Has a War With Iran Already Begun?

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Violent incidents between Iran and the West have been increasing

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Protesters storm the British embassy in Tehran / AP

Two incidents that occurred on Sunday--Iran's claim of a shoot-down of a U.S. drone, and an explosion outside the British embassy in Bahrain--may have been unrelated. But they appear to add to growing evidence that an escalating covert war by the West is under way against Iran, and that Tehran is retaliating with greater intensity than ever.

Asked whether the United States, in cooperation with Israel, was now engaged in a covert war against Iran's nuclear program that may include the Stuxnet virus, the blowing-up of facilities and the assassination or kidnapping of scientists, one recently retired U.S. official privy to up-to-date intelligence would not deny it. 

"It's safe to say the Israelis are very active," the official said, adding about U.S. efforts:  "Everything that [GOP presidential candidate] Mitt Romney said we should be doing--tough sanctions, covert action and pressuring the international community  -- are all of the things we are actually doing." Though the activities are classified, a senior Obama administration official also would not deny that such a program was under way. He indicated that the U.S. was not involved in every action, referring to recent alleged explosions at Isfahan and elsewhere. But, he added: "I wouldn't assume that everything we do is coordinated."

Former undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, who oversaw America's Iran engagement during the Bush administration, asked Sunday about reports that the U.S. program began under George W. Bush, said he could not comment on intelligence matters.

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Photos of an Iranian military base near Bid Kaneh in before (top) and after (bottom) a large explosion reportedly occurred, apparent damage from which can be seen / Institute for Science and International Security

In September, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, accused Great Britain, Israel and the U.S. of conducting attacks on him and other Iranian scientists."Six years ago the intelligence service of the UK began collecting information and data regarding my past, my family, the number of children," Abbasi-Davani told a news conference at the annual conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. Abbasi-Davani, who was said to have been wounded in 2010 car bomb explosion, said the attacks were carried out by Israel with the "support of the intelligence services of the United States and England."

Last week, Iranian protesters stormed the British embassy in Tehran. Dominick Chilcott, Britain's ambassador to Iran, later said the attack occurred  "with the acquiescence and the support of the state." Then, on Sunday, Bahrain's interior ministry announced that an explosion occurred inside a minibus parked near the British Embassy. There were no immediate reports of serious damage or injuries.


U.S. officials alleged in October that agents acting for Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which has increasingly exerted control over the Tehran regime, were involved in a plot to kill that Saudi ambassador to Washington in a restaurant. Iran denied the allegations. Then, on Sunday, in what have been another escalation, Iran's news agency reported that Iranian armed forces shot down an unmanned U.S. spy plane that illegally crossed the country's eastern border.

Responding to the Iranian report, NATO command in Afghanistan released a terse statement Sunday: "The UAV to which the Iranians are referring may be a US unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan late last week. The operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status."

The White House declined to comment but officials did not seem unduly alarmed, suggesting that the drone's capture would not provide Iran with significant information about U.S. surveillance technology and techniques.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, said the tit-for-tat incidents "add up to a very worrisome picture," in part because "the Iranians are absorbing all of these assassinations without seeing the pace of their nuclear program slow down to the extent it would be acceptable to the West." But if Iranian retaliations grow serious enough, he said, they could provide "the pretext for a much larger war" in which the Israelis, and possibly the Americans, launch a full attack on Iran.

Mark Hibbs, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Germany, says the intensity of the covert war indicates that this is where the U.S. and Israel are putting their energy for now.  "If the U.S. or Israel were determined to take Iran's nuclear installations out they wouldn't be wasting time pinpointing individual scientists like this," he says. Still, he points out, that Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor was also preceded by assassination attempts on Iraqi scientists.

By accident or not, it's entirely possible the covert war could escalate into a real one, experts say.  "I am less enthusiastic about how effective all this going to be than some people in the administration," says Matthew Bunn, a nuclear investigator at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Bunn says he has occasionally discussed the program with the Obama administration officials, and "some have broadly suggested they think this is major element of slowing down Iranian progress."

He's not so sure. "Take Stuxnet. It's possible that a thousand centrifuges went down" because of sabotage by the mystery computer virus _ a super sophisticated program said to have caused substantial parts of Iran's uranium enrichment program to self-destruct several years ago. "But Iran has a thousand more than they would require to enrich to highly enriched uranium" needed for a bomb. Bunn also notes that Iran is increasingly keeping its key scientists such as Mohsen Fakrizadeh, said to be the "Oppenheimer" of the Iranian program, hidden away from sight and burying its facilities deeper underground.

Beyond that, says Hibbs, "Some of the concern in the expert community is that in going this route we're unleashing forces we cannot control."

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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