The assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Iran’s top man in Syria and Lebanon, should set off alarm bells in Tehran. His assassination, according to Iranian media sources, took place in the Kafarsoose neighborhood of Damascus, close to an Iranian school and the headquarters of the Syrian Mukhabarat (intelligence agency). At first glance, the elimination of such a highly valuable Iranian asset, under the very noses of the Syrians, could be taken as a sign that Western intelligence agencies have managed to infiltrate the once seemingly impenetrable walls of Iran’s intelligence operations abroad.
To say that Mughniyeh was a sought-after man would be an understatement. He had been on U.S. and Israeli wanted lists since the early 80s for having participated in operations such as the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, during which U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem was killed, as well as the 1994 AMIA bombing in Argentina, which killed 85 people.
Furthermore, he had managed to plan the successful expansion of Hezbollah’s military capability and operations in Lebanon, as well as its supply routes and relationship with Syria. He was seen as someone loyal and capable with whom the Iranians could work. To top it all, unlike some Shiites in Lebanon, Mughniyeh was a firm believer in the velayat-e faqih (absolute rule of the supreme jurisprudence) model of Iranian Islamic leadership. According to this model, the supreme leader (the faqih) is viewed as the representative of God to all Shiites on earth.
To protect him, the Iranian government spared little expense. He was provided numerous safe houses and identities. To make it doubly difficult to find him, he was given numerous plastic surgeries. According to foreign sources, on at least two occasions in the 1980s, Western intelligence services came close to assassinating him. One was when a bomb was placed near the garage of his brother in Beirut. The bombers killed his brother instead of him. The second time was at his brother’s funeral. Suspecting a trap was laid for him, Mughniyeh refused to turn up.
Since then Mughniyeh seemed to have vanished. His finger prints could be seen on many, many operations. However, he remained as elusive as ever, until today.
The successful findings, tracking, and assassination of Mughniyeh come on the heels of a number of other major Western intelligence coups against Iran over the last several years.
First was the elimination of Iran’s long-range Zilzal missiles by the Israeli air force, in the space of 30 minutes, during the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war. These missiles, which were imported from Iran via Damascus, had been guarded carefully under the supervision of Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah intelligence operatives. The very fact that Israel was able to locate and eliminate them early on in the war showed that Iran and Hezbollah’s counter-intelligence operations were seriously compromised.
Then came the defection of General Ali Reza Asgari in March 2007. He was Iran’s former deputy defense minister and a senior contact man between Iran and Hezbollah. He was a highly valued Iranian asset. Despite that, Western intelligence agencies managed to recruit him and helped him defect while he was on a trip to Syria, without the Iranians being able to do much.
Last but not least, the recent 2007 NIE report by the U.S. intelligence agencies could be taken as another sign that the West is making successful inroads in its efforts to penetrate Iran’s intelligence community. The 2007 NIE report, which stated that Iran had stopped its weaponization program in 2003, was in complete contrast to the 2005 report which said that Iran was continuing with its weaponization program.
If the new NIE report is correct, while President Ahmadinejad was celebrating its results, he should have considered the strong possibility that to reach such a new conclusion, the West, especially the Americans, had probably managed to get their hands on new, highly valuable intelligence sources inside Iran.
The assassination of Mughniyeh is likely to lead to a major restructuring of Iran’s intelligence operations abroad, and even at home. Mughniyeh was a man who traveled frequently between Tehran and Damascus. Therefore it is very possible that his assassins were tracking his movements inside Iran as well. The worst case scenario for Tehran would be if he was compromised by someone inside Iran, a scenario which Iran’s intelligence agency, known by its Farsi acronym as VAVAK, would quite likely be looking into.
Fearing infiltrations elsewhere, it is also possible that Iran’s nuclear program, especially its nuclear scientists, may be forced to go even deeper underground due to the apparent progress in Western efforts to find valuable Iranian targets.
Although Iran has managed to win numerous battles in the intelligence war against the West in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the recent setbacks are likely to make Iran’s intelligence chiefs more careful, and quite possibly, more violent in their next operations against the West.
Where the response will take place will be of Iran’s choosing. However the Iran of 2007 is different to the Iran of 1994, when it struck at Western and Israeli targets around the globe in response to attacks against its operatives. Unlike then, Iran has a bigger priority: its nuclear program. Tehran knows that an attack in the West could cost it dearly in the UN Security Council, a forum which Iran takes very seriously. Therefore, if and when Tehran does decide to retaliate, it is quite likely that the location will be the Middle East, where the US and Israel are most unpopular, and its governments are least likely to want to confront Iran.
Meir Javedanfar is the co-author of the upcoming book The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran. He runs Middle East Economic and Political Analysis (Meepas)