Iran: The Next War Is Closer Than You Think
by Joshua Kurlantzick

This article was originally published in the April, 2005 issue of GQ.

FOR THOSE WHO pay attention to Middle Eastern relations, things got a little weird a couple of months ago when George W. Bush—the same man who not long ago referred to Iran as part of the "axis of evil" and who, in his second inaugural address, vowed to rid the world of despots—started offering the Islamic Republic incentives to halt its nuclear program. You had to wonder, why the sudden change in tone? What is real here and what is smoke?

The number of people in America truly knowledgeable about Iran is very small, and as I tried to get a sense of where things were beading, I found myself being directed again and again to the same group—former CIA agents who'd covered that region, people at the State Department with access to intelligence, and several Iranian Americans who go back and forth between the two countries. At a bar filled with drunken frat boys, one State official told me unequivocally, "The intelligence community, since 2003, has been very clear in its assessment that regime change is unlikely in Iran." This was later echoed by a former CIA official, who said, "Our hands arc so full with Iraq intelligence, reality should confront us." Indeed, in March, leaks from a presidential commission revealed that American intelligence on Iran was so weak that no informed judgments—the kind, say, you'd like to be able to make if you were planning on fostering an internal revolution or launching a military strike—could be made about the country.

This all jibed with my own sense of things—that it was a little unreasonable to consider toppling Iran while Iraq is still in such disarray. And it seemed that the administration, in the face of these realities, was uncharacteristically turning to the carrot instead of the stick.

Seemed. Beneath the surface of the happy talk, I soon learned, a core group of powerful hawks inside and outside the government were hard at work planning how to take Iran down. For them, Iraq was—is—just part of a larger mission, and what some see as failure (Iraq's recent elections notwithstanding, a majority of Americans now think the invasion was a mistake) they sec as a learning experience. Karen Kwiatkowski, a former Pentagon official who in 2003 left its Directorate for Near East and South Asian Affairs, which was closely involved in Iraq war planning, put it to me this way: "The ncocons' score sheet is just different. Their stakes are longer and bigger."

Their minds are not primarily concerned with whether or not our intelligence is airtight; the much more pressing concerns are that Iran, which is significantly larger than Iraq, is closer to getting a nuke; it also happens to be much better positioned than Iraq to tilt the entire region toward democracy and help guarantee the security of the United States. "Iraq makes zero sense unless you look at the problem in regional terms," said Meyrav Wurmser, who directs the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute and is close to many administration officials. "There's no transformation without regime change in Iran."

Neocons like Wurmser point out that a nuclear-armed Iran could spark an arms race in the region, prompting Saudi Arabia or other enemies of Iran to build their own nukes, and could put bombs in the hands of Iran-backed Hczbollah. Reucl Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer who covered Iran and has become a prominent voice among the neocon hawks, stated it in stark and, I must say, convincing terms: "We can't tolerate Tehran with a bomb," he said. "That's the bottom line. That's it."

* * *

DURING BUSH'S first four years, the United States never explicitly embraced a harder line toward Iran. Afghanistan and Iraq came first, and then-Secretary of State Cohn Powell, along with his powerful deputy Richard Armitage, often blocked tougher talk about Iran. The administration, led by Powell and Armitage, publicly backed European talks with Tchran about peacefully suspending the country's nuclear program.

Even today, official U.S. policy remains that no one is actively planning regime change in Iran and that the U.S. government supports Europe's continuing talks with the Iranians. But in Washington, there's official policy and unofficial policy, and then one day, sometimes to the public's surprise, the unofficial becomes official. What I wanted to understand was how that transformation takes place.

Not long ago, I took a taxi across D.C. to a prominent conservative think tank to meet a former Defense official I'll call Eli. An intense man in his midthirties, Eli has quietly traveled the innards of the Middle East for years, unguarded, smoking hubblies with the enemies of America. During his years at Defense, he was one of the most vociferous advocates of getting tough with the mullahs. Now in the private sector, Eli has continued to press his ideas, slipping memos on Iran directly into the hands of policymakers. As we sat in his office, the walls of which were covered in menacing posters of the ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei and other Muslim clerics, Eli told me that he'd wanted to take a stronger approach in Bush's first term. "But every time we got going, we were blocked by State and CIA. They were just long- winded bullshitters, treating Iran like some academic problem.” The more he talked about this, the redder his face turned, and at one point he stood up and began to pace around his office. When I brought up Armitage—in 2003, Armitage contended, ludicrously, that Iran was a democracy—Eli grimaced in anger.

