Mystery explosions point to Iran's secret
arms shipments to terrorists
By Con Coughlin in Vienna Read more from Con Coughlin
For an organisation that prides itself on being a well-run administrative machine, the leadership of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards is having a rather testing time. It’s not just last Saturday’s mysterious explosion in a suburb of Tehran that killed 15 people that is causing the leadership sleepless nights, although the nationwide news black-out imposed immediately afterwards does suggest the Revolutionary Guards, the storm troops of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, are rattled.
Details are only now starting to reach the outside world, and it looks increasingly like sabotage was responsible for devastating a military convoy as it travelled through Khavarshahar. The company responsible for moving the equipment, LTK, is owned by the Revolutionary Guards and is suspected of being involved in shipping arms to Lebanon’s Hizbollah Shia Muslim militia, which is trained and funded by Tehran.
The Revolutionary Guards’ arms shipments to Lebanon and its allies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia are usually shrouded in such secrecy that only a few senior members of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government are briefed in advance. As the international crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme deepens, the Revolutionary Guards have intensified their efforts to supply regional allies with military hardware so that, in the event of Tehran becoming involved in an armed confrontation with the West, Iran can respond by opening a number of fronts in the Middle East and beyond. The need to keep the arms build-up secret would explain the Revolutionary Guards’ decision to ban the Iranian media from reporting the explosion, even though it was heard throughout the capital. But what really concerns Iran’s leadership is that the incident is the latest in a long line of unexplained explosions. In May, officials blamed British and American agents for an explosion at a mosque in Shiraz that had just finished staging an exhibition of Iran’s latest military hardware. Last year more than a dozen Iranian engineers were killed while trying to fit a chemical warhead to a missile in Syria.A few months earlier, a train reported to be carrying military supplies to Syria was derailed by another mysterious explosion in northern Turkey. It is highly unlikely that these incidents are unrelated, which has only served to deepen the mood of fear and suspicion gripping the Revolutionary Guards’ leadership. Tensions have been running high in Tehran since Seymour Hersh, the respected American investigative journalist, revealed in the New Yorker magazine last month that President George W Bush had authorised up to $400 million to fund a major escalation in covert operations to destabilise the regime. Having contended with Iran’s attempts to undermine the Iraqi government over the past five years, British and American military commanders are more than happy to undertake covert operations in Iran, and there have been unconfirmed reports that special forces are operating undercover in the country. Western diplomats and nuclear inspectors who frequently travel to Tehran as part of the international effort to persuade the Iranians to halt their uranium enrichment activities report that a sense of paranoia appears to have gripped the regime in recent months. “There has certainly been a change of mood since the start of the year,” a Vienna-based official told me this week. “In the past they always appeared very self-confident and sure-footed in their dealings with foreign officials. Now they come across as very suspicious, and watch our every move.” Tehran’s changed political atmosphere might be explained by the fact that President Ahmadinejad and his senior officials realise they are running out of time in their negotiations with the West. After more than four years of painstaking talks with the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran is continuing to enrich uranium at its underground facility at Natanz, a clear breach of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Even senior officials at the agency, who have gone out of their way to accommodate the Iranians’ concerns, have little confidence that the Iranians have any intention of reaching a compromise. “All they seem interested in is extending the talks as long as possible while all the time they continue with their uranium enrichment programme,” said an official close to the talks. “Their entire strategy appears to be based on playing for time.” Iran has just another week to respond to the latest proposal put forward by the West at last weekend’s meeting with Iranian officials in Geneva, in which Iran was offered economic reconstruction in return for halting the enrichment programme. Iran is intensifying efforts to strengthen the effectiveness of Hizbollah in southern Lebanon in preparation for a possible attack on Israel. Revolutionary Guards are keen to strengthen its leadership following the assassination of Imad Mugniyeh, Hizbollah’s head of security, in the Syrian capital by Israeli agents last February. Mugniyeh, the terrorist behind suicide truck bomb attacks on American and French troops in the 1980s, played a key role in building up Hizbollah’s military strength, which proved to be highly effective during its 2006 attack against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. Tehran wants to appoint one of its commanders as a replacement, but has received unexpected resistance from Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general. Nasrallah insists Mugniyeh’s replacement must come from within Hizbollah’s ranks. Suddenly nothing seems to be going the Revolutionary Guards’ way.