Covert War Inside Iran: New Details Emerge

On Tuesday, Iran's state media declared that government authorities had arrested a group of Israel-backed "mercenaries" who were planning to carry out sabotage and assassinations across the country.

An Israeli official called the story "baseless," charging that Iran has a history of making these types of claims before sensitive diplomatic talks, such as the round of negotiations set to begin on Friday.

Yet the reports echo those from last November, when U.S. officials concede that Iranian intelligence exposed a major CIA spy network inside the country. As ABC News reported at the time, "Iranian intelligence agents discovered a secret internet communication method used by CIA-paid assets in Iran. The CIA has yet to determine precisely how many of its assets were compromised in Iran, but the number could be in the dozens."

Whether or not the latest Iranian arrest story is accurate, it is widely believed that extensive covert military operations are being carried out inside Iran, with new details on that activity emerging over the past week.

Citing current and former U.S. officials, the Washington Post reported that CIA stealth drones have made hundreds of trips into Iran in recent months, part of "an intelligence surge" aimed at Iran’s nuclear program that also included "ramped-up eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, formation of an Iran task force among satellite-imagery analysts and an expanded network of spies."

According to the Post, "The CIA also exploited the massive U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq to mount espionage operations against [Iran,] the country sandwiched between those war zones."

Moreover, The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh reported this past week that members of the Iranian dissident group Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) -- which is designated as a foreign terrorist group by the State Department -- secretly received U.S. military training at a little-known base in Nevada.

"Funds were covertly passed to a number of dissident organizations, for intelligence collection and, ultimately, for anti-regime terrorist activities," Hersh reported. "Directly, or indirectly, the M.E.K. ended up with resources like arms and intelligence. Some American-supported covert operations continue in Iran today, according to past and present intelligence officials and military consultants." The U.S.-based training began in 2005, Hersh reported, and ended prior to President Barack Obama taking office in 2009.

Over the past year, Iran has been hit by a series of mysterious explosions at strategic locations such as gas pipelines, a missile base, and steel factories used to produce high-quality metals for nuclear sites.

Additionally, at least four Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated since 2010, and others were injured but not mortally wounded, often in similarly-styled attacks. One typical case occurred in November 2010: Majid Shahriyari was an expert on nuclear chain reactions and "one of the country’s leading atomic scientists."

He and his wife were being driven down Artesh Boulevard in northern Tehran, on their way to the university, when a motorcycle pulled alongside their car. The riders attached a device to the driver’s door window. In the moments before it exploded, Shahriyari’s wife scrambled to safety. Her husband was killed instantly.

The very same morning, a similar attack was carried out on one of Shahriyari's colleagues, Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, but Abbasi-Davani threw himself from his car and managed to survive.

Seymour Hersh noted:

M.E.K. spokesmen have denied any involvement in the killings, but early last month NBC News quoted two senior Obama Administration officials as confirming that the attacks were carried out by M.E.K. units that were financed and trained by Mossad, the Israeli secret service. NBC further quoted the Administration officials as denying any American involvement in the M.E.K. activities. The former senior intelligence official I spoke with seconded the NBC report that the Israelis were working with the M.E.K., adding that the operations benefitted from American intelligence. He said that the targets were not “Einsteins”; “The goal is to affect Iranian psychology and morale,” he said, and to “demoralize the whole system—nuclear delivery vehicles, nuclear enrichment facilities, power plants.” Attacks have also been carried out on pipelines. He added that the operations are “primarily being done by M.E.K. through liaison with the Israelis, but the United States is now providing the intelligence.”

A prominent Washington-based security group that focuses heavily on Iran, the Institute for Science and International Security, has been critical of using covert attacks to slow down Iran's nuclear program. In a paper released in March 2012, the ISIS stated:

Assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers have occurred with greater frequency but should be stopped because they carry too high a risk of retaliation and involve terrorism against civilians. Moreover, assassinations are unlikely to be effective in setting back the nuclear program, which involves thousands of specialists and ingrained know-how. Furthermore, Iran could argue that assassinations are equivalent to a military attack and use this as justification for further provocations. An under-siege mentality created by use of such tactics could motivate Iran to further degrade its cooperation with the IAEA and resist offers of negotiation.

After the most recent killing of an Iranian scientist in January, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta declared: "I can tell you one thing: the United States was not involved in that kind of effort. That’s not what the United States does.”