08.07.12

How Iran’s Spies Are Losing the Shadow War With U.S. and Israel

In Syria and around the world, Iran’s covert operatives are in trouble.

The powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, its infamous expeditionary unit, the Quds Force, and the network of Hezbollah operatives it supports around the world, are starting to look like the proverbial gang that couldn’t shoot straight. They’re still dangerous, to be sure, but a series of recent incidents widely attributed to these groups suggest that as spies, assassins, and terrorists, they just aren’t what they used to be. And Tehran is getting worried.

According to sources in the Iranian capital, concerns about IRGC inadequacies are fueling the bitter infighting among Iran’s elites at a critical time: the war in Syria threatens to bring down Iran’s most vital Arab ally, the confrontation with Israel and the West over Iran’s nuclear program has provoked devastating sanctions, and a military attack on Iran by Israel still looms as a distinct possibility. This is a bad moment for the Iranians to discover their fearsome covert operatives are essentially incompetent.

Last weekend, for instance, Syrian rebels captured a group of 48 Iranians who were alleged to be IRGC members on “a reconnaissance mission” in Damascus. Rumors have circulated extensively in Tehran (a very rumor-prone city) that the head of the Quds Force, Qasem Suleimani himself, was wounded recently when his convoy was attacked in Damascus. Over the last year, at least nine apparent Iranian assassination and bomb plots around the world have failed or been thwarted. The grim attack on a bus full of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last month, which killed seven people and wounded 30, appears to have been the exceptional “success” for these murderers rather than the rule.

On almost every front in a wide-ranging covert war with Israel and the United States, Iran appears to be suffering major setbacks. Its nuclear program was disrupted by the Stuxnet computer worm in 2010 and at least one virus since. Its scientists have been attacked and five of them murdered. According to one source, recent leaks provided Western intelligence services with detailed information about work on the Iranian nuclear program at the Parchin military complex, which may have encouraged the Americans and their allies to toughen their stand in the faltering talks meant to defuse the crisis.

As always in covert wars, denial is part of the picture, and sometimes a kind of perverse affirmation. The Iranian government denies any connection to the various alleged plots over the last year in the United States, Cyprus, India, Thailand, and Bulgaria, even though they are widely seen as attempted retaliation for the attacks on its scientists. (Iranian state television broadcast a documentary film on Sunday, Terror Club, that included “confessions” by Iranians who said they had been trained in Israel to carry out the murders of Iran’s nuclear scientists. Israel has never officially acknowledged a role in the killings.) Last month, intelligence analysts at the New York City Police Department prepared a detailed chronology of nine alleged Iran-backed plots in other cities around the world this year, all of them apparently aimed at Jewish targets. The NYPD stepped up security around several similar sites in New York City.

On almost every front in a wide-ranging covert war with Israel and the United States, Iran appears to be suffering major setbacks.

Some of the alleged IRGC plots appear so convoluted it’s hard to believe they were ever serious, or, indeed, ever existed. Would the Iranians really have tried to hire members of a Mexican drug cartel to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington in a crowded D.C. restaurant last year? Mansour Arbabsiar, an Iranian-American former used-car salesman from Texas, whose lawyers say is bipolar, is awaiting trial in New York for his alleged role as a middleman in that plot.

The Iranian government insists the Iranian citizens who are now “hostages” in Syrian rebel hands were mere religious pilgrims visiting the Shia shrine of Sayyida Zeinab in Damascus. But Tehran says it will hold the United States responsible for their treatment.

The back and forth of denial and recrimination is reminiscent of events 30 years ago in Lebanon, when Iranian agents were captured by hostile militias and the retaliation came in the form of multiple Iranian-backed kidnappings that targeted American journalists, a CIA station chief, an American colonel, and other Westerners.

Back then, however, the Iranians and their agents working under the government’s Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) showed impressive, if frightening, tradecraft. Throughout the 1980s and early '90s, the Iranians pulled off a series of assassinations targeting opponents of the regime in Paris, Geneva, Rome, Vienna, and elsewhere. Sometimes they used guns and sometimes car bombs, as in two attacks on Jewish targets in Argentina that took more than 100 lives in the early '90s. On August 6, 1981, Iranian agents murdered a former Iranian prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, in his own heavily guarded house outside of Paris with a knife from his kitchen, then calmly walked out the front door.

In recent years, however, especially since the political upheaval following rigged presidential elections in 2009, the MOIS has been pushed aside in many areas by the separate, independent, and much clumsier IRGC. “You read about ‘the elite IRGC’ and the ‘elite Quds Force,’” says a veteran American operative in the counterterror wars. “Well, there is nothing ‘elite’ about the IRGC.  It’s not the MOIS, which has a certain elegance.”

“They are using Hezbollah operatives where they can find them, or borrow them, and they are willing to use criminal elements,” says the American operative. “That’s what happens when you try to push out nine plots in six months. One maybe, or two. But nine—you get sloppy.”

According to one of our correspondents in the region who is in close contact with various governmental sources in Iran, senior leaders of the regular Iranian army, which has been sidelined for decades as the IRGC gained strength, are now accusing the IRGC of squandering precious military resources and political capital in its efforts to save the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been a major Assad supporter, according to these sources, supplying expensive military hardware to help bolster the regime. His IRGC allies advised al-Assad early on to hang tough and forget about reforms, much as they had done when suppressing the popular protests in Iran in 2009.

Any Iranian leadership might have taken this stand—reluctant to lose such a strategically important ally and a critical link to the powerful Hezbollah forces in Lebanon--but Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have become rivals, and Khamenei may use the record of IRGC failures to force out commanders who haven’t supported him in these intramural fights.

According to our correspondent, who is not named for security reasons, a “mole hunt” has begun inside the Quds Force, looking for the source or sources of mismanagement and potentially disastrous leaks to hostile intelligence forces. As in many bureaucracies, it is easier to blame conspirators than incompetents. Meanwhile, the deadly game of spy and counterspy continues.