Following the widely reported Iranian government plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington and alarming new reports of civilian deaths in Syria, the White House has issued several findings to the intelligence community authorizing stepped-up covert action against both Damascus and Tehran. A “finding” is top-level approval for secret operations considered to be particularly politically sensitive. Taken together, the recent findings, combined with the evidence of major intelligence operations being run in Lebanon, amount to a secret war against Iran and its allies in the Mideast.
Since 2008 the United States has regarded the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. This enables the Department of the Treasury to freeze its business interests and bank accounts. But it has also permitted aggressive steps against the group itself, including killing its members under the White House doctrine that all terrorists are potential targets anywhere in the world. A finding approved by the Bush administration in 2003 and strengthened in 2006 on the pretext that Iran was “interfering” in Iraq and Afghanistan authorized the use of intelligence assets to disrupt Iranian Revolutionary Guard activity in border zones. These included areas adjacent to Pakistan inhabited by ethnic Baluchs, the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and the ethnically Arab province of Khuzestan, which borders southeastern Iraq.
Activity in the Kurdish region was most intense because it was regarded as a more permissible operating environment with a long, open border and a friendly local government in Arbil, but it was limited by Turkish sensitivities and was partially run by Israelis to provide deniability by the U.S. That effort was abandoned altogether in 2009, when the Obama administration decided to double down on the Turkish relationship, increasing intelligence and military cooperation with Ankara against the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). Attacks in Baluchestan and the Arab region over the past seven years have continued intermittently, however, killing a large number of Revolutionary Guards and even more civilians.
A separate finding on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program was signed in 2007 by President Bush. It authorized attacks against Iranian nuclear scientists and other facilities in Tehran and elsewhere as well as coordination with the Israelis to develop computer viruses to disrupt the Iranian computer network, a program that led to the production of the Stuxnet worm. While the media credits “the Israelis” in the assassinations of Iranian scientists, the reality is that no Israeli (or American) intelligence officer could possibly operate effectively inside Iran to carry out a killing. The assassinations, which are acts of war, have actually been carried out by followers of the dissident Iranian Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK), the separatist Baluch Jundallah, and the Kurdish PJAK, all acting under direction from American and Israeli intelligence officers. The MEK’s role in doing the CIA’s and Mossad’s dirty work is one reason so many neoconservatives and national security experts have been calling for the group to be removed from the U.S. terrorist group list.
The new finding on Iran extends existing initiatives and is intended to strangle Iran by creating insurgencies along all of the country’s borders. It includes involvement with the Azeris, who inhabit northwestern Iran and share a common border, language, and culture with the people of Azerbaijan. Twenty million ethnic Azeris in Iran make up nearly 25 percent of the population. When combined with the 2 percent who are Baluchs, 7 percent who are Kurds, and 3 percent who are Arabs, it is easy to understand that Iran has a significant ethnic problem concentrated along its borders. This is precisely what the covert action seeks to exploit by encouraging ethnic fragmentation in the country’s border regions and supplying dissidents with communications equipment, training, money, and weapons.
Not at all coincidentally, the foreign minister of Azerbaijan, Elmar Mammadyarov, visited Brussels in October to discuss issues of common concern with NATO. He met with U.S. officials and, inter alia, received private intelligence briefings focused on the “Iranian threat.” Azeris inside Iran are generally well-assimilated — Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is himself half-Azeri — but there is a small movement to join the Azeri region of Iran with the existing state of Azerbaijan. The central government in Tehran is indeed unpopular among Azeris, though one could easily argue that it is equally unpopular among most Persians. In February 2007, tens of thousands of Azeris marched against Iranian state-sponsored suppression of their language and culture, but there is little to no evidence that many Azeris would take up arms against Tehran to advance their cause.
The situation in Syria is quite different. Russia and China have warned against foreign intervention in the country, but the intervention is already well under way using some open but mostly covert resources. An extensive clandestine network of support for the insurgency against the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been put in place, assisted by Turkey and several Western European countries. The Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian National Council, operates out of the Turkish city of Iskenderun, near the Syrian border. The rebels are being armed with surplus weapons from Libya that are being shipped on NATO aircraft even though NATO is not officially involved in the activity against Damascus. There are also reports that as many as 600 Libyan fighters from the Transitional National Council in Tripoli have traveled with the weapons to provide pointers on how guerrilla forces might fight regular army soldiers, something they learned at a cost while fighting Gadhafi’s forces. French and British special forces trainers have also been reported to be present on the ground. The United States is providing communications equipment and intelligence information to assist the rebel cause, together with the usual National Endowment for Democracy cadres for training on “how to build democracy” to justify the extraordinary and manifestly illegal effort.
Lest there be any confusion as to the overall objective, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently predicted that there would soon be a civil war in Syria. As the pretext for the intervention in Syria has been an amorphous “responsibility to protect” the nation’s civilians, it would appear to be a rather curious resolution to the problem, pitting the various ethnic and sectarian groups in the country against each other in a struggle for dominance in what might well turn out to be a truncated state. Most observers of the region believe that if Assad goes, the likely victor will be the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the only group that is well-organized and -funded with an infrastructure inside Syria. If that happens, it will mean hard times for the country’s Christian, Alawite, and Shi’ite minorities. It is all too easy to forget that Syria has a largely secular regime, such as existed in neighboring Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and that “humanitarian democratization” will bring to the fore both good things and bad things. Among the bad things is the likelihood that the groups that are best configured to take advantage of change will rise to the top. They will not necessarily be the friends of pluralism and liberal democratic values.
So who ends up on top in the secret wars being waged? Well, possibly no one currently identifiable, since no one appears to be anticipating what might come next. Iran is unlikely to change its government, and repeated attacks by outside forces will only strengthen the hold of the clerical regime. Syria’s government might or might not have the resiliency to resist the attack of the rebel forces, but even if it survives it will only become more inward-looking and paranoid in its relationships with its neighbors, relying even more intensely on Iran as its only ally in the region. Israel and its friends in the United States would like to see Assad fall because it would mean a fragmented Syria, a policy objective once promoted in the neocon “Clean Break” proposal that was presented to Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. But replacing the mostly pragmatic Assad with a radical religious regime, a real possibility, would not necessarily serve Tel Aviv’s interest, particularly as Egypt also seems to be moving into a fundamentalism combined with nationalism that will leave Israel surrounded by enemies to the north and to the south. You reap what you sow when you begin to interfere with countries that you do not understand in parts of the world where relationships and ways of thought are quite different. Everyone loses in the White House’s secret wars.