Is the covert war with Iran becoming overt?

HMCS CharlottetownEarlier this week, another Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated in a bomb attack (Ali Akbar Dareini, “Bombs kill another nuclear scientist in Iran,” Globe and Mail, 11 January 2012):

Two assailants on a motorcycle attached a magnetic bomb to the car of an Iranian university professor working at a key nuclear facility, killing him and another person Wednesday, state TV reported. The slayings suggest a widening covert effort to set back Iran’s atomic program. …

“Instead of actually fighting a conventional war, Western powers and their allies appear to be relying on covert war tactics to try to delay and degrade Iran’s nuclear advancement,” said Theodore Karasik, a security expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

He said the use of magnetic bombs bears the hallmarks of covert operations.

The U.S. denies any involvement in the assassination, but the killing adds one more point of contention in the increasingly tense relations between Iran and the United States.

In recent weeks, the Canadian government’s rhetoric has also been increasingly belligerent. On January 5th, Prime Minister Harper called Iran “the world’s most serious threat to international peace and security” (“Iran wants to use nuclear weapon, Harper says,” Canadian Press, 5 January 2012):

Harper also said he has no doubt Iran wants a nuclear weapon and would be prepared to use one.

“This is a regime that wants to acquire nuclear weapons… and has indicated some desire to actually use nuclear weapons,” he said.

Harper’s remark about Iran expressing a desire to use a nuclear weapon appears to fly in the face of the facts, said one expert.

“I think it would be an overstatement. To all intents and purposes, it looks like they’re trying to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. But they have yet to cross the threshold,” said Fen Hampson, director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.

The Prime Minister’s comments contrasted with those of U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who on January 8th said that Iran is attempting to acquire the ability to make a nuclear weapon, but that the U.S. is not yet convinced that Iran is committed to building them (David E. Sanger, “Iran Trumpets Nuclear Ability at a Second Location,” New York Times, 8 January 2012):

In saying that the United States did not have any evidence that Iran was seeking to develop a nuclear weapon, Mr. Panetta was hewing closely to the conclusions the often fractious American intelligence agencies agreed upon in 2007 and again in 2010. Two National Intelligence Estimates, designed to reflect the consensus of the intelligence community, concluded that Iranian leaders had made no political decision yet to build an actual weapon. Instead, [the estimates] described a series of steps that would take Iran right up to that line — and position it to assemble a weapon fairly quickly if a decision to do so were made.

Much of the most recent war of words (and deeds) stems from comments by the Iranian Vice President on December 27th that Iran would block the Strait of Hormuz if the world increased sanctions against Iran’s nuclear activities. Closing the strait would cut off an enormous percentage of world’s oil supply, and Defense Secretary Panetta has warned that such a move would cross a “red line” and trigger war.

It is widely doubted that Iran would actually attempt to block the strait, and its ability to do so for long is also in question. However, even a minor disruption to the flow of oil (or a real threat of war) might dramatically increase the price of oil, hurting the global economy.

The dangers of escalation do not seem to have dissuaded the Canadian government. Given the prime minister’s comments, the Ottawa Citizen‘s Robert Sibley has been wondering about the possible role of HMCS Charlottetown, which was recently deployed to the Mediterranean (“The Buildup for War with Iran continues apace,” Robert Sibley’s Ideas & Consequences, Ottawa Citizen blog, 9 January 2012):

I find it difficult to believe [Prime Minister Harper] hasn’t considered making the HMCS Charlottetown – and anything else Canada has to offer — available for Iran-watch duties, and whatever that entails.

Cmdr. Wade Carter of the Charlottetown, however, points out that the deployment is “similar to those done many times before” (David Pugliese, HMCS Charlottetown Heads Out For Mediterranean Mission: Commander Says No Plans to Go to Strait of Hormuz At this Time,” Defence Watch, Ottawa Citizen blog, 8 January 2012):

“It’s a rapid reaction force. It can react to events and crises as they unfold but I have no specific mission along those lines at this point,” he told CBC.

Carter told journalists he does not know of any plans for the Charlottetown to go to the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has threatened to close.

“It seems like to me there’s some posturing going on. I don’t know where that’s going to end up,” he said. “I don’t think NATO has any specific intention or direction at this time to deploy forces to the Strait of Hormuz, either.”

In the meantime, the ship sails east.

DND photo

Tags: Defence policy, HMCS Charlottetown, Iran Nuclear, Leon Panetta, Nuclear proliferation, Nuclear weapons, Royal Canadian Navy, Stephen Harper, War