In the new cold war between America and Iran, the United States appears to be running some limited covert operations across the Iranian border. But according to knowledgeable sources, this effort shares the defect of broader U.S. policy toward Iran — it is tentative and ill coordinated, and undermines diplomacy without bringing serious pressure on the regime.
"Tell us what's your policy with Iran," says one Arab official familiar with the covert program. "Are you going to talk to them, or go to war with them?" This official describes U.S. operations this way: "There are attempts to cause mischief inside Iran and go after the Quds Force. Some things are being done, but not with the seriousness that's needed."
Argues a former intelligence official, "It's a PowerPoint covert-action program. It looks aggressive, but it's not a tied-together, long-term strategy that would make Iran change its policy."
The Iranians, by contrast, seem adept at interweaving aggressive operations and diplomacy. The latest example came Tuesday, when Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told journalists here that Iran was examining a new package of incentives from the United States and other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council that could lead to negotiations to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. He didn't provide specifics, but the accommodating tone is likely to defuse recent tensions a bit, even as the Iranians and their clients continue to push for advantage in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza.
The U.S. covert-action program was revealed in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh. He wrote that late last year, Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress had agreed to a "finding" that authorized up to $400-million for secret operations against Iran, including support of ethnic minorities and opposition groups inside the country.
The danger of these cross-border activities was explained to me by one intelligence source. He said the Iranians had recently captured several dissident Iranian operatives who had been recruited by U.S. military officers inside Iraq and then sent into Iran. The Iranians, whose intelligence network inside Iraq is pervasive, surveilled the meeting and then followed the agents across the border and seized them.
The U.S. program appears to focus on political action and collection of intelligence, rather than lethal operations. Lethal actions inside Iran may be conducted independently by some groups. There are reports, for example, that Kurdish guerillas have retaliated for Iranian shelling of Kurdistan.
The covert program illustrates the larger dilemma facing the Bush administration and its successor — what to do about an aggressive and increasingly confident Iran? The Iranians make little effort to hide their own covert-action campaigns, including extensive financial and military support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. The Iranians have used Syria as a platform for these intelligence operations, from political action to paramilitary operations to clandestine terrorism.
Israel, which has had limited success in trying to combat these Iranian-backed groups militarily, has recently opted for diplomacy: It agreed last month to a truce with Hamas and a prisoner swap with Hezbollah. Israel is also conducting peace negotiations with Syria, through Turkish intermediaries.
Saudi Arabia has taken a tougher stand to oppose what it sees as Iranian meddling in the region. There are reports out of Syria, for example, that the Saudi military attache in Damascus was expelled a few months ago after the Syrians uncovered what they believed was a plot to pay $50-million in subsidies to members of a prominent Syrian tribe. One source said that the money was simply to support the kingdom's longtime tribal friends, rather than organize political opposition to President Bashar Assad. But the Saudis have made no secret of their desire for regime change in Syria.
The proponents of a tougher U.S. strategy argue that Iran should be confronted everywhere it operates, much as the Reagan administration decided to challenge the Soviet Union, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua. This hard-line faction, usually identified with Vice President Dick Cheney, would like to see a systematic effort to disrupt the Iranian economy, foment internal political opposition and, in general, raise the cost to Iran of its foreign activities. But so far, that argument for a rollback of Iranian power hasn't prevailed inside a divided administration.
The Iran question will confront the next administration from Day One, and the basic options probably won't look very different from the current set: Talk or fight, or do something in between?
David Ignatius' e-mail address is email@example.com.
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