Is Iran Suffering From 'Simple Sabotage?' | Opinion

Iran has suffered a series of mysterious explosions and fires over the past year. While some of them have targeted sensitive sites, such as the Natanz nuclear facility, many other incidents appear more accidental. Nevertheless, they have done significant damage to Iranian infrastructure. In early June, the Iranian navy's largest ship sunk after a fire on board. An oil refinery had a tank that ruptured and exploded in Tehran, and a steel factory also reportedly suffered a fire on June 5.

Many of the explosions and fires have been reported with heightened interest due to Israel-Iran tensions. In recent months, The Wall Street Journal reported that Israel carried out a dozen attacks on Iranian ships headed for Syria. After the report, several Israeli-owned commercial ships were then attacked in the Gulf of Oman.

The incidents in Iran lead to questions about whether Israel has overseen a wide-ranging campaign of attacks and sabotage against Iran. Iran has blamed Israel for incidents at Natanz, for instance. And Israeli media have hinted at Mossad's involvement. However, the larger series of explosions appear to run the gamut from suspicious to seeming like a case of mere aging infrastructure.

Another factor may be at work: Simple sabotage. In 1944 the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the modern CIA, published a classified pamphlet called, "Simple Sabotage Field Manual." William "Wild Bill" Donovan, who led the OSS, authored an introduction to the manual. The manual notes that sabotage includes both major acts against an enemy that may be "highly technical" and require training as well as "innumerable simple acts which the ordinary individual citizen-saboteur can perform." The point of the manual was to provide suggestions to help average people, acting individually rather than as part of a network, to carry out sabotage "in such a way as to involve minimum danger of injury, detection or reprisal."

The weapons of this simple saboteur could be "salt, nails, candles, pebbles, thread or any other materials [the saboteur] might normally be expected to posses." In short, everyday household items can be used to harm equipment. The manual calls, more generally, for reorienting workers to think in the "direction of destruction."

Natanz, home to an Iranian nuclear facility
Natanz, home to an Iranian nuclear facility John Moore/Getty Images

This OSS manual provides an insight into what may be happening in Iran. The sabotage manual notes that "warehouses, barracks, offices, hotels and factory buildings are outstanding targets for simple sabotage." They are susceptible to damage: For instance, "fires can be started wherever there is an accumulation of inflammable material." Warehouses too make for "promising targets."

The manual suggests that janitors might purposely accumulate greasy waste and hope it ignites with the flick of a cigarette. "If you are a janitor on night duty, you can be the first to report the fire, but don't report it too soon." The manual suggests sabotaging fuel tanks by putting in sawdust, impurities or even sugar. "Fuel lines to gasoline and oil engines frequently pass over the exhaust pipe. When the machine is at rest, you can stab a small hole in the fuel line...fuel will drip onto the exhaust and start a blaze." The average person can also easily destroy boilers by putting too much water in them, as well as harming turbines by creating leaks.

In other parts of the country, train operators can make things inconvenient by simply making "mistakes in the issuing of train tickets." Low-level bureaucrats can also harm the Iranian regime based on suggestions in the manual. "Make 'speeches,'" the manual suggests. "Talk as frequently as possible and at great length to illustrate your 'points' by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate 'patriotic' comments." It also says that would-be saboteurs can haggle over precise wording and insist on performing tasks through complex, rather than direct, "channels."

Most important: Order high-quality materials that are hard to get, give important jobs to inefficient workers and "insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products." Give incomplete instructions, hold "conferences when there is more critical work to be done" and create numerous cumbersome committees that are as large as possible.

Iran may be suffering a spate of simple sabotage. This may not be due to complex Israeli-sponsored attacks on Iran's infrastructure, but rather the tendency of average Iranians, fed up with their fanatical regime, to permit key facilities to fall apart and naval vessels to catch fire.

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, a senior analyst of Middle East affairs for The Jerusalem Post and author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Forthcoming June 2021). Twitter: @sfrantzman.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.