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Is the U.S. Covertly Attacking Iran?

Mysterious explosions give Iranians new hope for regime change.
July 13, 2020
Is the U.S. Covertly Attacking Iran?
An image grab from footage obtained from Iranian State TV IRIB on June 26, 2020. The country's defense ministry claimed that the explosion was of a gas tank in Tehran. (IRIB TV / AFP / Getty)

On Friday, an explosion lit up Tehran’s early morning skies—the third such huge explosion in Iran in three weeks. Many details about the explosions remain unconfirmed, but the smart money is betting on the Mossad and maybe the CIA.

The exact location of the Friday blast remains undisclosed, but analysts quoted in the New York Times reveal that in the vicinity of the explosion—roughly 15 miles from the iconic Azadi Square in Tehran—there are several facilities for military training and two for military production, one of which is suspected to be the site of chemical weapons development.

Of the previous blasts, the first was before sunrise on June 26 at the Parchin missile base near Tehran. The second, on the morning of July 2, occurred about 130 miles to the south, at the Natanz nuclear facility in Isfahan province—a site that the United States had previously attacked a decade ago via the “Stuxnet” cyber offensive. At each turn, state media and government officials in Iran have made contradictory statements, including outright denial of the explosions visible in videos circulating on social media and of the aftermath, despite ground and satellite photos showing it.

If you find it hard to believe that all these explosions are just coincidences, you’ve got good instincts: As the New York Times reported last week, they apparently are the result of joint U.S.-Israeli operations designed to set back Iran’s nuclear and military programs. They come following Iran’s lack of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which passed a resolution last month calling out Iran on this problem.

Following the United States’s departure from the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and imposition of sanctions on Iran, Iran has expanded its nuclear activities beyond the terms of the JCPOA. It is important to point out that, despite the U.S. withdrawal, Iran remains a party to the agreement and bound by its terms. (The United States, as long as it was a party to the agreement, didn’t violate its terms.) Iran’s violations, while not exactly surprising, have alarmed not only American and Israeli officials, but also the three European signatories to the JCPOA (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), whose governments called for the IAEA resolution.

Iran seems to be banking on a Joe Biden victory in November. After all, not only was Biden part of the administration that negotiated the deal, but he pushed wary Senate Democrats to approve of it and even bragged about the deal in his primary campaign ads. His longtime aid and likely national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, was a key negotiator in the talks leading up to the JCPOA. So with the prospect in sight of the United States returning to the JCPOA and lifting the sanctions, the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government in Israel are apparently trying to set back Iran’s capabilities while they have the chance.

But all parties might be mistaken. Whoever wins in November will have unprecedented leverage over Iran. The regime’s popularity is at an all-time low—one recent defector has suggested that it is in single digits, according to internal estimates. Iran’s economy is in free fall—both because of the U.S. sanctions and the incompetence and corruption of the regime’s leaders. The regime’s handling of the pandemic has been catastrophic, with over 200 daily deaths. And the people are only blaming the regime for their problems, not any foreign power. It is difficult to see the Biden administration not take advantage of the situation for a more favorable agreement, especially as the U.N.-imposed arms embargo will soon expire under the terms of the resolution that adopted the JCPOA.

So, what lessons can the Iranian regime draw from these three (so far) explosions? First, the explosions show that there are foreign spies within the ranks of the regime, deeper than previously thought, seeking to sabotage its projects. Second, it is noteworthy that—at least based on the chatter on social media and my conversations with people in Iran—there has been no perceivable “rally ’round the flag” effect, despite the certainty of Iranians that Israel is behind these explosions. And the regime has so far shown itself to be hesitant about blaming foreign powers for these explosions, which has long been the first card they played to appear as the victim and mobilize popular support. A regime that for decades has stood on its feet by scaring people about bogeyman foreigners—Saddam Hussein, America, “the Zionists”—has lost its charm.

In November of last year, unprecedented and violent protests erupted, which led to the security forces’ opening fire on protesters and killing over a thousand of them, with more handed hefty sentences up to capital punishment.

Then, in January, the United States killed the infamous general Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s blood-soaked Quds Force. The Soleimani killing was initially followed by days of mourning and calls for revenge. But savvy observers understood that those protesters after Solomeini’s death were not deeply committed but rather motivated by financial incentives or fear. And that proved true when, days later, Iran shot down a civilian airliner, which briefly revived the November protests.

Four decades of Western engagement with Iran has failed to modify the regime’s behavior, internally or externally. Even the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement failed to change Iran’s behavior outside of its nuclear program. In fact, the release of Iran’s frozen assets as part of the JCPOA led to greater aggression everywhere, from the Middle East to the Americas. It is past due time to accept that to ask the Islamic Republic to stop its aggressive behavior is to ask it to cease to exist.

But the good news is that there is an unprecedented opportunity for change in Iran. The regime’s legitimacy has hit the rock bottom, while the regime is short on finances and resources to stay in power for long. The regime is not even popular within the ranks of its security forces. Many Iranian young men join the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) because it is the only institution that hires and pays livable wages, and one can see that Mossad agents and likely CIA agents—once viewed as the sources of all evils in Iran—are in the ranks of the IRGC, just based on the sabotage and intelligence operations that have been going on in recent years and have accelerated over the past few weeks. It is fear, not love, that is keeping the IRGC going.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.