June 30, 2008


Preparing the Battlefield: The Bush Administration steps up its secret moves against Iran. (Seymour M. Hersh, July 7, 2008, The New Yorker)

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.”

...and the point that we're alienating our natural allies to side with the enemy is valid.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 30, 2008 11:21 AM

So why do you consider a terrorist sponsoring, oppressive theocracy that wants to exterminate Israel to be our "natural ally"?

Posted by: Oddbark at June 30, 2008 11:57 AM

Because we too are a terrorist sponsoring oppressive theocracy that wants Israel to meet the Apocalypse.

Posted by: oj at June 30, 2008 2:31 PM

Really? I live in America. What country do you live in?

And to paraphrase an old joke, "what do you mean we, white man?"

Posted by: Oddbark at June 30, 2008 3:53 PM

In a disagreement over tactics and whether they will "work" between Hersh and the administration, why would anyone bet on Hersh? In Afghanistan, we even used Hersh as a useful idiot do misdirect attention away from the Special Forces exercises in the north that collapsed the regime.

Posted by: Ibid at June 30, 2008 4:01 PM

Don't you take any American papers? The one where we're funding terrorism in Iran, though it funds none here, where one presidential candidate just went to the Grahams on bended knee and the other is engaged in a theological dispute with Reverend Dobson about proper governance and the one where the vast majority believe in the End Times.

Posted by: oj at June 30, 2008 6:15 PM

The one where we're funding terrorism in Iran, though it funds none here

How is aiding ethnic separation movements "terrorism"? Maybe "there is no Iran".

where one presidential candidate just went to the Grahams on bended knee and the other is engaged in a theological dispute with Reverend Dobson about proper governance and the one where the vast majority believe in the End Times.

How is this equal to an oppresive theocracy? Your arguments are specious, your logic faulty and your evidence nonexistent.

Posted by: Oddbark at June 30, 2008 7:23 PM

Oddbark, not to defend OJ too much, but atheists and libertines (often represented by the ACLU) consider the U.S. an oppressive theocracy. You may not know any Iranians, but the ones I know don't believe Iran is all that oppressive, certainly no more oppressive than the average Christian finds North America.

Would you consider, say, China sponsoring militant negro groups desiring separation from the U.S. to be sponsoring terrorism? Of course you would.

Is Hillary threatening to nuke Tehran any different than Iran threatening to nuke Tel Aviv? Sure. The U.S. HAS NUKES, Iran does not, so Hillary's threat is far worse.

Overthrowing Saddam was a good thing. Overthrowing Assad would be a good thing. Islamic democracy looks like Iran -- get used to it.

Posted by: Randall Voth at June 30, 2008 8:21 PM

Bingo! There's nothing wrong with our aiding the terrorists. We're just doing what Iran does in Iraq and Lebanon, supporting separatist movements. You've stumbled into an insight.

That's as oppressive as theocracy gets. It's the notion of oppressive theocracy that's specious. Our republic is a religious one--Founded upon God given rights--just as the Iranian one is. But both are democratic republics with extensive liberty, thanks to thorough conformity.

Posted by: oj at June 30, 2008 8:56 PM

Azeris, Baluchis and a dozen other ethnic groups have tradional homelands and legitimate aspirations for self determination.

There is no Iran.

Posted by: Oddbark at July 1, 2008 4:57 AM


Posted by: oj at July 1, 2008 8:00 AM
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