David Sanger’s piece in the New York Times earlier this month (“Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran”) has garnered widespread attention. The piece provides granular details about a top secret effort to undermine Iran’s nuclear program using cyberweapons, including the Stuxnet virus, which disrupted Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts.
The shameless manner in which some officials spoke about this secretive program, code-named “Olympic Games,” has generated controversy for understandable reasons. The piece is essentially an admission that the U.S. government and Israel are deeply involved in clandestine efforts to stop Iran’s quest for the bomb. We knew that already, of course, but now anonymous sources have provided an insider’s view of these efforts that the American public, and the Iranians, previously lacked.
There is another, largely unappreciated aspect of this story. It concerns Iran’s response to the American-led cyberwar and other clandestine efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. Sanger reports that there is “scant evidence” the Iranians have “begun to strike back” in the cyber world. This may be true, but the Iranians have attempted to strike back in the bricks and mortar world. And while some American officials are happy to brag about their clandestine cyber successes against Iran, others are just as eager to downplay Iran’s response. That response has included worldwide terrorist plots, including attempts to assassinate foreign diplomats in the republic of Georgia, Azerbaijan, India, Pakistan, Turkey, and Thailand.
Iran’s targets have included American diplomats.
For this part of the story we turn to a piece by the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick late last month (“U.S. officials among the targets of Iran-linked assassination plots”). Warrick focuses specifically on a foiled plot to assassinate American diplomats and their family members in Azerbaijan. Warrick reports:
The Obama administration has declined to directly link the Azerbaijan plot to the Iranian government, avoiding what could be an explosive accusation at a time when the two governments are engaged in negotiations on limiting Iran’s nuclear program. U.S. officials say they are less convinced that top Iranian and Hezbollah leaders worked together to coordinate the attempted hits, noting that both groups have a long history of committing such acts on their own, and for their own purposes.
The idea that Hezbollah and Iran would work separately on such efforts is pure nonsense. It is an obfuscation intended to hide the Iranian regime’s fingerprints, which are all over the plot, because American officials do not want to deal with the implications. In reality, Hezbollah has been a proxy of the Iranian regime for decades and its top terrorist leaders work closely with their counterparts in Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The Iranian regime’s hand in the plot to assassinate American diplomats in Azerbaijan is plain to see. Consider the evidence made public by the Azerbaijani government.
On March 14, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Security announced that 22 people “accused of treason and other grave crimes” had been arrested. The would-be terrorists “were involved in secret collaboration with the special services of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” which is probably a reference to the MOIS, as well as SEPAH, otherwise known as the IRGC.
An IRGC “employee” instructed one of the conspirators “to find suitable persons…in order to involve them in secret military trainings for the purpose of penetrating terrorist attacks and sabotages against the embassies, representations [sic] and organizations of the US, Israel and the Western countries in Baku.” The IRGC “promised to give [a] large amount of money” for this work.
The IRGC further arranged for the terrorist cell to travel to Iran under “different pretexts,” including religious pilgrimages. In reality, they were brought to Tehran, where the details of the plot were hatched. In broken English, the Azerbaijani Ministry of National Security explained that the cell:
…attended special military trainings in the military camps near Tehran and Karaj, mastered skills to fire from firearms, including automatic guns, pistols, to use explosive agents and devices, topographic maps, to make confidential observations, avoid confidential observations and to enter secretly the close secured buildings. After the trainings ended, the Azerbaijani citizens undertook commitment about confidential cooperation and were nicknamed by the employees of SEPAH. They were ordered to gather materials damaging the state security of the Azerbaijan Republic, find other persons, including the citizens of Georgia, who can help, and put in touch with them.
All of these activities were “financed by [the] intelligence agencies of Iran, under the special plans of the SEPAH employees.” And two of the IRGC’s men were responsible for acquiring the weapons to be used in the “terror acts against the employees of the embassies.”
As a result of its criminal investigation, therefore, Azerbaijani authorities concluded that the IRGC and Iran’s intelligence apparatus were involved at every level of the plot against the American embassy in Baku and other targets.
The Post reports that the terrorist plotting “came to light after a foreign spy agency intercepted electronic messages that appeared to describe plans to move weapons and explosives from Iran into Azerbaijan.” The Post continues (emphasis added):
Some of the messages were traced to an Azerbaijani national named Balagardash Dashdev, a man with an extensive criminal background and, according to a Middle East investigator involved in the case, deep ties to a network of intelligence operatives and militant groups based inside Iran.
It appears that Balagardash Dashdev, who was identified as the plot’s ringleader, is the same man who was mentioned in an earlier press release by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of National Security on January 19. Assuming it is the same man, Azerbaijani officials gave his name as Balagardash Dadashov and said that he lived in Iran and “had contacts with Iranian special services.” In other words, he was working with Iranian intelligence and/or the IRGC.
According to the Post, Balagardash told “investigators that the planned attacks were intended as revenge for the deaths of the Iranian nuclear scientists, attacks that Iran has publicly linked to Israel and the United States.” This begs the question: Why would some random group of terrorists seek revenge for the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists – that is, a clandestine attack on the Iranian regime’s nuclear program?
A number of plots targeting American, Israeli, and other Western interests in Azerbaijan have been broken up in recent months. The Post’s sources claim that these “attempts halted abruptly in early spring, at a time when Iran began to shift its tone after weeks of bellicose anti-Western rhetoric and threats to shut down vital shipping lanes.” But, again, that would mean the Iranians were behind the attempts in the first place, something the Post’s sources and the Obama administration are eager to avoid saying.
It is not even clear that Iran has stopped sending terrorists into Azerbaijan. To date, the Iranian-backed terrorists may have been simply stopped by diligent counterterrorism and intelligence officials. In addition, in April, after the Iranians agreed to sit down for talks, an al Qaeda-linked cell made its way from Iran into Azerbaijan. Some members of this cell spent two months training in Iran. We do not know if the Iranians were directly involved in this cell’s operations, but it would not be wise to simply assume away the possibility.
Azerbaijan has been on the front lines in the shadow war between Iran and its proxies, on the one hand, and Israel, the U.S., and the West on the other. We should not be surprised if additional terrorists make their way from Iran into Azerbaijan in the future. Nor should we be surprised if some American officials, eager to explain away Iran’s nefarious behavior in the hope that a diplomatic solution to the mullahs’ nuclear program can be reached, disconnect the dots pointing to the Iranian regime either.
Meanwhile, the details of the American-led effort to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program – an effort that is intended to avoid military confrontation – spill out onto the pages of newspapers.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.