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Thep­res­i­dent was up­set. watch­ing tv in his white House res­i­dence, his usual morn­ing rou­tine, Don­ald Trump saw his in­tel­li­gence chiefs kick the legs out from un­der yet an­other of his pet cam­paigns: Iran. Trump and two of his top na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cials had been sug­gest­ing for two years that the Is­lamic re­pub­lic was still in pur­suit of a nu­clear weapon and posed a mor­tal threat to its neigh­bors and the West.

But now, Dan Coats, his na­tional in­tel­li­gence direc­tor, was in a Capi­tol Hill hear­ing room say­ing that wasn’t true: Iran was liv­ing up to the let­ter of the deal the U.S. un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and five other na­tions had ne­go­ti­ated with the Mid­dle East­ern coun­try to dis­man­tle its nu­clear pro­gram, Coats said. Not only that, added CIA Direc­tor Gina Haspel, but Iran could well de­cide to restart the pro­gram if the sanc­tions that Trump had just reim­posed—break­ing Amer­ica’s end of the bar­gain—weren’t lifted.

Trump took to Twit­ter. Coats and Haspel were “wrong,” he posted on Jan­uary 30. “Per­haps In­tel­li­gence should go back to school!” But he wasn’t through with Iran. In ex­tra­or­di­nary re­marks with CBS and The New York Times over the next few days, Trump called Tehran “the num­ber one ter­ror­ist na­tion in the world.” He blamed the Is­lamic re­pub­lic for “ev­ery sin­gle” prob­lem he had in­her­ited in the Mid­dle East, a re­mark­able—and wholly un­sup­port­able— as­ser­tion. He called his in­tel­li­gence chiefs “ex­tremely pas­sive and naïve when it comes to the dan­gers of Iran.”

Trump then hinted at es­ca­lat­ing covert ac­tiv­i­ties against Iran or even a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion. “I could tell you sto­ries,” he told the Times, “of things that we were go­ing to do to them as re­cently as a week ago.”

To many ob­servers with long mem­o­ries, Trump’s com­ments were an eerie re­play of a piv­otal mo­ment 17 years ear­lier, when an­other Repub­li­can pres­i­dent, Ge­orge W. Bush, la­beled Iraq part of an “axis of evil” that was on the thresh­old of build­ing a weapon that would end in an Iraqi “mush­room cloud” over Amer­ica. The fol­low­ing year, in 2003, Bush dis­patched nearly 200,000 U.S. troops into Iraq in search of nu­clear, chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal weapons that turned out not to ex­ist. Nei­ther did Iraqi dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein’s al­leged con­nec­tion with Al-qaeda. What fol­lowed was a calami­tous decade-long oc­cu­pa­tion that the U.S. and the en­tire Mid­dle East are still strug­gling with.

Vet­eran Mid­dle East hands worry Trump is steer­ing Amer­ica into yet an­other mis­guided re­gional dis­as­ter, this time with Iran. A long­time former top CIA op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer com­pared Trump’s mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions about Iran to the lies a suc­ces­sion of pres­i­dents told to jus­tify the war in Viet­nam. “I don’t want to overblow the Viet­nam analo­gies, but we’re in the process, from what I can see, of ly­ing to our­selves and the Amer­i­can peo­ple about Iran,” he tells Newsweek, speak­ing on terms of anonymity be­cause he re­tains close ties to the agency. “It’s not gonna at­tack us to­mor­row. It’s not gonna kill us to­mor­row. It’s not in­ter­ested in di­rect con­fronta­tion with the U.S., de­spite the war of words.”

“The more you push, the more they re­sist,” says Chas Free­man, a former U.S. am­bas­sador to Saudi Ara­bia. “And the more you overtly push and blun­der, the more they can at­tribute ev­ery prob­lem they have to you. So there’s a sort of un­holy part­ner­ship” be­tween the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and Tehran’s own hawks. The prob­lem, he and other ex­perts worry, is that Trump’s blun­ders and Ira­nian over­re­ac­tions could lead to a shoot­ing war no­body wants.

