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Preparing the Battlefield

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Preparing the Battlefield
The Bush Administration steps up its secret moves against Iran.
by Seymour M. Hersh
July 7, 2008

Late last year, Congress agreed to a request from President Bush to fund a
major escalation of covert operations against Iran, according to current and
former military, intelligence, and congressional sources. These operations,
for which the President sought up to four hundred million dollars, were described
in a Presidential Finding signed by Bush, and are designed to destabilize the
country’s religious leadership. The covert activities involve support
of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations.
They also include gathering intelligence about Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons
program.

Clandestine operations against Iran are not new. United States Special Operations
Forces have been conducting cross-border operations from southern Iraq, with
Presidential authorization, since last year. These have included seizing members
of Al Quds, the commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and taking
them to Iraq for interrogation, and the pursuit of “high-value targets”
in the President’s war on terror, who may be captured or killed. But the
scale and the scope of the operations in Iran, which involve the Central Intelligence
Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), have now been significantly
expanded, according to the current and former officials. Many of these activities
are not specified in the new Finding, and some congressional leaders have had
serious questions about their nature.

Under federal law, a Presidential Finding, which is highly classified, must
be issued when a covert intelligence operation gets under way and, at a minimum,
must be made known to Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and the
Senate and to the ranking members of their respective intelligence committees—the
so-called Gang of Eight. Money for the operation can then be reprogrammed from
previous appropriations, as needed, by the relevant congressional committees,
which also can be briefed.

“The Finding was focussed on undermining Iran’s nuclear ambitions
and trying to undermine the government through regime change,” a person
familiar with its contents said, and involved “working with opposition
groups and passing money.” The Finding provided for a whole new range
of activities in southern Iran and in the areas, in the east, where Baluchi
political opposition is strong, he said.

Although some legislators were troubled by aspects of the Finding, and “there
was a significant amount of high-level discussion” about it, according
to the source familiar with it, the funding for the escalation was approved.
In other words, some members of the Democratic leadership—Congress has
been under Democratic control since the 2006 elections—were willing, in
secret, to go along with the Administration in expanding covert activities directed
at Iran, while the Party’s presumptive candidate for President, Barack
Obama, has said that he favors direct talks and diplomacy.

The request for funding came in the same period in which the Administration
was coming to terms with a National Intelligence Estimate, released in December,
that concluded that Iran had halted its work on nuclear weapons in 2003. The
Administration downplayed the significance of the N.I.E., and, while saying
that it was committed to diplomacy, continued to emphasize that urgent action
was essential to counter the Iranian nuclear threat. President Bush questioned
the N.I.E.’s conclusions, and senior national-security officials, including
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, made
similar statements. (So did Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican
Presidential nominee.) Meanwhile, the Administration also revived charges that
the Iranian leadership has been involved in the killing of American soldiers
in Iraq: both directly, by dispatching commando units into Iraq, and indirectly,
by supplying materials used for roadside bombs and other lethal goods. (There
have been questions about the accuracy of the claims; the Times, among others,
has reported that “significant uncertainties remain about the extent of
that involvement.”)

Military and civilian leaders in the Pentagon share the White House’s
concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but there is disagreement about
whether a military strike is the right solution. Some Pentagon officials believe,
as they have let Congress and the media know, that bombing Iran is not a viable
response to the nuclear-proliferation issue, and that more diplomacy is necessary.

A Democratic senator told me that, late last year, in an off-the-record lunch
meeting, Secretary of Defense Gates met with the Democratic caucus in the Senate.
(Such meetings are held regularly.) Gates warned of the consequences if the
Bush Administration staged a preëmptive strike on Iran, saying, as the
senator recalled, “We’ll create generations of jihadists, and our
grandchildren will be battling our enemies here in America.” Gates’s
comments stunned the Democrats at the lunch, and another senator asked whether
Gates was speaking for Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. Gates’s answer,
the senator told me, was “Let’s just say that I’m here speaking
for myself.” (A spokesman for Gates confirmed that he discussed the consequences
of a strike at the meeting, but would not address what he said, other than to
dispute the senator’s characterization.)

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose chairman is Admiral Mike Mullen, were “pushing
back very hard” against White House pressure to undertake a military strike
against Iran, the person familiar with the Finding told me. Similarly, a Pentagon
consultant who is involved in the war on terror said that “at least ten
senior flag and general officers, including combatant commanders”—the
four-star officers who direct military operations around the world—“have
weighed in on that issue.”

