomatic personnel in New Delhi and Tbilisi.  The technique is similar to the one used against Iranian scientists:  a bomb placed under the car.  In India the bomb is found on time.  In Georgia the wife of the Israeli military attache' is wounded.  These attempts are probably a retaliation for the death of Kosari.

- March 2012:  the Iranian supreme court pardons Amir Mirza Hekmati, who was sentenced to death.  Hekmati has dual Iranian-US citizenship and is accused (and has confessed) of being a spy.

Behind this series of events there aren't just the main actors (CIA, MOSSAD, VEVAK) but also other “surrogate” organizations: the Kurds and Maryan Rajawi's Mujahedin el Khalq, whom operate from Iraqi bases (on one side), and the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian forces of Al Quds located abroad (on the opposing front).

Then there are the opposers, the expats and evidently – in order to carry out attacks in Iran – a network of informers and agents that provide information or carry out the attacks.

Also, on the US side, because of common strategic interests, there are the Saudis and the traditional British allies while Teheran can count on the Shiites of the Gulf area, the Syrians and, occasionally, on terroristic side-organizations tied to Al Qaeda.

As we have seen, this war is carried out in nations other than Iran where the activities of information services are mainly centered:  Dubai (an emirate with a strong presence of Shiites and a neuralgic center for middle-eastern traffic), Georgia and Azerbaijian (where there is a concentration of Mossad operatives), Thailand (another neuralgic center for euro-asian espionage).

Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, nuclear scientist

The cyber war

In June 2010 this subterranean war assumes a more technological dimension:  a virus called “Stuxnet” infects and blocks the computer system of the Natanz plant where gas centrifuges are busy enriching uranium.  The virus had been spotted a few months earlier but had been subsequently modified to become more efficient.

Stuxnet infects the system through the use of a USB device (thus somebody – knowing or unknowingly – physically places it there), it then bypasses the defenses of the Microsoft Windows OS (where it finds vulnerabilities) and it then strikes against Siemens software and hardware (which are industrial products in wide use in Iran's enrichment processes).

When the virus enters the system it tries to crack all of the applications and looks for the ones that use Siemens software.  If there aren't any, it remain inert but leaves a mark on all apparatuses.  It is thus provided with a “programmable logic controller”.  If, on the other hand, it finds what its looking for, it first checks the software and hardware functional conditions, then injects its destructive code in the systems control, thus modifying the functionality of the machine or apparatus.  This operation in carried out while eluding the machine's security controls by feeding them with false information.  It is in this respect that Stuxnet is a revolutionary product:  it looks for a defined target, carries out its sabotage, then hides its presence until the damage is done.  Silent, invisible, devastating.

The sabotage carried out by Stuxnet has incapacitated approximately 1000 out of the 5000 centrifuges in the Natanz plant and caused – according to US estimates – a delay of 18-24 months to the Iranian uranium enrichment program.  5 other Iranian nuclear structures (including Busheir) would have been struck by Stuxnet.

The virus would have been conceived by a joint US-Iraeli team.  There is a previous US cyber-war project called “Olympic Games” that had been authorized by George W. Bush and has been inherited by Barack Obama, but it has not yielded satisfactory results.  It is the collaboration with the Israelis that would have given the project a push forward.  Stuxnet is, according to experts, a virus with enormous destructive potential and much more powerful than anything out there to date.  According to experts, in order to write the code, the US-Israel partnership would have put to work at least 30 technicians for a time lasting at least 6 months.
For the Israeli side, work on the project would have been carried out by unit “8200”, made up of computer, cryptanalysis and mathematics experts, together with a new structure of the Defense ministry called the “National Cyber Defense Authority”.

barack and bush
Barack Obama and George W Bush

Yet Stuxnet is not the only malware out there.  There is another virus that has been recently infiltrated in the Iranian computer networks to carry out tasks of espionage.  It is a virus called “Flame” that unlike Stuxnet, doesn't have the ability to sabotage a system, but is rather aimed at collecting data from the infected computer and transmitting it to the controller/hacker. 

This software would have been used to infect the networks of Iranian government and private corporations.  Although they never avowed to it, Flame would also be a product of the Israeli-US collaboration in cyber warfare.  According to analysts, Israel would have the ability of blocking internet nodes used by the Iranian military network.

This cyber warfare sees a malware (Stuxnet) coupled with a spyware (Flame), one to sabotage and the other for surveillance and information gathering.

stuxnet rootkit geography

The activities in ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) and SIGINT (Signals Intelligence).

ELINT and SIGINT are the two aspects of non-conventional warfare that are used to pry, though the use of technologies and instruments, information from one's counterpart.  The war is already being fought, silently, by the various players.  It is a war based on wiretappings, electronic jamming and observations from the heavens through the use of drones and satellites.

Israel is evaluating with the use of the drone “Heron” the possibility of transporting instruments for electronic jamming.  Every air attack – if this is the presumable form that an eventual attack on Iranian nuclear structures would assume – is preceded by jamming activity (interferences and disturbances) that block communications, telephones, the internet and electric power.  It is a technique that the US forces have used during the initial attacks against Iraq both in 1991 and in 2003.  By the use of this technique, the command, control, and air defense system of a country are disabled, thus preventing a reaction.  ELINT activity also includes the blinding of radars and in some cases the employment of electronic simulations (making your enemy's radar portray a situation that does not reflect reality).

