Wednesday, October 28, 2020

War Of Phantoms: Riddle Of Recent Explosions In Iran

Lack of legitimacy, maximum pressure, widespread corruption and coronavirus pandemic have made Islamic Republic kneeling on its own neck!

It’s no secret that Islamic Republic and Israel are not friends, with rulers of the former constantly threatening the existence of the latter. Israel leaders have always been adamant they won’t allow the Islamic regime to reach nuclear weapons. US President and his administration have reiterated the same point several times. Islamic Republic’s ideology to conquer Jerusalem and build a Shia empire across the Middle East has cost the regime billions of dollars every year, to pay for its militia members in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon! On one hand, Trump and Pompeo’s “maximum pressure” has caused them to be more mindful of their cash and not fribble away as much. On the other hand, technology, especially internet of things, has advanced so much in the past few years that it controls every aspect of our lives and governments depend on it on every level.

Cyber Winter

The Eshkol Water Filtration Plant in Northern Israel. The central filtration plant at the Eshkol site in Israel is the fourth largest plant in the world and the first of its kind in the country. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Islamic Republic hasn’t been that far behind developed countries in spying on its citizens and sponsoring black-hat hackers to do its dirty works in cyberspace. It has relied on its cyber warfare teams to intimidate its “enemies” many times in the past, but for the first time ever attacking a civilian structure, on April 24, a cyber-attack was detected in a water pumping station in northern Israel! According to Israeli and western intelligence officials, the attackers have used servers from different countries to hide their track but the code that made the alarms to go off was of an Iranian group. The intention was to increase the chlorine in the water and make Israeli civilians sick, but it wouldn’t have succeeded, because that would have triggered safeguards on the system and shut off the water altogether. Which even then, it would have cause thousands of people to be without water in the heatwave on those days. So either way, if it wasn’t detected and stopped, it could have led to a disaster. While security experts believe this was a botched attempt by the Islamic Republic to show its force, it opened the door to a tit-for-tat situation where both countries would attack civilian infrastructures and that might only end with military action! In May, Yigal Unna, head of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate, said “cyber winter is coming” much faster than he though. He called this a historic point in modern cyber warfare.

While Iranian officials denied the allegations, it didn’t stop Israelis to successfully send a message to Islamic Republic by hacking into Shahid Rajaee Port in Bandar Abbas, handling almost half of Iran’s foreign trades, halting its operations for a few days. An official called it “a knock on the door” letting Iranians know “we know where you live.”

Mysterious Explosions

Nearly two months later, a short while passed midnight on June 26, a massive explosion in Khojir, Parchin military base illuminated Tehran’s sky and made it to the news all over the world. Islamic Republic officials made it look like it was 15,000 liters of gas causing that massive explosion but satellite imagery and uncovering contradictions and lies by Islamic Republic Defense Ministry, made it clear, it was something beyond “gas tanks explosion” that they’re trying so hard to cover up.

Six days later, on July 2, around 2AM local time, a building in Natanz nuclear facility caught fire. As expected, speculations began to circulate on social media platforms. But this time Islamic Republic officials were so eager to announce the “incident” that raised a red flag for some people. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran spokesman said “an outside building which was under construction had an incident, there was nobody there so no casualties and no nuclear material at that site to worry about anything.”

Natanz nuclear facility photo released by NourNews, close to National Security Council, for the first time.

The picture that Islamic Republic released, was immediately matched with an important part of the nuclear facility: Centrifuge Assembly Center which was built in 2012 and was not under construction at the time of fire. Satellite images provided by IranInternational show significant damages to the building.

Military Strikes or Cyber Attacks?

Immediately social media platforms were full of theories. Three ideas had momentum for a few hours until one got more evidence to support it.

Edy Cohen, an Israeli expert in defense and security matters, tweeted almost 4 hours before the incident, saying F16 fighter jets had bombed a site in Iran after refueling in sky of a country in Persian Gulf! This seems to be a bit absurd. Although, Islamic Republic’s air defense system may not be top notch but it wouldn’t have missed enemy jets passing across the country for hours to reach Natanz. The air defense system may have shot down a passenger airliner in January 2020, but it also knocked down an American UAV in Persian Gulf in June 2019.