The most outspoken of those officers is Admiral William Fallon, who until recently
was the head of U.S. Central Command, and thus in charge of American forces
in Iraq and Afghanistan. In March, Fallon resigned under pressure, after giving
a series of interviews stating his reservations about an armed attack on Iran.
For example, late last year he told the Financial Times that the “real
objective” of U.S. policy was to change the Iranians’ behavior,
and that “attacking them as a means to get to that spot strikes me as
being not the first choice.”

Admiral Fallon acknowledged, when I spoke to him in June, that he had heard
that there were people in the White House who were upset by his public statements.
“Too many people believe you have to be either for or against the Iranians,”
he told me. “Let’s get serious. Eighty million people live there,
and everyone’s an individual. The idea that they’re only one way
or another is nonsense.”

When it came to the Iraq war, Fallon said, “Did I bitch about some of
the things that were being proposed? You bet. Some of them were very stupid.”

The Democratic leadership’s agreement to commit hundreds of millions
of dollars for more secret operations in Iran was remarkable, given the general
concerns of officials like Gates, Fallon, and many others. “The oversight
process has not kept pace—it’s been coöpted” by the Administration,
the person familiar with the contents of the Finding said. “The process
is broken, and this is dangerous stuff we’re authorizing.”

Senior Democrats in Congress told me that they had concerns about the possibility
that their understanding of what the new operations entail differs from the
White House’s. One issue has to do with a reference in the Finding, the
person familiar with it recalled, to potential defensive lethal action by U.S.
operatives in Iran. (In early May, the journalist Andrew Cockburn published
elements of the Finding in Counterpunch, a newsletter and online magazine.)

The language was inserted into the Finding at the urging of the C.I.A., a former
senior intelligence official said. The covert operations set forth in the Finding
essentially run parallel to those of a secret military task force, now operating
in Iran, that is under the control of JSOC. Under the Bush Administration’s
interpretation of the law, clandestine military activities, unlike covert C.I.A.
operations, do not need to be depicted in a Finding, because the President has
a constitutional right to command combat forces in the field without congressional
interference. But the borders between operations are not always clear: in Iran,
C.I.A. agents and regional assets have the language skills and the local knowledge
to make contacts for the JSOC operatives, and have been working with them to
direct personnel, matériel, and money into Iran from an obscure base
in western Afghanistan. As a result, Congress has been given only a partial
view of how the money it authorized may be used. One of JSOC’s task-force
missions, the pursuit of “high-value targets,” was not directly
addressed in the Finding. There is a growing realization among some legislators
that the Bush Administration, in recent years, has conflated what is an intelligence
operation and what is a military one in order to avoid fully informing Congress
about what it is doing.

“This is a big deal,” the person familiar with the Finding said.
“The C.I.A. needed the Finding to do its traditional stuff, but the Finding
does not apply to JSOC. The President signed an Executive Order after September
11th giving the Pentagon license to do things that it had never been able to
do before without notifying Congress. The claim was that the military was ‘preparing
the battle space,’ and by using that term they were able to circumvent
congressional oversight. Everything is justified in terms of fighting the global
war on terror.” He added, “The Administration has been fuzzing the
lines; there used to be a shade of gray”—between operations that
had to be briefed to the senior congressional leadership and those which did
not—“but now it’s a shade of mush.”

“The agency says we’re not going to get in the position of helping
to kill people without a Finding,” the former senior intelligence official
told me. He was referring to the legal threat confronting some agency operatives
for their involvement in the rendition and alleged torture of suspects in the
war on terror. “This drove the military people up the wall,” he
said. As far as the C.I.A. was concerned, the former senior intelligence official
said, “the over-all authorization includes killing, but it’s not
as though that’s what they’re setting out to do. It’s about
gathering information, enlisting support.” The Finding sent to Congress
was a compromise, providing legal cover for the C.I.A. while referring to the
use of lethal force in ambiguous terms.

The defensive-lethal language led some Democrats, according to congressional
sources familiar with their views, to call in the director of the C.I.A., Air
Force General Michael V. Hayden, for a special briefing. Hayden reassured the
legislators that the language did nothing more than provide authority for Special
Forces operatives on the ground in Iran to shoot their way out if they faced
capture or harm.

