Slumped in a Nairobi courtroom, suit coats rumpled and reading glasses dangling from librarian chains, the defendants made a poor showing for the notorious Quds Force of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Ahmad Abolafathi Mohammed and Sayed Mansour Mousa had been caught red-handed and middle-aged. And if the latter did them a certain credit — blandly forgettable always having been a good look for a secret agent — the prisoners still had to explain why they had hidden 15 kg of the military explosive RDX under bushes on a Mombasa golf course.
Created to advance Iran’s interests clandestinely overseas, the Quds Force has lately provided mostly embarrassment, stumbling in Azerbaijan, Georgia, India, Kenya and most spectacularly in Thailand, where before accidentally blowing up their Bangkok safe house, Iran’s secret agents were photographed in the sex-tourism mecca of Pattaya, one arm around a hookah, the other around a hooker. In its ongoing shadow war with Israel, the Iranian side’s lone “success” was the July 18 bombing of a Bulgarian bus carrying Israeli tourists — though European investigators last week officially attributed that attack to Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hizballah. That leaves the Islamic Republic itself with a failure rate hovering near 100% abroad and an operational tempo — nine overseas plots uncovered in nine months — that carries a whiff of desperation. A Tehran government long branded by U.S. officials as the globe’s leading exporter of terrorism may be cornering the market on haplessness.
Within Iran’s own borders, however, the story is different. Twice in the past two years Iranian intelligence has cracked espionage rings working with Israel’s Mossad, Western intelligence officials tell TIME. In both cases, the arrests were the furthest thing from secret: announced at a news conference, each was later followed up by televised confessions broadcast on Iranian state television in prime time. Given Iran’s history of trumped-up confessions, skepticism is more than justified. But the arrests appear to be solid. One intelligence official said the captured Iranians provided “support and logistics” to the Mossad operatives who carried out the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.
At least four scientists were killed on Tehran’s streets from 2010 to 2012, when, as TIME has reported, Israel ratcheted back on covert operations inside Iran. Officially, Israel has remained silent on the killings, though government officials will coyly say they welcome the deaths. The Jewish state maintains the same ambiguous posture on other “setbacks” to Iran’s nuclear program widely — and correctly, Western intelligence officials say — attributed to Mossad, from the Stuxnet computer virus, to mysterious explosions like the massive blast at a missile base, which destroyed ballistic missiles that could reach Israel.