The U.S.-Iran Covert War

Ari Ratner

What is the U.S.-Iran covert war? What is the United States doing? What is Iran doing? And why?
            During both the Bush and Obama administrations, Iran and the United States have engaged in a shadow war that relies more on technology and human intelligence than conventional weaponry. Their covert campaigns include cyber attacks, espionage, and high-tech sabotage. Their common goal is to signal their resolve, impact each other’s capabilities, and demonstrate the credibility of their deterrence – in turn swaying each other’s decision-making.  

            The United States and Israel have reportedly worked together on a series of cyber attacks to slow or disrupt Iran’s nuclear program since at least 2008. Although their origins are officially unknown, the Stuxnet worm reportedly attacked centrifuge production in late 2009 or early 2010, while the Flame virus collected information on Iranian officials in 2012. 
            Iran is also widely suspected of engaging in cyber warfare. It may be linked to cyber attacks on energy companies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar in summer 2012. Iran’s goal was to intimidate these important American allies by demonstrating its ability to cripple global energy supplies in the event of an airstrike on its nuclear facilities.  
How is each using drone technology? And what is the impact?
            The United States and Iran have used drones to gather intelligence and signal their offensive, defensive, and deterrent capabilities against each other. 

            Drone technology has been an increasingly integral part of the United States intelligence and military arsenal over the past two decades. U.S. drones are far more advanced; they have been reportedly deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and Yemen.

            U.S. drone operations over Iran began after the start of the Afghanistan war; they reportedly increased after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Specifics are classified but drones almost certainly monitored anti-American insurgent activity organized on Iranian territory. Over the last few years, drones may have spied on a wider array of Tehran’s assets, including its nuclear program.

            Iran’s drone technology has also improved in recent years, possibly with help from Russia and China. Tehran unveiled the Karrar —its first home-made long-range drone—in August 2010. But experts have been skeptical about its capabilities and Iran’s ability to guide the drone over long distances. In September 2012, the Revolutionary Guards unveiled the Shahed 129, an attack and surveillance drone with a purported range of up to 1,200 miles.

            Tehran reportedly captured a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone in late 2011 and subsequently claimed to have decoded its data and copied its technology. In late 2012, Iran claimed that it captured a U.S. ScanEagle drone, which the United States denied. But in December 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta warned that the United States needs to keep track of the surveillance capability of Iran’s drones.

            Like many military platforms, drones can accomplish a variety of objectives.  In October 2012, Israel shot down an Iranian drone reportedly near Dimona, where Israel’s nuclear weapons program is believed to be based. The drone was reportedly launched by the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which is supplied by Iran. The use of this drone may have been intended to gather intelligence and test Israeli defensive capabilities, but also to signal the potential for an Iranian strike on Dimona in retaliation for a future U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran. 
What are the dangers of a small incident sparking a wider military conflict?

            Military activities always entail the risk of an unintentional escalation.  Iranian fighter jets reportedly fired on a U.S. drone over the Persian Gulf on November 1, but they failed to hit it.  While no escalation developed in this case, the increasing build-up of opposing forces in the Gulf has raised the risk of an entanglement. Escalation would be even more likely to occur if one side attacks a military objective in international waters. 
How is the covert war between the United States and Iran different from the Cold War? What are the similarities?

            Proportion is important. And the magnitude of American-Iranian tensions, while still extremely dangerous, is significantly smaller than the Cold War.  Iran is a powerful regional player, but it is not a superpower with the global ambitions of the former Soviet Union. Iran’s gross domestic product pales in comparison to some individual U.S. states. It has limited ability to project beyond its borders, other than through proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. 

            Iran’s theocratic system of government also does not hold significant appeal internationally, unlike the Soviet Union, which attracted ideological adherents worldwide. Tehran has minimal influence in international institutions, and it has been isolated by the majority of the international community for its nuclear activities. Iran is not even popular in most of the Middle East, according to public opinion polls.

            This conflict could be easier to solve than the Cold War due to its relatively narrow scope. Washington has repeatedly offered Tehran an opportunity to rejoin the community of responsible nations by living up to its international obligations, and that offer still stands. If Iran were to fulfill its obligations, much of the tension would subside.

            But the current struggle between Iran and the United States does mirror the Cold War in some respects.  Washington and Tehran are also engaged in a strategic struggle with each side seeking to promote starkly different visions of the region’s future.  Iran has threatened or tried to undermine U.S. allies, including Israel and key Gulf states, by supporting opposition or proxies.
What messages is Iran sending to the Gulf States, the United States and Israel through these covert actions?

            Iran’s audience is the United States, Israel and the Gulf states as well as its own population.  Tehran wants to impose costs on the United States and Israel for their covert programs and to block or dissuade their further moves against the Islamic Republic. Iran’s actions also demonstrate its ability to fight back unconventionally tit-for-tat.

            Iran is also signaling to key players in the Gulf, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that their help in any attack on Iran could carry hidden or unanticipated costs. Iran’s actions are also probably driven by domestic politics. The government would have risked a loss of credibility if it had not responded to cyber attacks and assassinations of scientists.
How important is covert war to the effort of either nation? Could it be decisive in any way?

            Covert campaigns are integral to both U.S. and Iranian efforts. But they almost certainly cannot achieve the long-term objectives of either country. U.S. covert action is unlikely to compel Iran to fulfill its international obligations on its nuclear program. Iranian covert action is also unlikely to undermine U.S. resolve either.
Ari Ratner is a former Obama administration appointee at the State Department where he served as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment.  He is currently a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project. His Twitter handle is @amratner
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