The legislators were far from convinced. One congressman subsequently wrote
a personal letter to President Bush insisting that “no lethal action,
period” had been authorized within Iran’s borders. As of June, he
had received no answer.

Members of Congress have expressed skepticism in the past about the information
provided by the White House. On March 15, 2005, David Obey, then the ranking
Democrat on the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee, announced that
he was putting aside an amendment that he had intended to offer that day, and
that would have cut off all funding for national-intelligence programs unless
the President agreed to keep Congress fully informed about clandestine military
activities undertaken in the war on terror. He had changed his mind, he said,
because the White House promised better coöperation. “The Executive
Branch understands that we are not trying to dictate what they do,” he
said in a floor speech at the time. “We are simply trying to see to it
that what they do is consistent with American values and will not get the country
in trouble.”

Obey declined to comment on the specifics of the operations in Iran, but he
did tell me that the White House reneged on its promise to consult more fully
with Congress. He said, “I suspect there’s something going on, but
I don’t know what to believe. Cheney has always wanted to go after Iran,
and if he had more time he’d find a way to do it. We still don’t
get enough information from the agencies, and I have very little confidence
that they give us information on the edge.”

None of the four Democrats in the Gang of Eight—Senate Majority Leader
Harry Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman
John D. Rockefeller IV, and House Intelligence Committee chairman Silvestre
Reyes—would comment on the Finding, with some noting that it was highly
classified. An aide to one member of the Democratic leadership responded, on
his behalf, by pointing to the limitations of the Gang of Eight process. The
notification of a Finding, the aide said, “is just that—notification,
and not a sign-off on activities. Proper oversight of ongoing intelligence activities
is done by fully briefing the members of the intelligence committee.”
However, Congress does have the means to challenge the White House once it has
been sent a Finding. It has the power to withhold funding for any government
operation. The members of the House and Senate Democratic leadership who have
access to the Finding can also, if they choose to do so, and if they have shared
concerns, come up with ways to exert their influence on Administration policy.
(A spokesman for the C.I.A. said, “As a rule, we don’t comment one
way or the other on allegations of covert activities or purported findings.”
The White House also declined to comment.)

A member of the House Appropriations Committee acknowledged that, even with
a Democratic victory in November, “it will take another year before we
get the intelligence activities under control.” He went on, “We
control the money and they can’t do anything without the money. Money
is what it’s all about. But I’m very leery of this Administration.”
He added, “This Administration has been so secretive.”

One irony of Admiral Fallon’s departure is that he was, in many areas,
in agreement with President Bush on the threat posed by Iran. They had a good
working relationship, Fallon told me, and, when he ran CENTCOM, were in regular
communication. On March 4th, a week before his resignation, Fallon testified
before the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying that he was “encouraged”
about the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Regarding the role played by Iran’s
leaders, he said, “They’ve been absolutely unhelpful, very damaging,
and I absolutely don’t condone any of their activities. And I have yet
to see anything since I’ve been in this job in the way of a public action
by Iran that’s been at all helpful in this region.”

Fallon made it clear in our conversations that he considered it inappropriate
to comment publicly about the President, the Vice-President, or Special Operations.
But he said he had heard that people in the White House had been “struggling”
with his views on Iran. “When I arrived at CENTCOM, the Iranians were
funding every entity inside Iraq. It was in their interest to get us out, and
so they decided to kill as many Americans as they could. And why not? They didn’t
know who’d come out ahead, but they wanted us out. I decided that I couldn’t
resolve the situation in Iraq without the neighborhood. To get this problem
in Iraq solved, we had to somehow involve Iran and Syria. I had to work the
neighborhood.”

Fallon told me that his focus had been not on the Iranian nuclear issue, or
on regime change there, but on “putting out the fires in Iraq.”
There were constant discussions in Washington and in the field about how to
engage Iran and, on the subject of the bombing option, Fallon said, he believed
that “it would happen only if the Iranians did something stupid.”

