My Word: Octopus tentacles and phishing attacks

There is definitely a war going on, some of it right under our noses at that spot most hidden from our eyes.

 AN IRANIAN punches his fist through an Israeli flag during a rally in Tehran in April marking Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day. (photo credit: Majid Asgaripour/WANA/via Reuters)
AN IRANIAN punches his fist through an Israeli flag during a rally in Tehran in April marking Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day.
(photo credit: Majid Asgaripour/WANA/via Reuters)

It was unconventional even in terms of gas warfare: Israelis almost died laughing last week after Iran announced that a Mossad agent called “Asa Flots” had been killed in a drone attack in Erbil. Hebrew-speakers smelled more than a rat in the Iranians’ claim, happily pointing out that Asa Flots translates as “made a fart.” Makes you wonder how they got wind of the plot.

The story was good for those who like word play and like the wind itself offered temporary light relief. But it is no joking matter. There is definitely a war going on, some of it right under our noses at that spot most hidden from our eyes.

It is no secret that Iran has suffered a series of mysterious deaths of people related to its nuclear program lately. Just this week, two senior scientists died within 24 hours, and four other Iranian officials have suffered a similarly unexpected fate within a month. Although Israel has not claimed responsibility, it is likely that it was involved in the string of deaths and mishaps at various facilities. These represent a serious blow to Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons and resemble something out of the Israeli drama series “Tehran.” 

Octopus Doctrine

The Iranian losses came as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced his “Octopus Doctrine,” declaring: “We no longer play with the tentacles, with Iran’s proxies. We’ve created a new equation by going for the head.”

The Octopus Doctrine apparently is the next stage in “War between the wars” campaign, known in Hebrew by the acronym MABAM. This has been seen in the periodic strikes at Iranian entrenchment and weapons transfers in Syria usually attributed to Israel.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a weekly cabinet meeting, June 12, 2022 (credit: Yoav Dudkevitch/Pool) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a weekly cabinet meeting, June 12, 2022 (credit: Yoav Dudkevitch/Pool)

A lot is at stake. Last week, even the International Atomic Energy Agency head criticized Iran for removing surveillance cameras that enable the monitoring of its nuclear program.

Since the ayatollahs in Iran make no secret of their desire to wipe “the Zionist entity” off the map, the Israeli government takes the threats seriously. It’s not hard to sniff out danger under these circumstances. But Israel is not the only target of Iranian belligerence: The US and the Sunni Gulf states are also high on the Shiite Islamic Republic’s hit list.

Speaking at the ceremony for the Israel Security Awards this week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz called for “regional force build-up, with American leadership,” particularly ahead of the visit by US President Joe Biden next month which is scheduled to include Saudi Arabia as well as Israel.

Meanwhile, there is a red alert for Israelis visiting Turkey where Iran is apparently trying to carry out another attack like the attempted abduction of tourists in Istanbul thwarted last month. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said on Monday that  there have been several similar attempted kidnappings recently. “They are intentionally choosing Israeli citizens to abduct or murder. It could happen to anyone,” Lapid warned. 

There will always be people who sniff at danger, however, and the Hebrew media interviewed many Israelis who intend to finish their trips to the hopefully not-bitter end.

They are part of what I call the Entebbe Phenomenon: Ever since the astonishing hostage rescue in July 1976, Israelis have a feeling that worse comes to worst, the country will find a way to rescue them. This line of thinking kept thousands of Israelis – Jews and Arabs – in Ukraine at the beginning of the year despite warnings to evacuate immediately ahead of an imminent Russian invasion.

NO SPOILERS, please. I missed last week’s episode of “Tehran” and need to catch up on the hits and misses of the fictional Mossad agent Tamar Rabinyan. That’s a name that has turned into a verb, to be Rabinyaned. It smells much sweeter than Asa Flots. Instead of being glued to KAN 11 on my TV screen, I went to hear a talk at the JLM Spark community center by Channel 12’s Arab affairs reporter Ohad Hemo. 

Hemo is fluent in Arabic, has nerves of steel and more than a dash of Israeli chutzpah. Although I didn’t agree with all his assessments – he puts a greater emphasis on the role of Hamas in the future than I would – it was fascinating.

Hemo noted that the whole region changed with the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 and the rise of ISIS in its wake. Israel and the Gulf – those countries that joined the 2020 Abraham Accords and those like Saudi Arabia that remain on the sidelines – have been brought together by the double threat of Islamist fundamentalism and Iranian Shiite nuclear plans and far-reaching terrorist tentacles.

Being older than Hemo, and perhaps more cynical, I remember the ties Israel developed with Oman, Qatar and elsewhere in the 1990s and how they stalled with the Second Intifada. I received a cordial welcome as an Israeli in Oman when I reported from the multilateral water talks there in 1994 and, after covering the peace treaty with Jordan, I made several pleasant jaunts there including to royal palaces. 

Similarly, I have seen relations with Turkey go from warm to icy cold and once again thawing. (Note the cooperation of the Turkish authorities in dealing with the current threats against Israelis.) I don’t take anything for granted. But, like Hemo, I see an important shift in regional relations: Arab states don’t just want ties with Israel, they want to be like Israel – a hi-tech powerhouse.

Hemo did a series of stories about Iran using a source equipped with a secret camera. The motivation of such sources who risk their lives in Iran, Gaza and elsewhere was also discussed and while some seem to do it to make themselves feel important or for financial or family reasons, there are many who genuinely want to change their corrupt and repressive regimes.

The footage from Iran, ranging from drug addicts on the streets in the south of the country to poolside parties in private villas, fits well with the stories I heard from middle-class Iranians I met on a trip to Turkey many years ago. The same images can also be found in the televised “Tehran.”

Hemo is one of those journalists dedicated to getting a story even at great personal peril. The scene of him covering the return home of a released terrorist, surrounded by masked Palestinians shooting in the air, was an unnerving example.

Today, even opening the emails and replying to Whatsapps of people he doesn’t know takes a certain amount of courage, in my opinion, let alone meeting potential, unknown sources.

A confirmed technophobe, my fears have increased lately. This week the story broke of a successful Iranian phishing expedition. Cybersecurity giant Check Point Software Technologies reported that Iranian hackers breached the emails of high-profile Israelis, trying to lure them out of the country. The phishing attempts targeted diplomats, politicians, defense officials, academics, think tank researchers and businesspeople. The latest cases came to light when former foreign minister Tzipi Livni was suspicious about emails purportedly sent by a former head of Military Intelligence. Last month, the Shin Bet (Israel’s Security Agency) warned that Iranian intelligence was trying to tempt Israeli businesspeople and academics into foreign trips to abduct them. 

Iranian hackers were presumably behind the efforts to impersonate me, Jerusalem Post diplomatic reporter Lahav Harkov and other staff members recently. A friend tried to persuade me that I should be flattered but I am upset that anyone might think my English is as bad as my Iranian impersonator’s. Something smelled fishy or phishy. 

We shouldn’t dismiss Iran’s aspirations or belittle their capabilities. We might not know what they can do until they do it. Iran, on the other hand, shouldn’t underestimate Israel. The Mossad heist of its nuclear archives from a warehouse in the Iranian capital was not a scene in “Tehran,” it happened in real life (in 2018), exposing a lot of ugly lies and intentions.

It’s fine to laugh at fart jokes, but let’s not get blown away. Iran is threatening something far deadlier than a stink bomb.

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