Des­ti­na­tion Un­known

trump’s re­marks, mean­while, had former se­nior na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cials scratch­ing their heads. Some told Newsweek that they’re skep­ti­cal of Trump’s hints that dra­matic ac­tions against

Iran were con­sid­ered. But close ob­servers say the broad out­lines of Trump’s ap­proach have been ev­i­dent since he took of­fice, when he re­nounced the nu­clear deal. He seemed to be itch­ing to open a new and dan­ger­ous chap­ter in a 40-year-long war of threats and dirty tricks, this one backed by U.S., and par­tic­u­larly pro-is­rael, hawks. Free­man calls it “ges­ture for­eign pol­icy.”

“You’re show­ing your out­rage, and you’re mak­ing life dif­fi­cult for the other party,” he tells Newsweek. “It’s not very pur­po­sive.”

Trump’s weapons in­clude sanc­tions, sup­port for anti-iran ex­ile groups and a free hand for Is­rael to at­tack Ira­nian out­posts in Syria. The rest of his ag­gres­sive cam­paign amounts to a shadow war with Iran, covert ac­tions that in­clude so­cial me­dia ma­nip­u­la­tion of the kind Moscow wielded against the U.S. dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion.

Of­fi­cials are happy to talk in gen­eral about their cam­paign to “make sure that Iran is not a desta­bi­liz­ing in­flu­ence,” as Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo puts it, but other­wise de­cline to share de­tails.

Such ac­tions have been cheered by long­time Iran hawks, in­clud­ing three of Trump’s most fa­vored ad­vis­ers: Pom­peo, White House na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton and pres­i­den­tial son-in-law Jared Kush­ner. Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, both close con­fi­dants of Kush­ner, have long lob­bied for more ag­gres­sive U.S. poli­cies to­ward Tehran, in­clud­ing di­rect mil­i­tary at­tacks on its nu­clear, mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence fa­cil­i­ties.

The prob­lem, say a wide va­ri­ety of ex­perts, is that for ev­ery es­ca­la­tion the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and its pre­de­ces­sors have levied on Iran, the regime has re­sponded with its own threats— and vi­o­lence. And no one, on ei­ther side, seems to know where the in­creas­ing tempo of at­tacks and coun­ter­at­tacks is headed.

Trump tossed an­other barb and sur­prised re­gional al­lies when, in early Fe­bru­ary, he an­nounced plans to keep troops in Iraq to mon­i­tor Iran. “We’re go­ing to keep watch­ing,” he told CBS, “and we’re go­ing to keep see­ing, and if there’s trou­ble, if some­body is look­ing to do nu­clear weapons or other things, we’re go­ing to know it be­fore they do.” Iraqi Pres­i­dent Barham Salih quickly slapped that down. “Don’t over­bur­den Iraq with your own is­sues,” he told Trump through the news me­dia. The U.S. is also pres­sur­ing elec­tric­ity-starved Iraq to stop pur­chas­ing en­ergy from Iran as part of new sanc­tions, fur­ther fray­ing re­la­tions with Bagh­dad.

All this just added con­fu­sion about what the Trump

“THE U.S. HAS NO IDEA WHAT IT WANTS,

AND IRAN HAS NO WAY TO READ WASH­ING­TON WITH ALL THE MIXED MES­SAGES COM­ING FROM THE AD­MIN­IS­TRA­TION.”

ad­min­is­tra­tion was plan­ning—with po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous reper­cus­sions. “The U.S. has no idea what it wants, and Iran has no way to read Wash­ing­ton with all the mixed mes­sages com­ing from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion,” says Ali Al­foneh, an Iran an­a­lyst who is a se­nior fel­low at the Arab Gulf States In­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton, funded by Iran’s arch-en­emy Saudi Ara­bia.