Fallon’s early retirement, however, appears to have been provoked not
only by his negative comments about bombing Iran but also by his strong belief
in the chain of command and his insistence on being informed about Special Operations
in his area of responsibility. One of Fallon’s defenders is retired Marine
General John J. (Jack) Sheehan, whose last assignment was as commander-in-chief
of the U.S. Atlantic Command, where Fallon was a deputy. Last year, Sheehan
rejected a White House offer to become the President’s “czar”
for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “One of the reasons the White House
selected Fallon for CENTCOM was that he’s known to be a strategic thinker
and had demonstrated those skills in the Pacific,” Sheehan told me. (Fallon
served as commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific from 2005 to 2007.)
“He was charged with coming up with an over-all coherent strategy for
Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and, by law, the combatant commander is responsible
for all military operations within his A.O.”—area of operations.
“That was not happening,” Sheehan said. “When Fallon tried
to make sense of all the overt and covert activity conducted by the military
in his area of responsibility, a small group in the White House leadership shut
him out.”

The law cited by Sheehan is the 1986 Defense Reorganization Act, known as Goldwater-Nichols,
which defined the chain of command: from the President to the Secretary of Defense,
through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and on to the various combatant
commanders, who were put in charge of all aspects of military operations, including
joint training and logistics. That authority, the act stated, was not to be
shared with other echelons of command. But the Bush Administration, as part
of its global war on terror, instituted new policies that undercut regional
commanders-in-chief; for example, it gave Special Operations teams, at military
commands around the world, the highest priority in terms of securing support
and equipment. The degradation of the traditional chain of command in the past
few years has been a point of tension between the White House and the uniformed
military.

“The coherence of military strategy is being eroded because of undue
civilian influence and direction of nonconventional military operations,”
Sheehan said. “If you have small groups planning and conducting military
operations outside the knowledge and control of the combatant commander, by
default you can’t have a coherent military strategy. You end up with a
disaster, like the reconstruction efforts in Iraq.”

Admiral Fallon, who is known as Fox, was aware that he would face special difficulties
as the first Navy officer to lead CENTCOM, which had always been headed by a
ground commander, one of his military colleagues told me. He was also aware
that the Special Operations community would be a concern. “Fox said that
there’s a lot of strange stuff going on in Special Ops, and I told him
he had to figure out what they were really doing,” Fallon’s colleague
said. “The Special Ops guys eventually figured out they needed Fox, and
so they began to talk to him. Fox would have won his fight with Special Ops
but for Cheney.”

The Pentagon consultant said, “Fallon went down because, in his own way,
he was trying to prevent a war with Iran, and you have to admire him for that.”

In recent months, according to the Iranian media, there has been a surge in
violence in Iran; it is impossible at this early stage, however, to credit JSOC
or C.I.A. activities, or to assess their impact on the Iranian leadership. The
Iranian press reports are being carefully monitored by retired Air Force Colonel
Sam Gardiner, who has taught strategy at the National War College and now conducts
war games centered on Iran for the federal government, think tanks, and universities.
The Iranian press “is very open in describing the killings going on inside
the country,” Gardiner said. It is, he said, “a controlled press,
which makes it more important that it publishes these things. We begin to see
inside the government.” He added, “Hardly a day goes by now we don’t
see a clash somewhere. There were three or four incidents over a recent weekend,
and the Iranians are even naming the Revolutionary Guard officers who have been
killed.”

Earlier this year, a militant Ahwazi group claimed to have assassinated a Revolutionary
Guard colonel, and the Iranian government acknowledged that an explosion in
a cultural center in Shiraz, in the southern part of the country, which killed
at least twelve people and injured more than two hundred, had been a terrorist
act and not, as it earlier insisted, an accident. It could not be learned whether
there has been American involvement in any specific incident in Iran, but, according
to Gardiner, the Iranians have begun publicly blaming the U.S., Great Britain,
and, more recently, the C.I.A. for some incidents. The agency was involved in
a coup in Iran in 1953, and its support for the unpopular regime of Shah Mohammed
Reza Pahlavi—who was overthrown in 1979—was condemned for years
by the ruling mullahs in Tehran, to great effect. “This is the ultimate
for the Iranians—to blame the C.I.A.,” Gardiner said. “This
is new, and it’s an escalation—a ratcheting up of tensions. It rallies
support for the regime and shows the people that there is a continuing threat
from the ‘Great Satan.’ ” In Gardiner’s view, the violence,
rather than weakening Iran’s religious government, may generate support
for it.

