May 29, 2007

May 29, 2007 | Commentary on Africa

Messing Up the Mullahs: Dubya's Covert Action Plan

There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run, the sword is always beaten by the mind.

- Napoleon Bonaparte

According to a news account supposedly based on a leak from inside the government, President Bush recently signed off on a classified intelligence "finding," authorizing the CIA to undertake a non-lethal covert-action program to destabilize Iran's nearly out-of-control government. If true, it's about time.

The target is Iran's nuclear-weapons program - which, according to a new International Atomic Energy Agency report, might be able to produce a bomb in the next two or three years, if unchecked.

All the diplomatic begging and pleading - including some very stern letters from the United Nations and the European Union - haven't deterred the maniacal mullahs one iota in their aspirations to make Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei into an atomic ayatollah.

The covert-action program is also supposed to stem Iran's support for the various and sundry Iraqi insurgents. No doubt Tehran's very likely assistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan should be added to the list, too.

A covert bid to pressure - or topple - the Iranian regime isn't without merit. But it faces at least two problems.

First, it's not a secret anymore. So long as the leaker remains nameless, we can't know the motive for sure - though the goal was likely to kill the project altogether. Best guess: A mullah-hugging government bureaucrat, more interested in appeasing Iran than in protecting U.S. interests. But, on the other hand, it could also be someone trying to scuttle this week's U.S.-Iran talks in Baghdad . . . ah, the intrigue of it all.

Second, it's probably too little, too late. Such a program likely lacks the "juice" needed to get Iran to throttle back on nukes (or its support of insurgents). That's more likely going to require economic sanctions that truly hurt - or a military strike.

Sanctions are tough to get - we'd need to convince the Europeans, and probably the Russians and Chinese, to go along for them to work. Some reports indicate Europe has actually increased investment in Iran since the nuclear crisis.

The mullahs should know the military option is still active. Last week's unannounced exercises of two aircraft carrier strike groups, kicking off the navy's largest war games in the Persian Gulf since 2003, should send a clear signal.

But an armed attack risks strengthening the regime. Many, perhaps most, Iranians are deeply alienated from their rulers now - but a surge of patriotism could ease those rifts.

Unfortunately, a "blown" covert-action program runs that risk, too. Indeed, the CIA played a key role in putting the shah into power in 1953 - so any sign that its meddling again could be poisonous.

But even the loss of secrecy doesn't mean the program can't go ahead and even have some positive effect. It would have to remain "covert" - that is, with specific actions not attributable to the U.S. government.

A well-executed operation could upset things for the mullahs, increasing social pressure from below - and shake the senior clerics into backing off on their nefarious games.

The regime is increasingly paranoid - harassing and detaining liberals and dissidents, and creating new opponents with things like a dress-code crackdown on women. The mullahs are now holding at least four Americans - journalists, academics and peaceniks - on trumped-up charges of every cleric's worst nightmare: counter-revolution.

The leak claims the covert-action program would include propaganda, disinformation and economic attacks - efforts to weaken Iran's currency and manipulate financial transactions.

It's not hard to envision at least some tactics:

  • Iran's economy is certainly vulnerable. It just started rationing gasoline - and relies on imports for 40 percent of its needs. We might look at getting key suppliers, like the United Arab Emirates and India, to cut back.

  • Another option is to target the government's economic mismanagement: Buy up and flood the international market with Iranian rials, devaluing the currency and sending already high inflation and unemployment further skyward.

  • The nuclear program could be slowed by devising ways to sell defective - or destructive - parts to the Iranian front companies buying supplies off the black market.

  • The regime's fundamentalist legitimacy is also vulnerable. Why not use the foreign media to expose corruption (moral or financial) among the ruling elite? Officials who've socked away billions in foreign banks deserve to pay some price . . . .

  • Hard-hitting, clandestine "surrogate" broadcasts could be beamed into Iran 24/7, highlighting human-rights abuses, corruption, civil strife and the unnecessary political and economic hardships of the Iranian people.

  • Iran is only slightly more than half Persian. Could ethnic minorities like the Azeris (24 percent) and Kurds (7 percent), already unhappy with their second-class status, be empowered to do something about it?

A bolder, riskier approach would be to start aiding armed anti-government elements to operate in Iran. Unfortunately, it's a double-edged sword: You'd put significant pressure on the regime, but an ugly backlash might await perceived sympathizers - complicit or not.

Sure, a heavy-handed crackdown could increase internal support for regime change. That's a good thing. But if U.S. interference is exposed, the "blowback" could easily be another anti-American regime. Plus, in the end, none of the currently organized, armed anti-regime groups are ones you'd want to see running Iran.

A covert program is unlikely to bring the Iranian regime to its knees. But it could throw Tehran off balance just enough to distract it from nukes and foreign adventurism - making such an operation well worth the good ole Company - er, college - try.

Peter Brookes is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post