Iran has en­gen­dered fear and fas­ci­na­tion ever since Shi­ite cleric Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini re­turned from ex­ile and led a broadly pop­u­lar Is­lamic rev­o­lu­tion in 1979. The over­throw ef­fec­tively re­versed a Cia-or­ga­nized coup a quar­ter-cen­tury ear­lier that had top­pled the so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment of Mo­hammed Mos­sadegh on be­half of An­glo-amer­i­can oil in­ter­ests. Re­la­tions be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Tehran fur­ther hard­ened when Ira­nian stu­dents stormed the U.S. Em­bassy and took more than 50 Amer­i­cans hostage in a cri­sis that dom­i­nated tele­vi­sion news cov­er­age for 444 days. From then on, Iran was branded a rogue na­tion.

Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan des­ig­nated the regime “a state spon­sor of ter­ror­ism” and in 1981 threw his weight be­hind Iraq’s in­va­sion of Iran in a war that lasted nearly a decade and dev­as­tated the coun­try. Af­ter Khome­ini died in 1989, his suc­ces­sor, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali .Khamenei, ex­panded Iran’s re­gional in­flu­ence, first by back­ing the Shi­ite Le­banese re­sis­tance to Is­rael’s 1982 in­va­sion, which led to the cre­ation of the pow­er­ful Hezbol­lah mili­tia that car­ried out ter­ror­ist at­tacks on U.S. tar­gets. Then came the 2003 U. S. in­va­sion of Iraq, which led to Ira­nian prox­ies as­sum­ing power in Bagh­dad. In 2011, when Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-as­sad faced a pop­u­lar re­volt, Iran and Hezbol­lah pro­vided crit­i­cal sup­port. On Fe­bru­ary 11, to mark the 40th an­niver­sary of the rev­o­lu­tion, Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani gave a speech to tout the coun­try’s mil­i­tary might. “We have not—and will not—ask for per­mis­sion from any­body for im­prov­ing our de­fen­sive power,” he said.

Trump’s vows to con­tain Iran, which he views as more of a threat to re­gional and global se­cu­rity than ISIS, feel like a throw­back to 1978. But Iran, too, seems to be “try­ing to turn the clock back to the bad old days of the 1980s and early 1990s,” dis­patch­ing hit teams abroad to as­sas­si­nate ex­ile op­po­si­tion fig­ures, as Al­foneh wrote last fall for FDD’S Long War Jour­nal, a web­site run by the pro-is­rael Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies.

The Long Arm of Tehran

af­ter open­ing for busi­ness in 1980, iran’s spy agen­cies wasted no time liq­ui­dat­ing the coun­try’s en­e­mies at home and abroad. One of the early for­eign op­er­a­tions of the Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps, or IRGC, was the killing of an ex­ile op­po­si­tion leader just out­side Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Tak­ing a page from a fa­mous scene in the 1975 spy thriller Three Days of the Con­dor, the as­sas­sin, an Amer­i­can re­cruit to the rev­o­lu­tion who had taken the name Dawud Salahud­din, dis­guised him­self as a let­ter car­rier, rang the tar­get’s door­bell and fa­tally shot him when he an­swered.

Tehran con­tin­ued to pur­sue its en­e­mies abroad in those early years, ruth­lessly mow­ing down ex­ile of­fi­cials plot­ting to over­throw the regime. But af­ter years of rel­a­tive qui­etude, Iran’s Min­istry of In­tel­li­gence and Se­cu­rity has again stepped up at­tacks over­seas. In 2015 and again in 2017, it was sus­pected of liq­ui­dat­ing dis­si­dents in the Nether­lands.

The tempo and scope of at­tacks es­ca­lated last year, when se­cu­rity agen­cies across Europe un­cov­ered var­i­ous mur­der plots against anti-iran groups abroad—and one tar­get in par­tic­u­lar: the Na­tional Coun­cil of Re­sis­tance of Iran, a po­lit­i­cal front of the Mu­ja­hedeen-e-khalq, or MEK. Once branded a ter­ror­ist group by the U.S., the quasi-marx­ist Ira­nian ex­ile or­ga­ni­za­tion has long at­tracted the sup­port of U.S. hawks, but it gained mo­men­tum in 2017 with the pub­lic em­brace of Bolton and Trump’s lawyer Ru­dolph Gi­u­liani, who spoke at a rally the MEK ar­ranged in Paris last June.