Many of the activities may be being carried out by dissidents in Iran, and
not by Americans in the field. One problem with “passing money”
(to use the term of the person familiar with the Finding) in a covert setting
is that it is hard to control where the money goes and whom it benefits. Nonetheless,
the former senior intelligence official said, “We’ve got exposure,
because of the transfer of our weapons and our communications gear. The Iranians
will be able to make the argument that the opposition was inspired by the Americans.
How many times have we tried this without asking the right questions? Is the
risk worth it?” One possible consequence of these operations would be
a violent Iranian crackdown on one of the dissident groups, which could give
the Bush Administration a reason to intervene.

A strategy of using ethnic minorities to undermine Iran is flawed, according
to Vali Nasr, who teaches international politics at Tufts University and is
also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Just because
Lebanon, Iraq, and Pakistan have ethnic problems, it does not mean that Iran
is suffering from the same issue,” Nasr told me. “Iran is an old
country—like France and Germany—and its citizens are just as nationalistic.
The U.S. is overestimating ethnic tension in Iran.” The minority groups
that the U.S. is reaching out to are either well integrated or small and marginal,
without much influence on the government or much ability to present a political
challenge, Nasr said. “You can always find some activist groups that will
go and kill a policeman, but working with the minorities will backfire, and
alienate the majority of the population.”

The Administration may have been willing to rely on dissident organizations
in Iran even when there was reason to believe that the groups had operated against
American interests in the past. The use of Baluchi elements, for example, is
problematic, Robert Baer, a former C.I.A. clandestine officer who worked for
nearly two decades in South Asia and the Middle East, told me. “The Baluchis
are Sunni fundamentalists who hate the regime in Tehran, but you can also describe
them as Al Qaeda,” Baer told me. “These are guys who cut off the
heads of nonbelievers—in this case, it’s Shiite Iranians. The irony
is that we’re once again working with Sunni fundamentalists, just as we
did in Afghanistan in the nineteen-eighties.” Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted
for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and Khalid Sheikh
Mohammed, who is considered one of the leading planners of the September 11th
attacks, are Baluchi Sunni fundamentalists.

One of the most active and violent anti-regime groups in Iran today is the
Jundallah, also known as the Iranian People’s Resistance Movement, which
describes itself as a resistance force fighting for the rights of Sunnis in
Iran. “This is a vicious Salafi organization whose followers attended
the same madrassas as the Taliban and Pakistani extremists,” Nasr told
me. “They are suspected of having links to Al Qaeda and they are also
thought to be tied to the drug culture.” The Jundallah took responsibility
for the bombing of a busload of Revolutionary Guard soldiers in February, 2007.
At least eleven Guard members were killed. According to Baer and to press reports,
the Jundallah is among the groups in Iran that are benefitting from U.S. support.

The C.I.A. and Special Operations communities also have long-standing ties
to two other dissident groups in Iran: the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, known in the
West as the M.E.K., and a Kurdish separatist group, the Party for a Free Life
in Kurdistan, or PJAK.

The M.E.K. has been on the State Department’s terrorist list for more
than a decade, yet in recent years the group has received arms and intelligence,
directly or indirectly, from the United States. Some of the newly authorized
covert funds, the Pentagon consultant told me, may well end up in M.E.K. coffers.
“The new task force will work with the M.E.K. The Administration is desperate
for results.” He added, “The M.E.K. has no C.P.A. auditing the books,
and its leaders are thought to have been lining their pockets for years. If
people only knew what the M.E.K. is getting, and how much is going to its bank
accounts—and yet it is almost useless for the purposes the Administration
intends.”

The Kurdish party, PJAK, which has also been reported to be covertly supported
by the United States, has been operating against Iran from bases in northern
Iraq for at least three years. (Iran, like Iraq and Turkey, has a Kurdish minority,
and PJAK and other groups have sought self-rule in territory that is now part
of each of those countries.) In recent weeks, according to Sam Gardiner, the
military strategist, there has been a marked increase in the number of PJAK
armed engagements with Iranians and terrorist attacks on Iranian targets. In
early June, the news agency Fars reported that a dozen PJAK members and four
Iranian border guards were killed in a clash near the Iraq border; a similar
attack in May killed three Revolutionary Guards and nine PJAK fighters. PJAK
has also subjected Turkey, a member of NATO, to repeated terrorist attacks,
and reports of American support for the group have been a source of friction
between the two governments.

