TSG IntelBrief: Irans Covert Attacks, More to Come?
Bottom Line Up Front
- The arrest of 22 Azeri nationals in Baku on charges of spying for Iran and plotting attacks against Israeli and Western interests in Azerbaijan highlights Iran’s ongoing intention and capability to conduct a campaign of violence beyond its borders. The fact that the cell was formed in 1999 not only highlights the level of long-range planning involved, but also suggests the possibility of Iranian sleeper cells elsewhere.
- As the pressure on Iran from the international community increases, the country will desperately look for ways to strike back. Iran is likely to react to this week’s decision by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) to stop processing all Iranian transactions by orchestrating more and possibly larger-scale plots.
As of mid-March 2012, Azerbaijani authorities announced the arrest of 22 Azeri citizens who were suspected of working with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in a cell that had reportedly been in place for more than a decade. This event serves as a sharp reminder to the international community that Iran has both the intention and the capability to hit targets outside its borders, and that it may strategically employ well-placed sleeper cells to conduct the attacks.
In announcing the arrests, the Azerbaijan government reported that all 22 individuals had been recruited, trained, and paid by members of the IRGC to attack, among other targets, Western and Israeli diplomatic offices in Baku. The government announcement also highlighted the fact that the cell had been formed as far back as 1999.
Given Iran’s considerable Azeri population and common border, Azerbaijan was a natural selection for Iranian intrigue against Israel and the West. In addition, Azerbaijan’s support for U.S. counter-terrorist efforts, as well as its relatively close and open ties with Israel, makes the country an even more attractive target for Iran. Finally, from an Iranian perspective, Azerbaijan’s oil industry – one that includes well-known titans of western industry such as BP and Exxon-Mobil marks the country as a target-rich environment.
After the much-publicized failed attacks in Thailand, India, and Georgia ? and the previous arrest in Baku of Iranian-connected individuals suspected of planning an attack in the capital ? much was made of the apparent ineptitude of the IRGC cells working abroad, and deservedly so in those cases. However, it should be noted that while those efforts reflected poor training, and perhaps, even worse luck, the cells were still operational and active in four different countries simultaneously. The planning, control, and logistical challenges of such an enterprise must not be overlooked and suggest that Iran does, in fact, have global reach (or, at least, a global vision for its covert operations).
Iran’s Covert Footprint in Azerbaijan
Iran has shown a pattern of using Azerbaijan as a platform for covert hostilities against Israel and the West. In 2007, officials there arrested and convicted 15 people, both Iranians and Azeris, on charges of working for Iranian intelligence and targeting U.S. and Israeli interests. In 2008, officials disrupted what they identified as a plot by Iranian-backed Hizbollah to attack the Israeli embassy in Baku. Most recently, in January of this year, officials announced the arrest of two people for plotting to kill Jewish teachers in Baku; this was followed by the February arrest of additional individuals who were suspected of working with Iranian intelligence. Given the shared border, ethnicity, and culture ? Azerbaijan is second only to Iran in the size of its Shi’a population ? there is every reason to expect Iran will continue to use such an operationally convenient location to conduct future attacks against its perceived enemies. In addition, given the split between Azerbaijan and Iran, in part, over Baku’s aforementioned support for U.S. counterterrorism programs, Tehran is not hindered by concerns about maintaining warm relations with Baku.
While there was never any question that the IRGC had cells in various regions, it was uncertain whether Iran would actually use them, and if so, how they might be deployed. Many of the arrests described above were for plotting possible attacks; an off-the-shelf strike ability Iran clearly seeks to develop. However, February’s failed operations in New Delhi, Bangkok, and Tbilisi reflect operations taken beyond the planning stage, even though they ultimately failed to varying degrees. It is widely conjectured that the magnetic bomb attacks were carried out in retaliation for similarly-styled attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists; attacks Iran suspected could be traced back to Israel and/or the United States. Thus, the IRGC operations in India, Thailand, and Georgia may be viewed as a systematic escalation in the tit-for-tat covert intrigue.
International Pressure Tightens; Iran Reacts
The arrests were juxtaposed with the announcement of the implementation of perhaps the single most powerful sanction to date in the multi-year, multinational effort to dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program: the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) move to stop processing Iranian banking transactions. These seemingly disparate events ? sanctions and attacks ? are not only connected, the response was arguably predictable.
As sanctions have increased pressure on the Iranian economy, there has been a concomitant increase in the operations tempo for Iranian covert activities against Israeli and Western interests. Clearly, the biggest and most immediate pressure will be the implementation of the SWIFT action. Add to this the European Union embargo of Iranian oil set to begin this July, and Iran will quickly find itself in a unsustainable economic position. Policy makers in both the government and corporate spheres must realize this array of sanctions will introduce a degree of pressure that will be unprecedented for the country since its founding as the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. If Iran has a viable covert capability in-place across the globe, it is likely to play a central role in Iran’s response, and this response will invariably target Western and Israeli interests around the globe.
It is likely Iran will seek to drive a wedge between various countries in an effort to ease or bypass sanctions, and part of the strategy to achieve this objective will possibly involve attacks that, while they might be assumed to be Iranian-sponsored, will be carried out in a fashion that offers sufficient plausible denial for Tehran. The rash and unsophisticated nature of the recent failed attacks might suggest Iran doesn’t possess a viable off-the-shelf strike capability to render this a serious threat; this however, would be a very dangerous assumption.
- As the pressure on Iran’s economy is ratcheted up through the application of sanctions, there is likely to be a corresponding rise in the operations tempo of Iranian’s covert attacks abroad. Such attacks – which are almost certain to be more thoughtfully planned and skillfuly conducted ? will assuredly target Israeli and Western interests in Central and East Asia, and beyond.
- As the international community tightens sanctions against Iran, Tehran faces the difficult choice of changing domestic policies (especially as it relates to its nuclear program), or escalating its covert ventures abroad. As economic conditions become dire, desperate regimes all too often default to attacks outside its borders rather than restructuring its affairs within them.
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