Ac­cord­ing to Eu­ro­pean au­thor­i­ties, Iran schemed to place a pow­er­ful bomb amid the at­ten­dees. The plot was dis­cov­ered when Ger­man au­thor­i­ties ar­rested As­sadol­lah Asadi, an Ira­nian ac­cred­ited as a diplo­mat in Vi­enna. They said Asadi had de­liv­ered 500 grams of the pow­er­ful ex­plo­sive TATP to two Ira­nian-born Bel­gians in An­twerp. An­other three Ira­nian-born sus­pects linked to the plot were ar­rested in France. Iran’s spokesman at the United Na­tions de­nied hav­ing any­thing to do with the plot and sug­gested it was a so-called false flag op­er­a­tion by the MEK it­self or Is­rael to dis­credit Iran, but in early Fe­bru­ary Eu­ro­pean in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials said they had dug up text mes­sages or chat logs be­tween Asadi and Tehran about the plot.

Iran was reach­ing into the United States as well. In Au­gust, the Jus­tice De­part­ment charged two Cal­i­for­nia men—one an Ira­nian cit­i­zen with per­ma­nent res­i­dence sta­tus in the U.S., the other with dual cit­i­zen­ship—on charges of con­spir­ing to spy on and in­fil­trate the MEK at events in New York and Wash­ing­ton. The FBI also said the men scouted Jewish tar­gets, in­clud­ing Rohr Chabad House, a stu­dent cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Chicago. Cam­pus Jewish groups have func­tioned as sup­port groups for Is­rael’s hard-line gov­ern­ment. But Iran’s main en­emy re­mains the MEK. Some ex­perts say Tehran has es­tab­lished sleeper cells in the U.S., Europe and Per­sian

“IN­VAD­ING IRAN WITH­OUT CON­SID­ER­ING THE RE­GIONAL RE­AL­I­TIES IS THE HE IGHT OF IN­SAN­ITY.”

Gulf coun­tries to as­sault such tar­gets should war break out.

Iran “has a crazy ob­ses­sion” with the MEK that is “di­vorced from re­al­ity,” says Bruce Hoff­man, a lead­ing long­time ter­ror­ism ex­pert at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s Ed­mund A. Walsh School of For­eign Ser­vice. It’s “a sub­ver­sive threat, but so are other groups,” he tells Newsweek. In fact, ac­cord­ing to Muham­mad Sahimi, an Iran ex­pert at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has been throw­ing its sup­port be­hind a wide ar­ray of anti-regime per­son­al­i­ties and or­ga­ni­za­tions, from Ira­nian Kurds to ul­tra-right stu­dent groups to monar­chists, per­son­i­fied in Reza Pahlevi, the ex­iled son of the late shah, who lives in sub­ur­ban Wash­ing­ton, D.C. But Iran’s prime tar­get seems to be the MEK.

It’s some­what bizarre to Luis Rueda, a re­tired 28-year CIA vet­eran with deep Mid­dle East ex­pe­ri­ence. The MEK “has no sup­port in­side Iran—ev­ery­body views them as nutjobs.” But the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s back­ing of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, which is loathed in­side Iran be­cause it took Iraq’s side in the bit­ter Iran-iraq War, has no doubt given the regime pause. “They’re wor­ried that we, Is­rael and Saudi Ara­bia are us­ing the MEK to help desta­bi­lize Iran and pump­ing them money,” Rueda tells Newsweek.

