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

NewYorker.com
July 7, 2008

Iran; Bush, George W. (Pres.) (43rd); Foreign Policy; Presidential
Findings; Covert Operations; Fallon, William (Admiral); Congressional
Oversight L ate 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. '¦