Gardiner also mentioned a trip that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki,
made to Tehran in June. After his return, Maliki announced that his government
would ban any contact between foreigners and the M.E.K.—a slap at the
U.S.’s dealings with the group. Maliki declared that Iraq was not willing
to be a staging ground for covert operations against other countries. This was
a sign, Gardiner said, of “Maliki’s increasingly choosing the interests
of Iraq over the interests of the United States.” In terms of U.S. allegations
of Iranian involvement in the killing of American soldiers, he said, “Maliki
was unwilling to play the blame-Iran game.” Gardiner added that Pakistan
had just agreed to turn over a Jundallah leader to the Iranian government. America’s
covert operations, he said, “seem to be harming relations with the governments
of both Iraq and Pakistan and could well be strengthening the connection between
Tehran and Baghdad.”

The White House’s reliance on questionable operatives, and on plans involving
possible lethal action inside Iran, has created anger as well as anxiety within
the Special Operations and intelligence communities. JSOC’s operations
in Iran are believed to be modelled on a program that has, with some success,
used surrogates to target the Taliban leadership in the tribal territories of
Waziristan, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But the situations in Waziristan
and Iran are not comparable.

In Waziristan, “the program works because it’s small and smart
guys are running it,” the former senior intelligence official told me.
“It’s being executed by professionals. The N.S.A., the C.I.A., and
the D.I.A.”—the Defense Intelligence Agency—“are right
in there with the Special Forces and Pakistani intelligence, and they’re
dealing with serious bad guys.” He added, “We have to be really
careful in calling in the missiles. We have to hit certain houses at certain
times. The people on the ground are watching through binoculars a few hundred
yards away and calling specific locations, in latitude and longitude. We keep
the Predator loitering until the targets go into a house, and we have to make
sure our guys are far enough away so they don’t get hit.” One of
the most prominent victims of the program, the former official said, was Abu
Laith al-Libi, a senior Taliban commander, who was killed on January 31st, reportedly
in a missile strike that also killed eleven other people.

A dispatch published on March 26th by the Washington Post reported on the increasing
number of successful strikes against Taliban and other insurgent units in Pakistan’s
tribal areas. A follow-up article noted that, in response, the Taliban had killed
“dozens of people” suspected of providing information to the United
States and its allies on the whereabouts of Taliban leaders. Many of the victims
were thought to be American spies, and their executions—a beheading, in
one case—were videotaped and distributed by DVD as a warning to others.

It is not simple to replicate the program in Iran. “Everybody’s
arguing about the high-value-target list,” the former senior intelligence
official said. “The Special Ops guys are pissed off because Cheney’s
office set up priorities for categories of targets, and now he’s getting
impatient and applying pressure for results. But it takes a long time to get
the right guys in place.”

The Pentagon consultant told me, “We’ve had wonderful results in
the Horn of Africa with the use of surrogates and false flags—basic counterintelligence
and counter-insurgency tactics. And we’re beginning to tie them in knots
in Afghanistan. But the White House is going to kill the program if they use
it to go after Iran. It’s one thing to engage in selective strikes and
assassinations in Waziristan and another in Iran. The White House believes that
one size fits all, but the legal issues surrounding extrajudicial killings in
Waziristan are less of a problem because Al Qaeda and the Taliban cross the
border into Afghanistan and back again, often with U.S. and NATO forces in hot
pursuit. The situation is not nearly as clear in the Iranian case. All the considerations—judicial,
strategic, and political—are different in Iran.”

He added, “There is huge opposition inside the intelligence community
to the idea of waging a covert war inside Iran, and using Baluchis and Ahwazis
as surrogates. The leaders of our Special Operations community all have remarkable
physical courage, but they are less likely to voice their opposition to policy.
Iran is not Waziristan.”

A Gallup poll taken last November, before the N.I.E. was made public, found
that seventy-three per cent of those surveyed thought that the United States
should use economic action and diplomacy to stop Iran’s nuclear program,
while only eighteen per cent favored direct military action. Republicans were
twice as likely as Democrats to endorse a military strike. Weariness with the
war in Iraq has undoubtedly affected the public’s tolerance for an attack
on Iran. This mood could change quickly, however. The potential for escalation
became clear in early January, when five Iranian patrol boats, believed to be
under the command of the Revolutionary Guard, made a series of aggressive moves
toward three Navy warships sailing through the Strait of Hormuz. Initial reports
of the incident made public by the Pentagon press office said that the Iranians
had transmitted threats, over ship-to-ship radio, to “explode” the
American ships. At a White House news conference, the President, on the day
he left for an eight-day trip to the Middle East, called the incident “provocative”
and “dangerous,” and there was, very briefly, a sense of crisis
and of outrage at Iran. “TWO MINUTES FROM WAR” was the headline
in one British newspaper.