The IRGC was also fin­gered in what would have been a spec­tac­u­lar bomb­ing in the heart of Wash­ing­ton, D.C. In 2011, the U.S. busted a plot to as­sas­si­nate then–saudi Am­bas­sador Adel al-jubeir at the fash­ion­able Café Mi­lano, a plush Ge­orge­town restau­rant fre­quented by prom­i­nent U.S. and for­eign of­fi­cials, lob­by­ists and jour­nal­ists. Manssor Arbab­siar, a Texan with dual Ira­nian and U.S. cit­i­zen­ship, was ar­rested and even­tu­ally pleaded guilty to or­ga­niz­ing the plot at the re­quest of a cousin who worked for the IRGC’S Quds Force, its para­mil­i­tary arm. The plot un­rav­eled early on, when Arbab­siar hired a Mex­i­can hit man who turned out to be an un­der­cover in­for­mant for the U.S. Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The Mi­lano plot puz­zles some. Nu­clear talks were in full bloom. A bomb­ing—killing scores of the cap­i­tal’s elites, as well as al-jubeir—would have wrecked the ne­go­ti­a­tions. One party in­ter­ested in de­rail­ing them: hard-lin­ers in the IRGC, which “would like noth­ing more than to cre­ate greater ten­sion and mis­trust be­tween the West and Iran,” Rueda says.

Had the White House been able to pin the plot on Ira­nian lead­ers, its re­sponse “would’ve al­most cer­tainly been ki­netic”—a mil­i­tary strike, says a se­nior former Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cial, ask­ing for anonymity in ex­change for dis­cussing such a sen­si­tive is­sue.

Like Amer­ica’s other ma­jor ad­ver­saries, the Ira­ni­ans en­gage in stealthy cy­ber­op­er­a­tions as well, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est an­nual re­port on world­wide threats from the Of­fice of Na­tional In­telli-

gence. Six years ago, the Jus­tice De­part­ment charged last March, hack­ers con­nected to the IRGC stole huge amounts of aca­demic data and in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty from 144 U.S. uni­ver­si­ties and 176 uni­ver­si­ties in 21 other coun­tries in what it called one of the largest state-spon­sored hacks ever pros­e­cuted. Ac­cord­ing to the Rand Corp., an in­de­pen­dent re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion with close ties to U.S. de­fense agen­cies, Ira­nian hack­ers have also pen­e­trated “the un­clas­si­fied Navy-marine Corps In­ter­net,” as well as U.S. bank sites and the com­put­ers of oil gi­ant Saudi Aramco and Las Ve­gas Sands, the casino com­pany owned by Shel­don Adel­son, a ma­jor Repub­li­can donor and pro-is­rael hawk.

Then, in late Novem­ber, the Jus­tice De­part­ment in­dicted two Ira­ni­ans for a series of ran­somware at­tacks on the com­puter sys­tems of At­lanta and Ne­wark, New Jersey, as well as some 200 other tar­gets, in­clud­ing hos­pi­tals and health care agen­cies. The ac­cused per­pe­tra­tors re­main at large.

Iran de­nied re­spon­si­bil­ity for these and the ear­lier at­tacks, which may well have been re­tal­i­a­tion for the in­fa­mous Stuxnet virus, a joint U.s.-is­raeli op­er­a­tion that caused thou­sands of cen­trifuges to spin out of con­trol at its Natanz nu­clear fa­cil­ity be­gin­ning around 2009. Since then, Iran has dis­cov­ered at least three more viruses at­tack­ing its sys­tems.

Tit for Tat

iran’s go-to ar­gu­ment: you started it. to be sure, the cia has sought to pen­e­trate and desta­bi­lize the regime from the first days of the rev­o­lu­tion. Dur­ing the 1979–1980 hostage cri­sis, the CIA’S late mas­ter of dis­guise, Tony Men­dez, slipped into Iran to res­cue six Amer­i­can diplo­mats, in an op­er­a­tion later dra­ma­tized in the movie Argo. But what’s known of the agency’s record has mostly been splotched with spec­tac­u­lar fail­ures.

By 1989, “vir­tu­ally the en­tire U.S. in­tel­li­gence ap­pa­ra­tus in Iran had been de­tected and suc­cess­fully dis­rupted by the Ira­ni­ans,” ac­cord­ing to a 2007 ac­count by vet­eran regime-watcher Ma­han Abe­din, direc­tor of the re­search group Dysart Con­sult­ing. “U.S. in­com­pe­tence—as op­posed to Ira­nian prow­ess—was the chief fac­tor in the un­rav­el­ing of these net­works.”

