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    Middle East
     Nov 30, 2011

Saboteurs flying under Iran radar
By Mahan Abedin

As Western nations impose yet more sanctions on Iran in the wake of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report, the psychological warfare between the two sides continues to escalate.

This psychological warfare has two dimensions; one visible and rhetorical and conducted through official and unofficial media and the other secret and centered on sabotage. In so far as the former is concerned Iran has risen to the challenge by superseding tough American and Israeli rhetoric with even tougher rhetoric.

However, it is on the sabotage front - where Iran appears to be under attack from several directions - that the Islamic Republic is raising eyebrows even amongst its hardcore supporters by

displaying remarkable tolerance in the face of intolerable provocations.

More broadly, the Iranians are not paying sufficient attention to the long-term consequences of military confrontation with the United States and her allies.

While Iranian leaders and commentators readily recognize the ultimate aim of the United States as the destruction of the revolutionary Islamic regime in Tehran, they haven't given sufficient thought to the probability of this outcome being attained in a longer time frame (by American standards) with a limited military assault on Iran designed to direct all relevant political, economic and strategic variables toward that trajectory.

Tehrani-Moghadam: latest victim of sabotage?
The explosion at the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) Al-Ghadir base in Bigdaneh (near Tehran) on November 12 which killed the architect of Iran's ballistic missile programme has added fuel to widespread suspicions that Iran is under concerted sabotage attacks by Western and Israeli special forces and intelligence services.

Even though the Iranian government was quick to rule out sabotage and insisted the explosions were an accident, the steady leaking of Brigadier General Hassan Tehrani-Moghaddam's hugely sensitive role in developing Iran's ballistic missile programme, lends credence to the theory that the country's enemies had a hand in the "accident" that killed at least 16 other IRGC personnel.

Reports on Iranian media - directly attributed to members of Tehrani-Moghaddam's family or senior IRGC commanders - have speculated widely on the context and cause of the "accident", with some reports suggesting that the pioneering IRGC commander was supervising the testing of an inter-continental ballistic missile, while others suggest he was testing a new ballistic surface to sea missile, presumably designed to attack American warships in the event of a war.

The explosion at the Al-Ghadir base - believed to be a depot for medium-range Shahab-3 ballistic missiles with a range of up to 2,000 kilometers - comes on the heel of the assassination of key Iranian scientists and a ferocious cyber warfare programme directed at Iran's uranium enrichment facilities and the wider nuclear establishment.

The Israeli government was quick to hint at possible involvement in the explosion with defense minister Ehud Barak cheerfully proclaiming "I don't know the extent of the explosion. But it would be desirable if they multiply".

Iran's enemies have a clear interest in staking a claim to these incidents with a view to sabotaging Iranian morale. For their part Iranian officials were quick to rule out an Israeli or American hand in the explosion in a concerted effort to calm widespread fears that the enemy could have attained such extensive access to the country's most sensitive military programs.

Mischievous Israeli posturing notwithstanding, there is no evidence or credible information at this stage to suggest that the explosion at the Al-Ghadir base was anything but an accident caused by an important experiment involving ballistic missiles and high explosives.

But assuming the explosion was the result of sabotage, senior Iranian officials have two overriding reasons to insist on an accidental cause. In the very short term an admission that sabotage is the cause runs the risk of inflaming Iranian public opinion with the resulting overwhelming demand for immediate retaliation. For various reasons - not least the desire to avoid escalation - Iranian leaders are not overly keen to respond to Israeli and American provocations which they view as a trap.

At a deeper level, this remarkable forbearance in the face of seemingly intolerable provocations is the result of Iranian leaders' strategic calculus. Iran's leaders long ago concluded that enormous pressures - including sabotage operations - would be directed against the country to coerce the leadership to discontinue the nuclear programme. By refusing to retaliate against the country's enemies, Iranian leaders are sending yet another signal that they are committed to staying on the same strategic trajectory regardless of the costs.

Psychological warfare vs real warfare
On the psychological warfare front Iranian leaders and senior IRGC commanders have risen to the challenge and thrown down the gauntlet at the United States.

The leader of the Islamic Revolution dramatically raised the stakes earlier in the month when he warned potential aggressors that any military attack on Iran would be met with "iron fists".

This was followed by harsh warnings by the commander of the Basij paramilitary force, Mohammad-Reza Naghdi, who proclaimed on the eve of "Basij week" that the United States wouldn't be able to "withstand an Iranian attack".

