2021-02-15 08:00:12 | In a Dangerous Game of Cat and Mouse, Iran Eyes New Targets in Africa

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Story by: Declan Walsh, Eric Schmitt, Simon Marks and Ronen Bergman The New York Times World News

NAIROBI, Kenya — When Ethiopia’s intelligence agency recently uncovered a cell of 15 people it said were casing the embassy of the United Arab Emirates, along with a cache of weapons and explosives, it claimed to have foiled a major attack with the potential to sow havoc in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

But the Ethiopians omitted a key detail about the purported plot: who was behind it.

The only clue was the arrest of a 16th person: Accused of being the ringleader, Ahmed Ismail had been picked up in Sweden with the cooperation of friendly “African, Asian and European intelligence services,” the Ethiopians said.

Now American and Israeli officials say the operation was the work of Iran, whose intelligence service activated a sleeper cell in Addis Ababa last fall with orders to gather intelligence also on the embassies of the United States and Israel.

They say the Ethiopian operation was part of a wider drive to seek soft targets in African countries where Iran might avenge painful, high-profile losses such as the death of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, said to have been killed by Israel in November, and Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian spymaster killed by the United States in Iraq just over one year ago.

Citing Western intelligence sources, Rear Adm. Heidi K. Berg, director of intelligence at the Pentagon’s Africa command, said that Iran was behind the 15 people arrested in Ethiopia and that the “mastermind of this foiled plot,” Mr. Ismail, had been arrested in Sweden.

“Ethiopia and Sweden collaborated on the disruption to the plot,” Admiral Berg said in a statement.

Iran denied the accusations. “These are baseless allegations only provoked by the Zionist regime’s malicious media,” said a spokeswoman for the Iranian Embassy in Addis Ababa. “Neither Ethiopia nor the Emirates said anything about Iranian interference in these issues.”

The United Arab Emirates angered Iran when it normalized relations with Israel in September as part of a series of agreements brokered by the Trump administration in its final months and known as the Abraham Accords.

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A spokesman for the Ethiopian police, which named just two of the 15 people arrested, declined to say why Ethiopia did not finger Iran for the plot. Several diplomats said that Ethiopia, as Africa’s diplomatic capital and home to the headquarters of the African Union, tries to avoid getting publicly embroiled in delicate issues involving major powers.

While Admiral Berg confirmed several details about Iran’s role in the Ethiopian arrests, other military and diplomatic officials in Washington declined to discuss it.

In contrast, officials in Israel, whose government is openly hostile to any thaw between Washington and Tehran, highlighted the purported plot as further evidence that Iran cannot be trusted.

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For all its efforts, Iran has yet to deliver on its promises of vengeance for its high-profile losses, beyond a missile attack on American forces in Iran in January 2020, days after General Suleimani was killed.

Any plan to hit the U.A.E., as suggested by the arrests in Ethiopia, would be a curious choice, given its potential to undermine Mr. Biden’s putative nuclear diplomacy with Iran, said Aaron David Miller, a foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Other analysts, though, said that the U.A.E. was high on Iran’s list of enemies and that the embassy in Ethiopia might present an unchallenging target at a time when Ethiopia is distracted by a war that has been raging in its northern Tigray region since November.

“Africa is a relatively easy place to operate, and Ethiopia is preoccupied with other issues,” said Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer now with 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.

During the 1990s, Iran enjoyed close ties with Sudan under the autocratic ruler Omar Hassan al-Bashir, and in the next decade it was able to dock its warships in Eritrea.

Farzin Nadimi, a specialist on the Iranian armed forces with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Iran may wish to send a message to the Biden administration officials that “unless they reach a deal with Iran quickly this is what they get: a dangerous neighborhood.”

Declan Walsh reported from Nairobi; Eric Schmitt from Washington; Simon Marks from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv. Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.

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Source References: The New York Times World News

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