Then, be­tween 2009 and 2013, dozens of CIA sources were caught and ex­e­cuted in Iran (and China) due to a lapse in the agency’s clan­des­tine com­mu­ni­ca­tions with agents, ac­cord­ing to Ya­hoo News. Yet an­other flap erupted in 2011, when Iran an­nounced the ar­rest of 12 al­leged CIA spies. The dis­as­ter was caused by the agency “op­er­at­ing a lower thresh­old of qual­ity con­trol in terms of agent re­cruit­ment and man­age­ment,” Abe­din wrote at the time.

Then there was Op­er­a­tion Mer­lin, a botched ef­fort dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion to pro­vide Iran with a doc­tored de­sign for a com­po­nent of a nu­clear weapon, os­ten­si­bly to side­track its nuke pro­gram. In­stead, it may have ac­cel­er­ated it, ac­cord­ing to State of War: The Se­cret His­tory of the CIA and the Bush Ad­min­is­tra­tion, a 2006 book by former New York Times re­porter James Risen.

And so it goes: One side whack­ing the other with no end in sight. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has made ever more bel­li­cose noises about squeez­ing Iran fur­ther, cit­ing the Is­lamic re­pub­lic’s de­ploy­ment of rock­ets and the Quds Force in Syria, its covert sup­port of fel­low-shi­ite Houthi rebels in Ye­men and its re­cent bal­lis­tic mis­sile

tests. On Jan­uary 13, The Wall Street Jour­nal re­vealed that Bolton had asked the Pen­tagon to draw up a list of op­tions for at­tack­ing Iran. “It def­i­nitely rat­tled peo­ple,” a former se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion told the Jour­nal. The same day, Ax­ios re­ported that in 2017, “Trump re­peat­edly asked his na­tional se­cu­rity team for plans to blow up Ira­nian ‘fast boats’ in the Per­sian Gulf.” The rev­e­la­tions drew con­dem­na­tion from the for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment, but the leaks may well have been de­lib­er­ate, to rat­tle Iran fur­ther.

Trump should keep up the pres­sure, says Nor­man Roule, a 34year CIA vet­eran, who helmed U.S. in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tions and poli­cies on Iran from 2008 to his re­tire­ment in 2017. The West’s re­sponse has been “pretty tepid,” he main­tains. Tight­en­ing sanc­tions on Iran is good, he tells Newsweek, and he ap­plauds Ger­many’s re­cent de­ci­sion to re­voke land­ing rights for Iran’s Ma­han Air on sus­pi­cion that the air­line has been used for ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties. But, he ar­gues, the U.S. and its al­lies must go fur­ther. “Al­though mil­i­tary ac­tion should al­ways be the last op­tion,” he says, “Tehran must un­der­stand that its ac­tions have con­se­quences.”

A mil­i­tary strike doesn’t seem in the cards, at least for now— un­less Trump wants an­other rup­ture with the NATO al­liance. While the al­lies have voiced deep an­noy­ance with Ira­nian plots, they are si­mul­ta­ne­ously strug­gling to hold the nu­clear ac­cord to­gether with­out the United States, go­ing so far as to set up an al­ter­na­tive pay­ment sys­tem to evade the new U.S. sanc­tions and trade with Tehran. In the face of threats from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, its prospects are un­cer­tain.

Mean­while, Sec­re­tary of State Pom­peo spent much of Jan­uary barn­storm­ing across the Mid­dle East to drum up sup­port for ex­pelling “ev­ery last Ira­nian boot” from Syria (no mat­ter that his boss had or­dered a U.S. troop with­drawal that will di­lute Wash­ing­ton’s lever­age against Tehran there). Pom­peo also pro­moted a mid-fe­bru­ary con­fer­ence he or­ga­nized in Poland ded­i­cated to “mak­ing sure that Iran is not a desta­bi­liz­ing in­flu­ence.” Eu­ro­pean ob­jec­tions to Pom­peo’s hawk­ish mes­sage forced him to tone down the goals of the gath­er­ing.

