When Ethiopia’s intelligence agency recently uncovered a 15-man cell it said had barricaded the United Arab Emirates embassy as well as a cache of weapons and explosives, it claimed it had foiled a major attack that could have wreaked havoc in the Ethiopian capital. , Addis Ababa.
But the Ethiopians left out a key detail about the alleged conspiracy. who is behind it?
The only clue was the arrest of the 16th person. the Ethiopians say accused ringleader Ahmed Ismail was arrested in Sweden with the cooperation of friendly “African, Asian and European intelligence services”.
Now US and Israeli officials say the operation is the handiwork of Iran, whose intelligence service activated a sleeper cell in Addis Ababa last fall, ordering it to gather intelligence on the US and Israeli embassies as well.
They say Ethiopia’s action is part of a wider push to seek soft targets in African countries where Iran can avenge painful, high-profile losses such as the death of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who was allegedly killed by Israel. in November. , and General Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian spy chief killed by the United States in Iraq a year ago.
Citing Western intelligence sources, Director of Intelligence for the Pentagon’s Africa Command, Rear Admiral Heidi C. Sweden.
“Ethiopia and Sweden cooperated in the breach of the conspiracy,” Berg said in a statement.
Iran denied the accusations. “This is a baseless accusation instigated by the Zionist region,” said a spokesman for the Iranian embassy in Addis Ababa. “Ethiopia and Emirati officials have not said anything about Iran’s involvement in this matter.”
The United Arab Emirates angered Iran when it normalized relations with Israel in September as part of a series of agreements brokered in recent months by the Trump administration, known as the Abraham Accords.
An Ethiopian police spokesman, who named only two of the 15 people arrested, declined to say why Ethiopia did not press charges against Iran for the plot. Several diplomats said Ethiopia, as Africa’s diplomatic capital and the headquarters of the African Union, was trying to avoid becoming publicly embroiled in sensitive issues involving major powers.
However, Ethiopia’s National Intelligence and Security Service said a second group of plotters were planning to attack the Emirati embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. A Sudanese official confirmed this information.
A senior US defense official linked the arrests in Ethiopia to a failed Iranian plot to kill the US ambassador to South Africa, which Politico reported in September. U.S. and Sudanese officials agreed to discuss the matter on condition of anonymity because of its diplomatic and intelligence sensitivity.
Still, much about the Ethiopian arrests and Iran’s alleged role remained murky. Ethiopian police have not yet formally charged the 15 suspects in the plot, only two of whom have been identified. Israeli officials say three of them may be genuine Iranian operatives, while the others were caught up in an Ethiopian network.
And the arrests in Ethiopia come at a time of heightened political sensitivity in Iran and the United States, as the Biden administration considers its stance toward Tehran and whether to revive the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran that President Donald Trump scrapped in 2018.
Pressuring President Joe Biden, Iran’s intelligence minister suggested last week that his country could seek nuclear weapons if US sanctions are not lifted soon.
While Berg confirmed several details about Iran’s role in the Ethiopian arrests, other military and diplomatic officials in Washington declined to discuss it.
By contrast, officials in Israel, whose government is openly hostile to any thaw between Washington and Tehran, highlighted the alleged conspiracy as further evidence that Iran cannot be trusted.
Despite its best efforts, Iran has yet to follow through on its promises to avenge its high-profile losses, except for a January 2020 missile attack on US forces in Iran, days after Soleimani was killed.
Any plan to strike the UAE, as the arrests in Ethiopia suggest, would be an interesting choice given the potential to undermine Biden’s supposed nuclear diplomacy with Iran, said Aaron David Miller, a foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Other analysts, however, say the UAE is high on Iran’s enemies list and that the embassy in Ethiopia could become an unobjectionable target at a time when Ethiopia is distracted by the war that has raged in its northern Tigray region since November.
“Africa is a relatively easy place to operate, and Ethiopia is preoccupied with other issues,” said Bruce Riddell, a former CIA officer now at the Brookings Institution.
The murky episode seemed destined to become the latest in a series of cat-and-mouse episodes between Iranian and Israeli operatives on African soil in recent years.
In the 1990s, Iran had close ties with Sudan under autocratic ruler Omar al-Bashir, and in the following decade it was able to station its warships in Eritrea.
Israel carried out airstrikes on a convoy of smuggling trucks in Sudan in 2009 to stop Iranian-supplied weapons from entering the Gaza Strip, US officials said.
But Iran’s ties to the Horn of Africa have weakened in recent years, and Israeli and Emirati involvement has grown.
The Emirates helped broker a landmark peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018, and now it is Emirati warships docked in Eritrean ports.
In November, following a call from Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, a team of Israeli drone pilots arrived in Ethiopia to help eradicate locusts that have plagued the country’s farmers.
Weeks later, Yossi Cohen, head of the Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence service, met with his Ethiopian counterpart to discuss what they called “counter-terrorism operations.”
Israeli intelligence officials in Africa say they frequently brief friendly countries on alleged Iranian activities.
In Kenya, two Iranians who were arrested in 2012 and accused of possessing 15 kilograms of explosives are now serving 15 years in prison. Kenyan officials said they were members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. Their lawyers said they were interrogated by Israeli intelligence while in Kenyan custody.
Four years later, in 2016, Kenya deported two Iranians who were arrested outside the Israeli embassy on video footage from the facility. Iran said the men riding in the Iranian diplomatic car were university teachers.
Iranian agents have been suspected of attacks or prevention of attacks in countries including Georgia, Thailand and India. On February 4, a Belgian court stripped an Iranian representative of diplomatic status and sentenced him to 20 years in prison for planning a failed 2018 bomb attack against an Iranian opposition rally in France.
That failed plot and another in Denmark prompted the European Union to impose sanctions in 2019 on Iran’s foreign spy agency, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Israeli officials say the same agency orchestrated the operation in Ethiopia.
Swedish police spokeswoman Sofia Helqvist referred questions regarding the arrest of suspected paramilitary leader Ismail to Ethiopian authorities.
A spokesman for the United Arab Emirates did not respond to a request for comment.
Given the stakes, it was unclear why the Iranians would risk a rapprochement with the Biden administration by taking action now.
Farzin Nadimi, an expert on the Iranian military at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Iran could be sending a message to Biden administration officials that “if they don’t come to a deal with Iran quickly, this is what they’re getting. neighborhood.”