Middle East

Israeli footprints in Iran: Cyberattacks, targeted killings, more

Latest attack at Natanz not isolated but follows series of attacks over years, which Iran blamed on Israel

Syed Zafar Mehdi???????   | 26.04.2021
Israeli footprints in Iran: Cyberattacks, targeted killings, more

TEHRAN

In the wee hours of Thursday, a surface-to-air missile that was fired from neighboring Syria exploded in southern Israel in close proximity to the secretive Dimona nuclear reactor.

It came hours after a powerful explosion rocked a missile factory in Ramle in central Israel.

While Iran stopped short of claiming responsibility for the attacks, which come amid escalating tensions between the regional arch-foes, reports point a hand to Iranian-backed forces in the region.

The trigger, they say, is the recent attack on Iran’s key nuclear facility in Natanz, which led to a blackout and damaged centrifuges, prompting strong reactions from Tehran.

Top Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, accused Israel of what he said is "reckless sabotage" at the enrichment facility and threatened retaliation.

Interestingly, the attack on Natanz came one day after Iran’s nuclear agency began injecting uranium hexafluoride gas into advanced IR-6 and IR-5 centrifuges at the nuclear facility.

It coincided with a fresh round of talks between Iran and Western powers in Vienna to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal, which Israel opposes and warned against.

Following the incident, Iran’s investigative agencies named a suspect in the attack, 43-year-old Iranian national Reza Karimi, saying he fled the country “hours before” the sabotage occurred.

The scale of damage to the facility remains unknown with officials offering contradictory details.

But what is known is that the incident has exposed Iran’s vulnerability to espionage and sabotage, besides the presence of a vast network of spies working for the Israeli intelligence agency.

Series of sabotages

The latest attack at the above-ground facility in Natanz is not an isolated incident but follows a series of attacks over the years, which Iran directly or indirectly blamed on Tel Aviv.

The Natanz facility, which has been on the radar of foreign spy agencies for a long, was first targeted in 2007 by a cyber-warfare campaign apparently orchestrated by Israel and the US, known as Olympic Games, which aimed to use computer viruses to disrupt the country’s nuclear enrichment program.

Hundreds of centrifuges were damaged in the attack, a report by the Institute for Science and International Security revealed in 2013, blaming it on the little-known Stuxnet 0.5 virus.

The attacks, mostly covert, have continued over the years, in some cases with the involvement of local Iranian agents working for the Israeli spy agency, Mossad.

Last year, Israel’s sabotage campaign in Iran gained momentum again, quite startlingly, with a series of incidents reported at Iran’s prominent nuclear facilities and petrochemical plants.

What was particularly striking was a series of mysterious blazes, many of them close to key military and nuclear facilities as well as industrial centers and power plants.

In one incident, a key port in southern Hormozgan province came under a major cyberattack that was linked to Israel and was seen as retaliation for Iran's cyberattack on Israel's water distribution system.

While Iranian officials denied reports of “foreign hands” in the incidents, cyber warfare experts saw a clear link between them and foreign spy agencies, particularly Mossad.

However, the one incident that hogged headlines for months and shined a light on Israel’s clandestine activities in Iran was a fire at the Natanz plant in July 2020, damaging an “industrial shed” that was feared to slow the country’s production of advanced centrifuges.

The incident was followed by two more industrial accidents the same day, which further fueled speculation that the country was facing an organized sabotage campaign.

Targeted killings

Apart from covert cyber-attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Israel has also been accused of carrying out targeted attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists over the years.

The killing of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakrizadeh, who headed the research and innovation wing at the Defense Ministry, in November had almost driven the two adversaries to the brink of military confrontation.

Fakhrizadeh, who was on the radar of the Israeli spy agency for years and had survived attempts on his life, was killed on the outskirts of Tehran by a remote-controlled device.

It was the fifth targeted killing of Iranian nuclear scientists since 2010.

His killing, incidentally, came on the eve of the assassination anniversary of another Iranian nuclear scientist, Majid Shahriari, who was killed in a car bomb blast in Tehran on Nov. 29, 2010.

Shahriari was said to have played a pivotal role in one of the major nuclear projects in Iran and his killing was blamed on Israel.

Massoud Ali Mohammadi, a senior Iranian nuclear scientist was among the first to be targeted in January 2010 with a remote-controlled bomb in Tehran, a method mastered by Mossad.

Mostafa Roshan, a 32-year old nuclear scientist and the youngest of them all, was also killed the same month in a bomb explosion in Tehran.

Besides nuclear scientists, the Israeli spy agency’s role was also reported in the killing of a man, purported to be Al-Qaeda’s second-ranking leader, in Tehran in August last year.

The New York Times, quoting intelligence officials, claimed that Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, alias Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was killed by two motorcycle-riding assassins, believed to be Mossad agents.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry, however, dismissed the report, likening it to a “Hollywood” scenario manufactured by “American and Zionist” officials.

The incidents, according to observers, show deep infiltration of the Israeli spy network in Iran, despite the high watchfulness of Iranian security and intelligence apparatus.

Following Fakhrizadeh’s killing, several senior officials in Iran raised concerns about the incidents.

Former Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Mohsen Rezaei, in a letter to President Hassan Rouhani, called for “tighter security to protect key personnel” while Guardian Council chief Ali Jannati termed the infiltration of Israeli agents as a “serious problem.”

The latest incident at Natanz has only compounded those fears and concerns.

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