But the ad­min­is­tra­tion is not just talk­ing. The U.S. main­tains eaves­drop­ping fa­cil­i­ties in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan and has been run­ning agents into Iran from there and Turkey, sources tell Newsweek. Sea­soned ob­servers also sus­pect that U.S. in­tel­li­gence had a hand in the fail­ure of two Ira­nian satel­lite mis­sile launches early last year.

Free­man, who also served as as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of de­fense for in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity af­fairs in the Clin­ton years, notes that since U.S. of­fi­cials have vir­tu­ally bragged about sab­o­tag­ing North Korea’s mis­sile pro­gram, “one has to as­sume they’re ap­ply­ing that to Iran.” He also sus­pects the ad­min­is­tra­tion of us­ing ex­ile groups to con­duct guer­rilla op­er­a­tions in­side Iran, as the U.S. did in the early years af­ter the Chi­nese and Cuban rev­o­lu­tions—with­out suc­cess.

Such op­er­a­tions are “stupid,” he says. The CIA rank-and-file aren’t very en­thu­si­as­tic about them ei­ther, an in­tel­li­gence source tells Newsweek. “The feel­ing in­side the or­ga­ni­za­tion is that Iran is a bad ac­tor, but we shouldn’t be close to war with these guys. It’s not worth go­ing to war.”

A U.S. at­tack would chill some of Wash­ing­ton’s Per­sian Gulf al­lies, prompt con­dem­na­tion from the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and even rally Ira­nian dis­si­dents to the flag, says Emile Nakhleh, one of the CIA’S top Mid­dle East ex­perts be­fore re­tir­ing in 2006. “In­vad­ing Iran with­out con­sid­er­ing the re­gional re­al­i­ties,” he wrote in an anal­y­sis pub­lished by The Cipher Brief, a web­site close to the CIA, “is the height of in­san­ity.”

Iran just does not pose an ex­is­ten­tial threat to Amer­ica, says the former top CIA op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer. Even its ruth­less op­er­a­tions abroad to elim­i­nate its foes are de­fen­sive, he points out, not di­rected at the U.s.—whereas ISIS ex­horts re­cruits to mur­der Amer­i­cans and their al­lies wher­ever and how­ever pos­si­ble.

He blames Is­rael for hyp­ing the nu­clear is­sue. “Ev­ery year, one or an­other se­nior Is­raeli se­cu­rity of­fi­cial would trun­dle off to Wash­ing­ton and say, ‘Iran is one year away from hav­ing a nu­clear weapon.’ And they kept do­ing this, un­til fi­nally some­body said, ‘You’ve been say­ing this for 10 fuck­ing years, dude. How come they don’t have a nu­clear weapon?’”

He lets out a frus­trated sigh, weary from so many mis­taken and in­de­ci­sive con­flicts across the re­gion. With no good end in sight with Iran, he fears that Is­rael will draw the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion into its con­flict with the coun­try. “They are a po­ten­tial clan­des­tine threat to Saudi Ara­bia and the UAE, and a con­ven­tional threat to Is­rael,” whose nu­clear ar­se­nal could oblit­er­ate Iran, he says. “But they couldn’t get a bat­tal­ion across the Gulf if their life de­pended on it.”

Try this, he says: “Put your­selves in the Ira­ni­ans’ shoes and look at it how they look at things.” Other­wise, we may well blun­der into open con­flict. “There’s the po­ten­tial for mis­read­ing on ei­ther side,” he says. “There’s gonna be an ac­ci­dent—some­body’s gonna do some­thing that is not in­tended to start a war, but it will start a war.”

“I DON’T WANT TO OVERBLOW THE VIET­NAM ANALO­GIES, BUT WE’RE IN THE PROCESS OF LY­ING TO THE AMER­I­CAN PEO­PLE ABOUT IRAN.”

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