Obama Steps Up America’s Covert War against Iran

When, in an Op Ed published in the New York Times in May 2009, we first criticized President Obama’s early decision to continue covert anti-Iranian programs he inherited from George W. Bush, some expressed disbelief that Obama would undermine his own rhetoric about engaging Tehran in a climate of mutual respect by conducting a dirty war against the Islamic Republic.  But, in an important piece of reporting published today in the New York Times, Mark Mazzetti documents that Obama has not just failed to roll back covert anti-Iranian programs he inherited from his predecessor — he is instead presiding over a dramatic intensification of America’s covert war against the Islamic Republic.  And, in a manner powerfully reminiscent of Bush and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the intensification of America’s covert war against Iran is taking place through the efforts of General David Petraeus and CENTCOM — because military intelligence operations are not subject to the same congressional oversight and reporting requirements as the Central Intelligence Agency.

We excerpt the critical passages from Mazzetti’s article below:

The top American commander in the Middle East has ordered a broad expansion of clandestine military activity in an effort to disrupt militant groups or counter threats in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and other countries in the region, according to defense officials and military documents.

The secret directive, signed in September by Gen. David H. Petraeus, authorizes the sending of American Special Operations troops to both friendly and hostile nations in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa to gather intelligence and build ties with local forces.  Officials said the order also permits reconnaissance that could pave the way for possible military strikes in Iran if tensions over its nuclear ambitions escalate.  (emphasis added)

We would note that Mazzetti has actually seen the directive — the “Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order” — signed by General Petraeus on September 30, 2009, and has talked directly with several government officials who are familiar with the directive and how it is being implemented.

Furthermore, in response to concerns about troop safety raised by CENTCOM, Mazzetti “withheld some details about how troops could be deployed in certain countries.”  The very fact that CENTCOM raised such concerns provides powerful confirmation for Mazetti’s reporting.  His article continues:

While the Bush administration had approved some clandestine military activities far from designated war zones, the new order is intended to make such efforts more systematic and long term, officials said.  Its goals are to build networks that could “penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy” Al Qaeda and other military groups, as well as to “prepare the environment” for future attacks by American and local military forces, the document said. . . .

The seven-page directive appears to authorize specific operations in Iran, most likely to gather intelligence about the country’s nuclear program or identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive.  The Obama administration insists that for the moment it is committed to penalizing Iran for its nuclear activities only with diplomatic and economic sanctions.  Nevertheless, the Pentagon has to draw up detailed war plans to be prepared in advance, in the event that President Obama ever authorizes a strike.  (emphasis added)

Mazzetti’s article also provides important insights into the rationale for conducting these operations through the military rather than through CIA:

During the Bush administration, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld endorsed clandestine military operations, arguing that Special Operations troops could be as effective as traditional spies, if not more so.

Unlike covert operations undertaken by the C.I.A., such clandestine activity does not require the president’s approval or regular reports to Congress, although Pentagon officials have said that any significant ventures are cleared through the National Security Council.  Special Operations troops have already been sent into a number of countries to carry out reconnaissance missions, including operations to gather intelligence about airstrips and bridges.  (emphasis added)

Mazzetti’s article clearly raises urgent and disturbing questions about the direction of America’s Iran policy under President Obama.  It also provides important context for Iranian actions which are routinely derided in the American media as either paranoid or gratuitously vicious — e.g., the ongoing detention of three American hikers who illegally entered Iran last year, or the detention of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Haleh Esfandiari in 2007.

Mazzetti writes that

General Petraeus’s September order is focused on intelligence gathering — by American troops, foreign businesspeople, academics or others — to identify militants and provide ‘persistent situational awareness,’ while forging ties to local indigenous groups.  (emphasis added)

If that is American policy, exactly how should Iran deal with three Americans who entered the Islamic Republic, without visas, by crossing the Iraqi-Iranian border in an area with no immigration checkpoints?  If what Mazzetti reports is American policy, why is every American academic who visits Iran not a legitimate subject of concern for Iranian security agencies?  We have known Haleh Esfandiari and her husband, Shaul Bakhash, for many years.  We do not believe that she is a security threat to anyone.  But the Bush Administration’s overt efforts to destabilize the Islamic Republic in the name of “democracy promotion,” as well as its anti-Iranian covert campaign, put Haleh in a position in which no innocent American should be placed by his or her government.  The Obama Administration’s policies will only exacerbate the risks to Americans — especially those of Iranian origin — who travel to Iran.

In our criticism of President Obama’s early decision to continue the anti-Iranian covert programs he inherited from his predecessor, we compared his lack of strategic vision to the statesmanship of President Richard Nixon — who, on coming to the White House in 1969, ordered the CIA to stand down from a longstanding covert action program in Tibet, to show Beijing that he was serious about rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China.  As we predicted early on, Obama is, unfortunately, headed in exactly the opposite direction.

President Obama’s policies are not only generating risks for innocent, non-official Americans.  They are further eroding the already deteriorating prospects for an improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations — and increasing the chances of an eventual U.S.-Iranian military confrontation.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 25 May 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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