Israel and Iran: Covert Warfare Raises Risks of Retaliation, and Conflagration

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Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (C) and Revolutionary guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari (Center L) pray as they stand behind the coffins of members of revolutionary guards who were killed during a blast in a military base, in Tehran November 14, 2011. (Photo: The Office of the Supreme Leader / Reuters)

If Iran’s leaders actually believe their official insistence that last weekend’s blast at the Bid Ganeh Revolutionary Guard Corps missile base was an accident, the event is unlikely to make any difference to regional stability. But if Iran, instead, believes claims — and widely held suspicions in Tehran — that the blast, which killed 17 Iranian guardsmen including a senior commander, was the work of Israel’s Mossad security agency (as reported by my TIME colleagues Karl Vick and Aaron Klein  and a growing chorus of innuendo in the Israeli  media) the region could be in for a sharp uptick in turbulence.

Iranian analyst Kaveh Afrasiabi notes that officials in Tehran suspect foul play not only in the Bid Ganeh blast, but also in the death under suspicious circumstances in a Dubai hotel of the son of a prominent former Revolutionary Guards commander, and suggests that if these are deemed hostile events, pressure will grow on the Iranian leadership to retaliate.

Iran has over the past couple of years absorbed a series of covert warfare blows directed against its nuclear program — assassinations of its scientists, sabotage of facilities and, most damaging, the Stuxnet computer worm that invaded and hobbled its uranium-enrichment centrifuge system — which Tehran’s leaders believe were largely the work of the Israelis, possibly in conjunction with other Western intelligence agencies. And tensions are rising as Israel threatens military action to stop a program whose potential military dimension was highlighted last week by the IAEA.

Thus far, however, Tehran has declined any significant retaliation for actions it clearly perceives as provocations. Some of the spin in Washington had floated the idea that the recent used car salesman-embassy bombing plot was, in fact, an instance of Iranian retaliation, but there are far too many grounds for skepticism over those allegations to suggest that Iran’s capabilities had been reduced to such buffoonery. A more prudent explanation might be that Iran has until now restrained itself from retaliating for covert actions against its nuclear program, sensing that these might, in fact, be designed to provoke Iranian acts of retaliation that would, in turn, serve as a pretext for a full-blown military attack on Iran and its nuclear facilities.

“The Iranians believe that the recent assassinations have been at the hands of Israel,” Dr. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian Council and author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy With Iran, explained by email on Monday. “Yet, curiously, Western officials tell me that there have been no signs of any Iranian retaliation. Is it because they can’t retaliate (unlikely) or because they are deliberately avoiding an escalation that they may believe to be a trap?”

Parsi argues that the Iranians may believe their nuclear program can’t be seriously disrupted by sanctions and covert attacks. “If so, retaliating against the assassinations and risking an escalation may be less attractive to Tehran compared to continuing a status quo where Iran faces painful sanctions and pressure, but can still outpace the problems these punitive measures inflict on their nuclear program. However, this calculation may not hold as the intensity of the sabotage campaign increases. And that may just be the Israeli gamble.”

It would certainly be more difficult for the leadership in Tehran to refrain from answering a painful slap at the IRGC, the military core of the regime’s strength, than it has been to insist on restraint in the face of Stuxnet and the murder of scientists. If, indeed, the blast at  Bid Ganeh was more than an accident, its purpose — besides striking a minor blow at Iran’s ability to project power — would be to provoke retaliation. And, of course, any steps that Iran took in retaliation would likely provoke further escalation — both overt and or even covert — from those targeted by Tehran. As the unnamed diplomat who briefed my TIME colleagues noted, there may be more attacks in the works — or, in his words, “There are more bullets in the magazine.”

Despite their obvious glee at the results of the explosion — “may there be more like it,” enthused Defense Minister Ehud Barak on being asked for comment — Israeli officials are not claiming responsibility. Still, among those in Israel’s security establishment most opposed to air strikes on Iran, the alternative usually includes covert action. And although the Israelis insist they have given the U.S. no assurance that Washington will be informed ahead of any Israeli air strike on Iran, any escalation of covert warfare entirely sidesteps the debate in Washington and other capitals on whether to launch an unprovoked conventional military assault on Iranian nuclear facilities. Right now, despite keeping the threat of bombing Iran’s facilities proverbially “on the table”, the Obama Administration — guided by its military — appears loathe to pursue a course of action that it believes would, at best, only delay the Iranians by up to three years, but would risk substantial costs to U.S. and Israeli interests, and global oil supplies. And Israel’s closest European allies on Iran, Germany and France, have come out strongly against Israel initiating hostilities.

But if the Iranians started a war — or were perceived to be starting a war — that calculus could change. Two years ago, Aluf Benn, now the editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz, suggested that an act of provocation might be Israel’s route to a military strike on Iran: “It is usually assumed,” Benn wrote, “that Israel will seek to repeat the 1981 bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq. This is only one scenario and not a likely one. There are other possibilities to consider: a war in the north [between Israel and Hizballah in Lebanon]  that drags Iran in, or a strike against a valuable target for the Iranian regime, which leads Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to take action against ‘the Zionist regime.’ If Iran attacks Israel first, the element of surprise will be lost, but then Israel’s strike against the nuclear installations will be considered self-defense.”

That reasoning may prompt some within the corridors of power in Iran to counsel restraint even if Tehran concludes that Israel was responsible for the blast at Bid Ganeh. But there will be others who may not be willing to let Israel continue unanswered emptying “the magazine” described by the Western diplomat in TIME’s story.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week reiterated the Pentagon’s skepticism of the call for military action against Iran, stressing that at best it could delay the Iranians by up to three years, but would touch off a potentially far more damaging immediate conflict. “You’ve got to be careful of unintended consequences,” Panetta warned. Indeed. But that warning may prove to apply as much to covert warfare as to overt warfare.