Widely viewed as the most hardline personality at the higher reaches of the Islamic regime, Naghdi is making speeches at cultural and commemorative events on practically a daily basis, a clear indication of the Iranian leaders' growing concern about the threat of military conflict with the United States.

In recent days senior IRGC commanders have ratcheted up the rhetoric even further. Commenting on Israeli threats to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, General Amir Ali Haji-Zadeh, commander of the IRGC's aerospace division, claimed that this is "a great wish on our part for them [Israelis] to undertake this action as that would release our unspent energies toward the direction of destroying the enemies of Islam and the Muslims once and for all".

Addressing the death of Tehrani-Moghaddam and the growing threat of American-led military action, the Iranian defense minister (and former IRGC commander) Ahmad Vahidi claimed that new anti-ship missiles would be delivered to Iranian forces in the coming days.

The regular Iranian military also weighed in on the defensive capacity-building rhetoric, with the commander of the Khattam-ol-Anbia air defense center, Brigadier-General Farzad Esmaili, vowing to turn Iranian airspace into an "inferno" for invading enemy warplanes.

In keeping with the Islamic Republic's conceptualization of the Arab revolutions as an "Islamic Awakening", the deputy chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces (and former IRGC commander) Major-General Mostafa Izadi, claimed that the regionwide political changes were the product of "Basiji" thinking.

Addressing a commemorative event during "Basij week", Izadi emphasized the growing role of cyber warfare and claimed that the Islamic Republic's "combatants" are fighting the enemy on Israel's borders.

Most recently Hamid Reza Moghadam-Far, the head of the IRGC's socio-cultural programs and the former managing director of the semi-official Fars news agency, told the same media outlet (which is close to the IRGC), that the "enemies" cannot even effectively threaten Iran anymore "because they know that any threat will be met by an even greater threat ... and that any military assault will result in their [the enemies] destruction".

In combination, this type of deadly serious rhetoric is probably effective in complicating American planning, if not deterring an imminent attack altogether. Furthermore, while the scenarios set out by senior IRGC commanders are plausible, little regard is given to potential US responses to ferocious Iranian resistance.

In fact, in their public rhetoric at least, IRGC commanders appear to be unperturbed by the long-term political and strategic consequences of a military clash with the world's sole superpower.

The only serious effort at tacking these difficult issues in the public domain is an extended essay by Amir Mohebian, former political editor at the conservative Resalat newspaper, and arguably the country's most clear-sighted and shrewd political analyst. Unusually the essay is published on the official website of Ayatollah Khamenei, thus giving added weight to its contents. [1]

Mohebian divides the US military threat into three potential scenarios; 1) a full-scale air and ground campaign designed to capture Tehran and overthrow the Islamic Republic; 2) a limited war designed to achieve specific political objectives, namely to force Iran to the negotiating table; 3) a smart war designed to cripple Iran's offensive capability, specifically Iran's ability to strike at Israel.

Mohebian rules out the first two scenarios largely on account of the nature of the Islamic Republic and the scale and quality of its supporters. Indeed, by all credible accounts a full-scale land campaign designed to occupy Iran runs the risk of either humiliating failure or an unprecedented human catastrophe.

In order to occupy Tehran and overthrow the Islamic Republic, the US armed forces would not only have to fight the regular Iranian armed forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (and its Basij paramilitary force), but they would also have to contend with millions of unaffiliated Islamic Republic loyalists, who are expected to mobilize and fight to the death.

In this scenario, the US armed forces are faced with the very real risk of defeat unless they contemplate the use of tactical nuclear weapons, which could potentially result in the deaths of millions of Iranians.

While Mohebian identifies the third scenario (smart warfare) as the most likely in a conflict situation, he downplays the likelihood of military conflict altogether and concludes that US sabre-rattling is ultimately reducible to psychological warfare designed foremost to weaken or remove Iran's trump cards in any future negotiations process.

Despite his trenchant analysis, Mohebian appears to underestimate US time lines, specifically the use of conflict by the US as the starting point of a very long-term strategy of weakening and ultimately altering Iran's strategic profile.

In conclusion, the confidence of Iranian leaders and analysts on the Islamic Republic's ability to withstand and benefit from what they see as an unlikely military conflict with the US is predicated upon their prioritizing of short-term political dividends (in terms of mass mobilization behind the Islamic Republic both nationally and regionally) over long-term strategic costs.

1. See here

Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.

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