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The Globe and Mail

In Iran, a series of mysterious incidents raises sabotage suspicions

A woman walks past an anti-U.S. mural at the former U.S. embassy in Tehran November 19, 2011. The former U.S. embassy was the site of the 1979-1981 hostage crisis in which a group of militant Iranian students held 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days. The building is currently being used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.


When an American president says all options are available to keep a rogue state from getting nuclear warheads, the presumption is he is willing to wage war if need be. But 21st-century warfare goes far beyond sending in the marines or launching bombers.

Keeping Tehran's ruling mullahs from getting their fingers on a nuclear trigger is a vast, complicated effort ranging from rhetoric to sanctions. Most military analysts doubt Iran's mostly buried, nuclear-research and missile-development facilities scattered in dozens of locations could be bombed into oblivion without a full-blown war.

But, the list of accidents befalling the program is growing suspiciously long. The latest is the unexplained explosion that rumbled Monday near Isfahan, Iran, where a uranium-conversion plant is located.

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Whatever the cause, strange things keep happening around Iran's supposedly peaceful, civilian, nuclear-research program. Top nuclear scientists get mysteriously assassinated. Arrays of finely tuned centrifuges enriching uranium go berserk, and major complexes mixing rocket fuel suffer massive industrial explosions.

Washington's official position is that it wants yet another round of tougher sanctions to force Iran to come clean about its murky nuclear program. Beyond that, there is mostly silence and certainly no official confirmation that America is involved in covert operations aimed against Iran's military-industrial complex.

Cyberwar and the Stuxnet worm

In 2010, thousands of centrifuges run by Siemens software at Iran's nuclear-enrichment facility at Natanz began racing out of control, literally tearing themselves apart. The catastrophic and cascading failures were apparently caused by Stuxnet, a sophisticated computer worm that invaded, seized control and then directed the delicate centrifuges to destroy themselves while fending off efforts to stop or eradicate the invading software. Although both Israeli and U.S. officials deny involvement, retired intelligence officials suggest Stuxnet was created by America cyber-warriors and tested on centrifuges identical to Iran's that were installed at Israel's secret Dimona nuclear-research reactor in the Negev desert. "I'm glad to hear they are having troubles with their centrifuge machines," said Gary Samore, President Barack Obama's special assistant for arms control, weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and terrorism. "The U.S. and its allies are doing everything we can to make it more complicated," he added, while avoiding any direct confirmation of American involvement.

Assassinations and abductions

At least four scientists linked to Iran's nuclear program have been killed in the past four years. It's a very high-risk occupation, it seems. Two have been shot, one killed by a bomb and the fourth died in a mysterious gas poisoning. Another nuclear scientist barely survived a blast that tore his car apart. The White House dismisses as "absurd" accusations that its covert agencies are involved in targeting Iranian scientists. Not surprisingly, the view from Tehran is different. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accuses "Western governments and the Zionist regime" of the killings. While assassinations, even of America's enemies, are explicitly outlawed, Mr. Obama pushed against those limits. He has authorized dozens of missile-firing drone attacks against suspected jihadists, including at least one American citizen, the al-Qaeda imam Anwar al-Awlaki. Another Iranian nuclear scientist reportedly "defected," while on a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. He resurfaced in the United States, said he was abducted, eventually returned to Tehran and is now, reportedly, in prison.


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The massive blasts that killed the head of Iran's missile program and dozens of other military and technical experts, destroyed several missile-assembly buildings and perhaps dozens of the country's most sophisticated rockets, were dismissed as an accident by the regime. But others point to sabotage, perhaps by Iranian operatives opposed to the ruling Islamic regime and acting with the backing of outside powers. It was the second time in two years that an accident had struck Iranian military-industrial sites developing the advanced Shahab-3 missile. The Shahab-3 is considered vital to any nuclear weapons capability. It is powerful enough to travel roughly 2,000 kilometres – within range of Jerusalem – carrying a small nuclear warhead, once one is perfected,. While Tehran says a routine munitions transfer triggered the blast, the presence of high-ranking Revolutionary Guards, including General Hassan Moghaddam, considered the genius behind Iran's entire missile program, points to a targeted attack. Even some senior Iranians think so. "The enemy always wanted to identify and eliminate him," one Iranian commander told the official IRNA news agency.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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