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Sensemaker: Shadow war

Sensemaker: Shadow war

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Russia opened a murder investigation after the daughter of a key Putin ally was killed in a car blast (more below).
  • Pakistan filed terrorism charges against former leader Imran Khan as he holds mass rallies in a bid to return to office.
  • Singapore announced it would decriminalise sex between men but said it would not recognise same-sex marriages.

Shadow war

27 November 2020 started like any other day for Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. He got up just before dawn to begin his regular reading routine. That afternoon, he planned to drive his wife to their holiday home by the Caspian Sea. 

But Iran’s top nuclear scientist never made it because he was assassinated by Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, using a pre-positioned machine gun remotely controlled from Israel.

For the Israeli government, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon at all costs has been paramount. Talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal start and stop in Vienna, and now appear to be making significant progress – the European Union’s draft text is currently being reviewed by the United States. But Mossad is taking no chances. Through assassinations and sabotage, it has attempted to slow the progress of Iran’s nuclear programme for years. 

Those attacks have now escalated in what former Prime Minister Naftali Bennet calls the “Octopus Doctrine”.

Target Iran. In 2010, jointly with the US, Israeli intelligence destroyed an estimated 1,000 uranium centrifuges in a cyberattack using Stuxnet malware on the Natanz uranium enrichment plant. Experts said at the time that Stuxnet delayed Iran’s nuclear progress by up to two years.

Before the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Israel was involved in the targeted assassinations of five Iranian nuclear scientists.

While the JCPOA was in force, Israel focused much of its attention on preventing weapons smuggling from Iran via Syria to the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Then Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and containing the Iranian nuclear threat became a niche Israeli specialism rather than a global campaign, beginning with another sabotage incident at Natanz in April 2021. 

Operation Octopus. Since the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, Mossad operations inside Iran have become close to routine. On 7 June, Israel’s former prime minister Naftali Bennett told the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee: “The days in which Iran repeatedly hurts Israel, spreads terror through branches in our area, and comes out unharmed, are over… We are operating everywhere, at all times, and we will continue doing so.”

Israel has extended its attacks to allegedly assassinate members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ (IRGC) foreign arm known as the Quds Force as well as officers and engineers involved in its drone and ballistic missile programmes:

  • In May, a colonel in the Quds Force was assassinated outside his home. The colonel was reportedly deputy commander of the covert Unit 840 tasked with transnational abductions and assassination of foreigners, including Israelis.
  • Other suspicious deaths the same month included the killing of a defence ministry engineer in a drone strike inside Iran; a senior member of the IRGC falling to his death from a balcony; and the poisoning of an aeronautical engineer and geologist.
  • In June, two IRGC aerospace engineers working on Iran’s missile programme died separately in mysterious circumstances.

Iran blames Israel for all these deaths.

Heads roll. On 24 June the head of the IRGC’s powerful intelligence arm, Hossein Taeb, was dismissed. He’d been in the role since 2009 and the shake-up appeared to be a result of the ministry’s embarrassing inability to catch the assassins – and because of concerns of penetration by Israeli intelligence in Iran’s security apparatus.

In retaliation, Iran-backed hacking groups have targeted Israeli infrastructure, including Israel’s water system in June 2021. They were suspected of causing false siren alerts in West Jerusalem and Eilat in June this year. Most concerning was a foiled Iranian plot, thought to have been masterminded by Taeb, to kill or kidnap Israeli tourists visiting Turkey.

Learning by doing. The indirect conflict between Iran and Israel is playing out in the open though it hasn’t led to direct war – yet. “We no longer play with the tentacles… we’ve created a new equation by going for the head,” Bennett said of the Octopus Doctrine.

But when an octopus loses its tentacles, another grows in its place. The same could be said of Iran’s nuclear programme. It may have slowed down but it keeps getting built back up, and Fakhrizadeh’s successors keep learning.

Holly Dagres is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and editor of IranSource


Gove is right to stick with reality

Matthew d’Ancona

Even those who opposed him have admired the former levelling up secretary’s gravitas, intellect and commitment to inconvenient truths. Such qualities will not be valued in a government led by Liz Truss


$110 million meme bet 
A 20 year-old student who made $110 million last week betting on an unfashionable US retail stock says he thought he might make a decent return for himself and his investors – say, 80 per cent. Instead he quintupled his and their money. Two questions arise from the story of Jake Freeman’s investment in Bed Bath & Beyond: where did he get his $27 million initial stake, and why did BB&B stock soar when he bought it? The answer to the first is friends, family and others he persuaded via an investment firm he set up in the cowboy town of Sheridan, Wyoming, he tells the FT. The answer to the second is a) he fired up retail investors with online talk of a proposal to cut the firm’s debts by offering creditors stock warrants in return for their bonds; b) an even bigger “meme” investor, Ryan Cohen, piled in too; and c) between them they engineered a short squeeze forcing hedge funds to buy the stock to cover their short positions as it spiked. The stock has since cratered and a lot of minnows who got caught up in the excitement are now urging each other to HODL (hold on for dear life).