Another theory was based on an article by BBC Persian website. This particular source is known as Ayatollah BBC among Islamic Republic dissents because of its one sided and unfair coverage of Iran news in favor of Khamenei and his apparatus. Few hours after the incident, they reported about a completely unknown group called “Homeland Cheetahs”. According to this report, some of the BBC Persian reporters have received emails from this group informing them an attack would happen at 2AM in a strategic site of Islamic Republic. The group had claimed to be an opposition group made of high ranking-ranking individuals in regime who wants to overthrow it because of decades of tyranny, corruption and plundering nation’s wealth. A few reporters from other media outlets, later revealed the emails were received almost half an hour after the incident and not before it. The Cheetahs’ email and attachments were later released. In their statement they had attacked the late Mohammad Reza Shah as well as pointing out “the regime hasn’t done what we were promised.” Despite all the controversies in source of the news, BBC’s claim and Cheetahs’ promises for more “unveiled” actions against the regime , a few important questions should be asked: How was this group and its existence spread through all media around the world assuming responsibility for the “incident” in Natanz, all in a flash? How did this group managed to do what it claims in one of the most secure zones of the country? And so many more questions…

But the third and most conceivable theory which becomes more and more possible with the way Israel and Islamic Republic are behaving, is cyber-attack. The first official report about it was published at Al-Jarida daily newspaper in Kuwait. In the report an unnamed senior source claimed Natanz incident was a cyber-attack done by Israel and F35 stealth fighter jets were used to bomb ballistic missile depot in Khojir-Parchin area. According to this source, these events meant to delay Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities for about 2 months and take away some of its ballistic missiles that worry Israel the most, at the same time, show the regime Israel knows “where you live.”

In the meantime, Islamic Republic’s “investigations” and reactions have been noteworthy which point us to the right direction. A few hours after Natanz incident, IRNA, the official government news agency, published a short editorial, saying if US or “Jerusalem occupying regime” had any hand in recent events and passed Iran’s “red lines”, Islamic Republic will respond firmly. The next day, on July 3, Supreme National Security Council spokesman said, “Considering all theories and evidence, we have concluded our investigation and know the cause for what happened in Natanz, but due to some national security concerns, it will be announced at the appropriate time.” This signaled foreign countries have had a hand in the “incident.” We already know what they claimed happened in Parchin explosion.

Another Hard Revenge or….?

Right after NSC’s statement, social media accounts close to IRGC, including a Telegram account, started to post “hard revenge” messages again. The same kind that were sent after the death of Qassem Soleimani. We all remember, they shot down PS752, a passenger airliner with 176 souls aboard, on the way to achieve that “hard revenge”! But this time, it looks like Islamic Republic would only have one option, either make its voice heard through cyber attack retaliation or lose the little dignity it has in front of its followers! However, On July 4, IRNA published another editorial full of “threats” but without any actual information. The piece accuses Israel of media propaganda saying if the world does not take an action, Israel and its nuclear plants are vulnerable to security threats as it has been shown before. “Naturally, if the areas of confrontation cross the red lines and enter areas that could potentially endanger regional and global security and health, then imaginative models such as “Tehran TV series” cannot be fed to the international community.” Tehran TV series is produced and filmed in Israel portraying the two governments’ conflict.

Islamic Republic seems to have chosen or been forced to take the “high road” for now using its propaganda machine instead of direct retaliation! Fars News Agency, close to IRGC, reported an explosion near an American base in Al-Shadadi, north of Syria. In a few minutes, the cyber army of IRGC accounts started to spread the news but shortly after, the Spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) denied such report.

It looks like the “cyber winter” is not over yet. Saturday July, 4, has been a strange day to say the least. At around 15:30 local time, a power plant in Zargan, 3 miles outside Ahvaz, Khuzestan, exploded and caught fire. Local Fire Department authorities said “oil leakage” from a transformer caused it to explode. The fire was quickly extinguished. In a matter of few hours, unofficial reports about Chlorine leakage in Karoon Petrochemical Plant (KPP) in Mahshahr is circulating the social media, claiming to be another Israeli cyber attack in one day, implying Zargan fire was a result of cyber attack as well. IRNA published the news on KPP and said 70 workers in the plant were poisoned and taken to hospital but they were all released after a full checkup. Interestingly, Zargan and KPP incidents didn’t get as much attention as Natanz or Parchin in regime’s media.

Whatever is behind these mysterious explosions and fires in Iran, it’s not coincidence! It definitely shows Islamic Republic and Israel are entering a new era of their conflict, cyber and propaganda warfare! But Islamic Republic has been brought to its knees by “maximum pressure”, corruptions at all levels, coronavirus pandemic and most importantly, legitimacy crisis among Iranians, one of the fuels for Islamic Republic’s propaganda machine! Nationwide protests in 2017, then again in November 2019 which was the bloodiest in the history of the regime, then lowest participation in four decades “elections” history and after that, PS752 downing by IRGC and its protests, portray a regime at its lowest and weakest point. Cyber attacks or propaganda, even if Khamenei and the regime wanted to retaliate, they don’t seem to have the power or the money to act on it.

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