The crisis was quickly defused by Vice-Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, the commander
of U.S. naval forces in the region. No warning shots were fired, the Admiral
told the Pentagon press corps on January 7th, via teleconference from his headquarters,
in Bahrain. “Yes, it’s more serious than we have seen, but, to put
it in context, we do interact with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and their
Navy regularly,” Cosgriff said. “I didn’t get the sense from
the reports I was receiving that there was a sense of being afraid of these
five boats.”

Admiral Cosgriff’s caution was well founded: within a week, the Pentagon
acknowledged that it could not positively identify the Iranian boats as the
source of the ominous radio transmission, and press reports suggested that it
had instead come from a prankster long known for sending fake messages in the
region. Nonetheless, Cosgriff’s demeanor angered Cheney, according to
the former senior intelligence official. But a lesson was learned in the incident:
The public had supported the idea of retaliation, and was even asking why the
U.S. didn’t do more. The former official said that, a few weeks later,
a meeting took place in the Vice-President’s office. “The subject
was how to create a casus belli between Tehran and Washington,” he said.

In June, President Bush went on a farewell tour of Europe. He had tea with
Queen Elizabeth II and dinner with Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, the President
and First Lady of France. The serious business was conducted out of sight, and
involved a series of meetings on a new diplomatic effort to persuade the Iranians
to halt their uranium-enrichment program. (Iran argues that its enrichment program
is for civilian purposes and is legal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.)
Secretary of State Rice had been involved with developing a new package of incentives.
But the Administration’s essential negotiating position seemed unchanged:
talks could not take place until Iran halted the program. The Iranians have
repeatedly and categorically rejected that precondition, leaving the diplomatic
situation in a stalemate; they have not yet formally responded to the new incentives.

The continuing impasse alarms many observers. Joschka Fischer, the former German
Foreign Minister, recently wrote in a syndicated column that it may not “be
possible to freeze the Iranian nuclear program for the duration of the negotiations
to avoid a military confrontation before they are completed. Should this newest
attempt fail, things will soon get serious. Deadly serious.” When I spoke
to him last week, Fischer, who has extensive contacts in the diplomatic community,
said that the latest European approach includes a new element: the willingness
of the U.S. and the Europeans to accept something less than a complete cessation
of enrichment as an intermediate step. “The proposal says that the Iranians
must stop manufacturing new centrifuges and the other side will stop all further
sanction activities in the U.N. Security Council,” Fischer said, although
Iran would still have to freeze its enrichment activities when formal negotiations
begin. “This could be acceptable to the Iranians—if they have good
will.”

The big question, Fischer added, is in Washington. “I think the Americans
are deeply divided on the issue of what to do about Iran,” he said. “Some
officials are concerned about the fallout from a military attack and others
think an attack is unavoidable. I know the Europeans, but I have no idea where
the Americans will end up on this issue.”

There is another complication: American Presidential politics. Barack Obama
has said that, if elected, he would begin talks with Iran with no “self-defeating”
preconditions (although only after diplomatic groundwork had been laid). That
position has been vigorously criticized by John McCain. The Washington Post
recently quoted Randy Scheunemann, the McCain campaign’s national-security
director, as stating that McCain supports the White House’s position,
and that the program be suspended before talks begin. What Obama is proposing,
Scheunemann said, “is unilateral cowboy summitry.”

Scheunemann, who is known as a neoconservative, is also the McCain campaign’s
most important channel of communication with the White House. He is a friend
of David Addington, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff. I have heard differing
accounts of Scheunemann’s influence with McCain; though some close to
the McCain campaign talk about him as a possible national-security adviser,
others say he is someone who isn’t taken seriously while “telling
Cheney and others what they want to hear,” as a senior McCain adviser
put it.

It is not known whether McCain, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate
Armed Services Committee, has been formally briefed on the operations in Iran.
At the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in
June, Obama repeated his plea for “tough and principled diplomacy.”
But he also said, along with McCain, that he would keep the threat of military
action against Iran on the table.

Related Links
Audio:
Seymour M. Hersh talks about the White House and Iran.

Source URL: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/07/07/080707fa_fact_hersh