Iran-Israel: can the low-intensity conflict turn into open war?

Commentary: The implications and consequences of the murder of the head of the Iranian nuclear project

Iran-Israel: can the low-intensity conflict turn into open war?

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On Friday, November 27, on the motorway from the town of Absard to Tehran, the armored car carrying the Head of Iran's nuclear programme, Moshem Fakhzarideh, was ambushed. The scientist was killed, probably together with his bodyguards. The news of the incident is still confusing. 

The Iranian news agency Farsi News has even talked about the attackers' use of a sort of "Robot machine gun" placed on a pickup truck by the side of the motorway and apparently controlled remotely.

An evocative and probably fanciful piece of news useful to draw a merciful  veil over the new debacle of the Iranian security services which, once again, have failed to ensure the safety of their scientists. 

The only certain news is that Fakhzarideh was killed in an attack that runs the risk of significantly harming Iran's nuclear programme.

The scientist lived such a secluded and secret life that not even his age is known for certain.

According to the technicians of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - the United Nations organization that oversees international controls on nuclear proliferation - until his death, Fakhzarideh was directing the very secret projects aimed at uranium enrichment, the production of high potential explosives and above all the construction of missile warheads capable of carrying fissile material.

Despite his life apart in the shadows, in 2011 the IAEA had identified him as the Head of the AMAD programme, a long-term plan organized by the Ayatollah regime twenty years ago, with the aim of turning Iran into a fully-fledged nuclear power.

Israel had identified him well before the UN technicians: in May 2003, the Mossad's deputy-Director, Tamir Pardo, outlined to his Director, Meir Dagan, and to the Israeli Secret Service's operational directors, a top-secret program to stop the AMAD plan, a program that was the result of four months of espionage in Iran, aimed at thwarting Iran's nuclear projects. 

According to Israeli sources, Pardo outlined his strategic proposal in a simple way: "In this situation, Israel has three options: firstly, conquer Iran; secondly, organize a regime change in Iran; thirdly, convince Iranian politicians that the price they shall pay to continue the nuclear programme will be so high that it will better for them to stop it". 

Since both the first and the second option were clearly unrealistic, the Israeli government started a "low-intensity war" against the Ayatollah regime designed to making the third option materialize. Alongside political and diplomatic measures aimed at achieving the international isolation of the Iranian regime, Israel entrusted the Mossad with the task of supporting the activities of Iranian minorities (the Kurds) and of organized groups opposed to the regime (first and foremost, the Mujaheddin El Kalkh, MEK), as well as starting plans to sabotage the production of fissile material and, above all, authorized the targeted and selective killing of key figures in the AMAD programme, the leading scientists of the nuclear projects.

The Mossad project was shared with the United States, which agreed to take on both the diplomatic and political side of the programme and a large part of the funding for the opposition groups within the Iranian regime.

Moreover, CIA and Mossad together planned a wide range of cyberattacks designed to sabotaging Iranian plutonium enrichment and production. A joint operation called "Oliympic Games" was launched, which led to the "cyber sabotage" of the computerized systems of Iranian nuclear facilities with viruses, such as the notorious Stuxnet, which in 2009 led to the stop of all the centrifuges used for uranium enrichment.

At the same time, Israel drew up a list of 15 key figures in the AMAD programme to be eliminated. The United States kept out of the plans to target Iranian scientists because Obama's CIA was afraid of being involved in clearly illegal operations. 

However, as the then Director of CIA, Michael Hayden, admitted, the elimination of the technicians could prove an essential tool to frustrate Iran's nuclear ambitions. 

During the first meeting of the National Security Council in January 2009, in the presence of newly elected President Obama, Hayden said as follows about the fissile material stored in the Natanz laboratories: "The issue is not how much fissile material is stored in Natanz. There are no electrons or neutrons in Natanz that can be turned into a nuclear bomb. What they are building in Natanz is knowledge. When the Iranians have enough knowledge they will go somewhere else to enrich uranium. That knowledge, Mr President, is stored in scientists' brains.”

Although the United States stayed away from the targeted killings of Iranian technicians, the Mossad was not sitting on its hands.

On January 14, 2007, the nuclear physicist Ardeshir Hosseinpour died from radioactive gas poisoning.

On January 12, 2010, Dr. Masoud Alimohammad, a leading member of the AMAD project's scientific team, was killed by the explosion of a booby-trapped motorbike parked near his car. 

On November 29, 2010 it was the turn of Dr. Majid Shahriari, who was killed by a car bomb with “magnetized explosives” that two motorcyclists had attached to his Peugeot, detonating it remotely. That same day another scientist escaped death, together with his wife, as they managed to leave the car before the explosion. 

In July 2011, Dr. Darioush Rezainejad, a member of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, was shot dead by a motorcycle-riding gunman in front of his house. On January 12, 2012 the same fate befell the chemist, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshani, working at the Natanz facility.

This seemingly unstoppable and relentless series of targeted killings had various effects on the Iranian scientific community and Iran's politicians.

On the one hand, as Fakhzarideh himself admitted, the last and probably most illustrious victim of Israel's longa manus, it made the life of Iranian scientists a real "living hell". Under the 24-hour obsessive escort of the protection services and without a social life any longer, what at first seemed a cursus honorum turned into an infernal circle. 

On the other hand, the feeling of being the target of an unstoppable spy penetration from outside made the Iranian security services suspicious, bordering paranoia, thus forcing them to suffocating internal control measures that often paralyzed their action.

Moreover, as Mossad Director Meir Dagan admitted during a rare public conference, the killings caused a "White Defection" in Iran, a constant drain of scientists who asked to leave nuclear research for other assignments.

The "low-intensity" war informally declared by Israel on Iran in 2003 has had its results. 

The international community has imposed economic and trade sanctions on Iran, which have caused the collapse of its economy. In 2015 Iran accepted the "Nuclear Deal" proposed by the United Nations and signed a non-proliferation agreement guaranteed by Germany, France, Russia and the United States.

President Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 to protest against Iran's increased activism in Yemen and Syria in opposition to Saudi Arabia, a U.S. strategic ally throughout the Middle East. 

During the electoral campaign the U.S. President-elect, Joe Biden, repeatedly stated that under his administration the United States would sit back at the “Nuclear Deal” negotiating table, as he is convinced he can lead Iran again on the "right track" of nuclear non-proliferation.

Probably, faced with this prospect, Israel wanted to send a signal to Iran with the killing of the Head of its nuclear scientist team on November 27 last. Although Israel has lost the proactive support of Donald Trump after his defeat in the Presidential election, vigilance and supervision over Iran is still high and will remain so until Iran definitively gives up its dream of becoming a nuclear power capable of dictating the law with nuclear persuasion over the Persian Gulf and the whole Middle East.

In this strategy, Israel has the increasingly evident and proactive support of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, within new links in a chain of regional alliances that should convince Iran to seek a way of political compromise with the counterparts on its borders and drop its hegemonic designs of recent years. Probably, instead of stimulating reprisals and retaliations, Fakhrizadeh’s assassination could paradoxically make a political compromise closer.

 

Professor Valori is President of the International World Group

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