With tensions between Iran and Britain escalating over the seizure of the Stena Impero tanker, the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph reported on Monday (July 22) that British intelligence agencies “believe Iran has organized and funded sleeper terror cells across Europe including the U.K. and could greenlight attacks in response to a conflict in the Gulf.”
The claims refer to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’a group that has been designated as a terrorist organization—in whole or part—by much of the West. In June, the same newspaper reported that a devastating cache of explosives, linked to Hezbollah, had been discovered in London by security agencies back in 2015. The three tons of ammonium nitrate was “more than was used in the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.” Hezbollah is sponsored by Iran, and back in 2015, the U.K. had just signed on to the Iranian nuclear deal. Nothing was made public at the time.
Iran seizing a British oil tanker was always going to test London’s patience and restraint, but thus far the primary response to the incident has been interplay in the media. As I’ve written before, the media plays a part beyond reporting events. Its anticipated response to events is part of the “enemy’s” planning process. The western media cycle is predictable, manageable, the thirst for the drip-drip of ever new headlines. And that also links to population interference through the abuse of social media platforms.
This is the hybrid warfare we now face, cyber and physical, military and civilian, direct and indirect. And on that last point, cue proxies. Iran has already mobilized its sphere of influence in the Middle East—attacks on Saudi targets will come to mind, and now speculation inevitably turns to sponsored terrorist groups operating in the West.
The capture of a British tanker by Iran’s military arguably justifies a military response—but conflict is no longer that simple. Iranian quasi-state media carried footage of Iran’s flag being raised above the tanker in Bandar Abbas. “Make no mistake,” Iran’s foreign minister warned the U.K. by Twitter on Sunday (July 21). “Having failed to lure Donald Trump into War of the Century… John Bolton is turning his venom against the U.K. in hopes of dragging it into a quagmire. Only prudence and foresight can thwart such ploys.” Also on Sunday, Iranian media reported that Teheran’s U.K. ambassador had warned Britain “against provocation over the seized tanker, as reports emerged that the British government is considering freezing Iranian assets and may take other measures as well in a standoff between the two countries.”
The Daily Telegraph quoted an unnamed intelligence source saying that “Iran has Hezbollah operatives in position to carry out a terrorist attack in the event of a conflict. That is the nature of the domestic threat Iran poses to the U.K.” There is clearly a serious and multifaceted terrorist threat in the U.K., as elsewhere. But, thus far, there has been no spillover from the latest Middle East conflict beyond the region.
In both the physical and cyber domains, Iran can hit non-military targets (directly or through proxies) in retaliation (or preemptively) for U.S. axis action in the more conventional sphere. Physically, Iranian action is more akin to insurgency. And in the cyber domain, as I reported over the weekend, Iran understands that retaliation against the U.S. (or U.K.) might be akin to throwing rocks at a tank, but it can hit the vast and under-protected Western corporate sector at will. An Iranian cyber attack hit high-profile U.K. targets late last year, and two weeks after U.S. Cyber Command hit Iran’s command and control structure in the aftermath of the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone, came its warning that an Iranian-led hack was targeting the millions of unpatched Microsoft Outlook systems.”
In the physical domain, Iran’s proxies in the Middle East have been mobilized for some time now—the mobilization of sleeper terror cells is in effect no different. The escalating conflict is multidimensional—cyber and physical, military and civilian. As we watch and wait to see what happens thousands of miles from home, the conflict is neither that simple nor that contained. The threat of proxy terrorist activity on Western soil is the physical manifestation of the same equation we have already seen in the cybersphere.
Also this week, Britain anoints a new prime minister, likely Boris Johnson, who is expected to be closer to the U.S. administration than his predecessor Theresa May—although Johnson has said that Britain will not support a fullscale conflict with Iran. Over the weekend, the U.S. president signaled his own support for Johnson, telling reporters he anticipated a strong relationship between them. On Iran, though, Johnson has poor form. He badly misstepped as foreign secretary back in 2017, when he haphazardly stated that British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran to teach journalism, rather than on vacation. Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains imprisoned in Teheran.
On the other side of British politics sits Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s left-leaning Labour Party. Corbyn has railed against the “demonisation” of Iran and has even presented Teheran-friendly propaganda on the country’s Press TV. Back in 2009, Corbyn described Hezbollah as his “friends” and invited the group (along with Hamas) to speak at an event in Parliament.
We live in interesting times.