Driverless UK
Don’t be fooled by people who say the UK government has checked out while Boris Johnson enjoys his last days as PM in Greece and at Chequers and zombie ministries do nothing because they have no instructions. Grant Shapps, Transport Secretary, has announced £100 million of funding for research into safety and regulation for autonomous driving so it can be a reality on British roads by 2025. He wants the UK “to be at the forefront of developing and using this fantastic technology”. But wanting it doesn’t make it happen. Outside a few research parks, British is not a player in driverless tech. Hence the emphasis on rushing to let drivers use tech built elsewhere (the US, Germany, Sweden, China and Japan). The UK does remain a leader in insurance, and the word on that is when driverless cars crash, manufacturers will be on the hook.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Poxy McPoxface
The World Health Organization is asking the public for suggestions for a new name for the monkeypox virus, because of concerns the name could be derogatory or have racist connotations. Anyone can submit a name by registering on the WHO website. Current suggestions include “Mpox”, “OPOXID-22” (following the same naming convention as Covid-19), and “Magnuspox” (after the researcher who discovered the virus) – as well as “Poxy McPoxface”, proving that the WHO has not learned from the Internet’s past record of questionable naming choices. It has already renamed two strains of the disease to remove references to African regions and any geographic stigmatisation: the version known as the Congo Basin variant is now called Clade 1 and the West Africa clade is now called Clade 2.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Beach sewage stinks
Beach swimming in Britain is becoming a grim pastime. Beaches in East Sussex were closed last week after untreated wastewater was released at the shoreline. Pollution warnings are in place across more than 40 beaches and rivers across England and Wales after heavy rainfall caused sewage overflows. Footage showed sewage lapping the shore at Whitstable in Kent. And it turns out we don’t know the full scale of the problem: new analysis of Environment Agency data by the Liberal Democrats found a quarter of sewage discharges went unmonitored last year because of broken or non-existent seaside monitors. Tim Farron, the party’s rural affairs spokesman, said water companies could be guilty of gross negligence. What’s being done? Not much: MPs voted against a measure last year that would have helped stop water companies releasing untreated sewage into the water system. Meanwhile, annual bonuses paid to water chiefs went up 20 per cent last year. The system stinks. 


Dugina assassination
The Russian ultra-nationalist seen as Putin’s ideological muse appears to have been the target of a car bomb that killed his daughter in Moscow. Darya Dugina, daughter of Alexander Dugin, was in his Toyota Landcruiser when it exploded as she drove home from a nationalist festival held outside the capital on Saturday. She died at the scene. Kremlin allies immediately blamed Ukraine but Putin has yet to comment. An aide to Ukraine’s President Zelensky said Kyiv had nothing to do with it. Dugina’s death will give pro-war hawks a reason to clamour for escalation, but it will also rattle Putin’s inner circle as evidence that no one who supports the war is safe. Dugin is a former academic credited by some with inspiring Putin’s 7,000-word essay, published last year, setting out a bogus theory of Russian history that rejects the idea of Ukrainian statehood.

The week ahead


22/8 – Bernie Ecclestone, former Formula 1 boss, appears in court on fraud charge; CBI releases industrial trends survey; International Rocket Week events begin in Scotland, 23/8 – Conservative Party leadership election hustings in Birmingham; hosepipe ban comes into force for Cornwall and parts of Devon, 24/8 – 1,500 Scottish Unite members working in waste management go on strike, 25/8 – GCSE exam results day; hosepipe ban enforced for Thames Water customers; NHS monthly workforce and quarterly immigration statistics released, 26/8 – Energy regulator Ofgem announces October price cap; four-day strike action begins for 115,000 Royal Mail workers; Labour Party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) elections; Insomnia Gaming festival held in Birmingham, 27/8 – Notting Hill Carnival begins in London; third anniversary of teenager Harry Dunn’s death


22/8 – African health ministers from WHO regional committee meet in Togo; European Economic Association’s annual conference begins in Milan; Russia’s Sergey Lavrov and Serbian interior minister meet in Moscow, 23/8 – Tennis star Nick Kyrgios appears charged with assaulting ex-girlfriend in Canberra; National Flag Day in Ukraine; Florida primary elections, 24/8  – Angola holds parliamentary elections; Ukraine marks Independence Day and six months since Russia’s invasion; gamescom video-games trade fair held in Cologne, 25/8 – Jackson Hole annual economic symposium begins in the US with fed chair Jerome Powell due to give remarks on Friday; French president Emmanuel Macron on official visit to Algeria, 26/8 – Oklahoma and North Dakota abortion bans take effect; French Socialist Party Université d’été gathering in Blois

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what you think. Send an email to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Holly Dagres

Additional reporting by Giles Whittell, Jessica Winch, Phoebe Davis and Asha Mior.

Photograph: Getty Images

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