Looking at Teheran, the Iranians are attempting to adopt the same kind of espionage and some electronic counter-measures.  A pilotless airplane called Ardebil (“the swallow”) was built in 1993.  It was meant for reconnaissance missions but was later transformed into various “advanced” configurations.  It first became “A3” and then “A-T”, then, finally, in 2010, it became “Karrar” (“the bomber”), with a range of over 1000 km.

The US are currently employing in the Iranian skies an invisible kind of drone, the RQ-170.  This drone would have, among other tasks, that of finding and mapping – through the use of special instruments and sensors – the tunnels where Iranian nuclear activity is carried out.

The wiretapping sector is vital in knowing what your opponent is doing.  Everything that is  transmitted in the air (cell phones, radio bridges, radio and satellite communications) is the object of interest.  It is a systematic activity that every countries' infromation service carries out.  With Iran becoming a prime information objective, this activity has surely been incremented.  It is probably through the use of such means that nuclear sites, their activity and the movements of nuclear scientists have been monitored.

To complete the wiretapping activity, as far as encrypted communications go (those that contain the more sensible information), there is the need to decrypt their messages.  It is in the penetration of an encrypted system that the values of the opponents at hand are measured.  The side that knows more about the other wins... or at least doesn't lose.

Psychological warfare

This kind of warfare is fought with threats, counter-threats, official statements of politicians and militaries, interviews and warnings by all the parties involved.  It is a war of the nerves, usually aimed at conditioning the behavior of one's opponent.

Iran plays this part of the war with a particular levantine cunning, both with regards to the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and to the other international contenders:  it promises willingness, then denies and backtracks, it alternates threats with an a promise of dialogue, it is sometimes rigid, sometimes yielding, it negotiates then suddenly leaves the table.

Iran knows that time is a formidable ally and that its acting different parts in the same comedy disconcerts and disorients its adversaries.  It is a dangerous game that has worked this far.

It is what the Israelis call “azimut”, which means ambiguity.  It is the same concept that is called “taqiya” in the Arab world, meaning dissimulation.  It is a typical behavior of Shiite culture, where the denial of certain facts or realities (it was historically used to renounce one's faith to escape persecutions) is allowed when one's survival is at stake.

The signs of the coming war

The secret war between Iran and its opponents (espionage, cyber warfare, psychological warfare) can sometimes be a substitute for other more conventional kinds of war, yet sometimes it can be preparatory for an all out war.

Steering clear of political convenience talk that can influence the development of events, it cannot be excluded that what happened in June 1981 at the Osiraq reactor (Iraq) and in September 2007 at the Al Qibar reactor (Syria) might happen again.  Israel (with the direct or indirect collaboration of other countries) could conceive a similar surgical operation against Iranian nuclear sites.

The difference is in the difficulty of reaching one's target, because the Iranian sites are many and in most cases are well protected in subterranean bases.  To bomb an underground facility one needs bunker busters.  Yet one can only drop the bunker buster once they have flown over a number of foreign nations to reach the target.  This means aerial refueling and problems in keeping the surprise effect.  And there is the problem of an eventual retaliation.  Thus finding a way so that Iran, after being struck, would give up retaliation against Israel or other countries by means of its missiles.  A way to prevent Iran from blocking the oil traffic in the strait of Hormuz is also needed.

By examining all of these elements we can evaluate whether a military operation against Iran could be successful.

In short:

During the past weeks Israeli PM Netanyahu has cancelled early elections that were scheduled for September and has formed a new government of national unity with the “Kadima” party of Shaul Mofaz.  The new alliance moves the balance of Israeli policy towards interventionist positions. Mofaz is a Jew of Iranian origins, a former member of the special forces.  He is considered to be a hawk, and thus favorable, like Netanyahu, to an armed intervention.  On March 2, 2012 the US President met Netanyahu in Washington and promised – after the pressing requests by Israel – specific military aid:  bunker busters, tanker aircrafts for aerial refueling, identification systems (electronic devices) for their planes so that they do not run the risk of not being recognized and being shot down.  Also, the US promised more anti-missile “Iran Dome” batteries.  What a coincidence!  All of these elements could be invaluable in carrying out a raid and in countering Iranian retaliations.
Meanwhile, the Saudis have more than doubled their oil reserves by going from 35 million barrels to about 80 million.  To stockpile oil reserves when the prices are sky-high is a commercial suicide, yet these barrels could be intended for a special use:  there is a concrete risk that the Hormuz strait might be blocked if Iran is attacked.
For months now Israel and Iran have been testing missiles and lately the Israeli air force has carried out a series of trial attacks against ground targets together with other NATO planes in the Decimomannu base in Sardegna, Italy.

Do these signs tell us that the Iranian nuclear sites will soon be destroyed?  Some evaluations unfortunately escape a logical answer because apart from the known facts, there are other, unknown facts – the ones that have been acquired through the secret war.  And it is usually on the basis of these that the fate of the world is decided.