Iran’s nuclear ambitions may loom large, but lurking in the shadow of President Obama’s highly anticipated visit to Israel this week is a protracted and secretive war already being waged between Jerusalem and Tehran.
Analysts and former officials say the “shadow war,” featuring suicide bombings and clandestine attacks from Eastern Europe to Asia and the Middle East, is a potential source of friction between individuals at the CIA and Israel’s lead intelligence agency, the Mossad.
The shadow war has been defined over the past five years by a tit-for-tat exchange of terrorist-style attacks. Israel’s president has blamed Iran for car and suicide bombings that targeted Israeli diplomats and killed Israeli tourists. Iran’s president has accused Israel and the U.S. of colluding to kill nuclear scientists with magnetized car bombs in Tehran.
While the U.S. vehemently denies involvement, some analysts point out that the Iranian actors in the conflict — specifically Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic’s elite Qods Force — increasingly are seeking not just Israeli but American targets.
Matthew Levitt, who heads the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has argued that Iran supports a broader conflict.
The prospect of future attacks has the U.S. intelligence community increasingly piqued, according to Mr. Levitt, who wrote in a January white paper that the “net effect of Iran’s shadow war against the West is that Hezbollah and the Qods Force have climbed back up the list of immediate threats facing the United States and its allies.”
But when it comes to alleged retaliation against Iran by those allies, namely Israel, the tactics being employed are so secretive and controversial that most Western analysts and former officials — let alone active government agents — with any reliable familiarity with the conflict will discuss it only on condition of anonymity.
Jerusalem and Washington may share a common enemy in Iran, but when it comes to the use of clandestinely planted bombs, “It is likely that the United States government as a whole doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the Israeli government,” said one analyst familiar with the Obama administration.
While Iran occupies a spot on America’s official State Sponsors of Terrorism list, Israel does not — so it’s no surprise that Israeli leaders have denied involvement in terrorist-style bombings, including those that killed Iranian nuclear scientists in Tehran in November of 2010 and January of 2012.
Most Western analysts agree, however, the bombings on Iranian interests — such as those that killed the scientists in Tehran — can most likely be linked back to the Mossad.
The notion that Israel would sponsor such tactics is irksome for some members of the U.S. intelligence community. “By any objective criteria, this is terrorism,” said one former official, who also spoke with The Washington Times on condition of anonymity. “For that reason alone, I think you have people over [at CIA headquarters] who view it with repugnance.”
“But it’s not a CIA-specific thing,” the former official added. “It’s just American citizens, looking at these kinds of activities that are constituted as international terrorism.”
Recent months, meanwhile, have been punctuated by reports that Mossad agents may be engaging in other nefarious shadow war pursuits likely to rub CIA agents the wrong way.
A January article posted on the website of Foreign Policy magazine homed in on secret U.S. frustration that Israeli agents allegedly pretended to be CIA agents in order to recruit members of the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jundallah to carry out Mossad-driven missions in the secret war with Iran.
“It’s amazing what the Israelis thought they could get away with,” the article quoted one unnamed U.S. intelligence officer as saying. “Their recruitment activities were nearly in the open. They apparently didn’t give a damn what we thought.”
The report came as no surprise to the former official who spoke with The Times, saying that “false flag dimensions to Israeli operations are not a new thing.”
Separately, Trita Parsi, whose recent book, “A Single Role of the Dice,” delves deeply into the Obama administration’s Iran policy, said that he had independently confirmed elements of the Foreign Policy article.
“It was in about 2006 when the Mossad was impersonating the CIA in order to help Jundallah, which was creating problems for Iran on the Iranian eastern border [with Pakistan],” said Mr. Parsi, who also heads the National Iranian American Council, the largest Iranian-American grass-roots organization in the U.S.
Iranian authorities subsequently cracked down on Jundallah, Mr. Parsi said.
Secret army reports
Other reports suggest the U.S. intelligence community has actually collaborated with the Mossad in creating a proxy force to carry out shadow war attacks. Citing confirmation by unnamed U.S. officials, a February 2012 report by NBC claimed the Israeli agency had secretly trained and armed members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalk, an Iraq-based Iranian dissident group, to execute the Iranian nuclear scientists in Tehran.
The claim took on a new layer of complexity last April, when The New Yorker — also citing unnamed sources — reported that MeK members have since 2005 received training from the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command at a clandestine base in Nevada.
The report said the training’s secrecy was essential since it occurred while the MeK, also known as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, was still on Washington’s official list of foreign terrorist organizations. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the group’s removal from the list in September, about five months after The New Yorker article was published.
The former official who spoke with The Times said the article’s claims were “not on the surface implausible, but there are questions about what the likely advantage for Mossad would be” in looking to the MeK for high-stakes, terrorist-style attacks in Tehran.
“I don’t think there would be any hesitation on the part of Mossad to collaborate with the MeK based on politics or ideology,” the former official said. “If there was any hesitation, it would be strictly based on concerns about operational competence … could an operation be done competently and discretely?”
The former official and others interviewed for this story said it was unlikely there would be any specific dialogue on the shadow war while Mr. Obama visits Israel this week.
“It’s not going to get that granular,” said the former official, who added that if the subject does arise, it will be in “vague terms,” with Obama administration officials likely making the argument to their Israeli counterparts that progress is currently being made in the effort to bring Iran into a successful and peaceful negotiation toward ending the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.
The Obama administration, the former official said, might encourage Israeli leaders not to “screw up the process by making any provocative action that is going to cause the Iranians to be more militant and strike back.”