Building the case for going after Iran entails crushing anyone who thinks it's possible to bargain with the mullahs. To this end, Powell was essentially pushed out by Bush (and Armitage went with him), and Bush ally Porter Goss has taken over the CIA. During the Iraq war, agents filed scathing reports on administration policy, and upon his arrival Goss openly warned agents not to "identify with, support, or champion opposition to the administration or its policies." Before long, high-ranking CIA officials who clashed with Goss started "resigning." Vince Cannistraro, a former top intelligence official, told mc, "All the cautionary roadblocks have been taken out of the way of the hard-liners."

Despite the administration's lip service in support of European diplomacy, the hard-liners' plan also requires the scuttling of any deals with the ruling mullahs that the Europeans put on the table. According to one State Department official I recently spoke with, when Tim Guldimann, then Swiss ambassador to Iran (who served as the link between the United States and Iran), came to Washington in the spring of 2003, he brought with him a possible offer from Tehran a "grand bargain" in which the United States would open relations with Iran and, in return, Iran would give up its nuclear-enrichment program. "The Pentagon and the National Security Council learned about it," the State Department official told me. "There was no hashing this out. They said, 'No, no discussion on this.' That was it."

Then, in summer 2004, a group of top European diplomats arrived on Capitol Hill for a closed meeting with the House Committee on International Relations. According to one congressional aide who participated, the Europeans entered the room and suggested continuing negotiations with Tehran. Members of the committee took turns excoriating them. "They dressed them down," the aide said, "and told the EU ambassadors that their approach had already failed." At first, the European diplomats, startled by this hostile response, apologized for not having already clinched a deal with Iran, and they promised they could still hammer one out. The room only got angrier. "We said to them, 'What are the American people going to say when there's a dirty Iranian nuke in the U.S. and we tell them that our European allies facilitated this?'" the aide said. "The Europeans got all flustered and said, 'How could you say that?'" The meeting went downhill from there. Soon, several congressmen were reminding the Europeans of their painful history dealing with dictators. "We raised the issue of their appeasement [of Hitler]," the aide recalled, laughing. "That went over well."

Several days after meeting Eli, I went to visit Michael Ledeen, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank that is home to many highly influential policy hawks. Ledeen has worked in and out of government for over two decades. During the Reagan administration, he was involved in the Iran-contra scandal, and his expertise is reportedly treasured by Karl Rove. Throughout our conversation, Ledeen chewed on a thick cigar and reminisced about flying planes in Mozambique. (During the Cold War, he also worked in Africa, where he was close to right-wing insurgents like Angola's Jonas Savimbi.) "It's all one thing," Ledeen said. "Iran, Iraq, the whole region." Though smoking is banned in the building, he stubbed out his cigar and then lit another. "Revolution shouldn't be limited to one part of the Middle East," he went on, "and I'm for revolution." He then assured me, in case there was any doubt, that his opinion was shared by the man who matters most. "In private," Ledeen said, "Bush calls for a single solution to the whole Middle East. The president says, 'Iran is the very big problem.' He wags his finger and says, 'We're going to take care of that.'"

* * *

TO UNDERSTAND what's really happening regarding Iran, it's worth revisiting how the political groundwork was laid fur the Iraq war—because the old playbook is out again. During the late 1990s, while most of America was debating the precise nature of the sex Bill Clinton had had with Monica Lewinsky, hawkish foreign-policy experts in Washington were quietly planning the destruction of Saddam Hussein. Realizing that toppling Saddam couldn't happen over night they created a strategy for the long run. It had four parts: The hawks needed to make the intellectual case for regime change; they needed to obtain congressional support for their plan; they needed to enlist Iraqi exiles who could testify to the horrors of Saddam's regime and possibly serve as a credible opposition force; and they needed to win converts within the executive branch—true believers who would then plant the seeds at the Pentagon, the State Department, and the National Security Council.

In 1997 three powerful, prominent conservatives formed a Washington organization called the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). They soon got several hard-line Republicans and even a Democrat or two to sign on to the PNAC's first major product, a manifesto urging President Clinton to abandon the policy of containing Saddam Hussein and to implement a strategy for removing him. Many of the signers were neocons conservatives who'd split from both the right and the left and were advocating long-term American-led restructuring of the Middle East, and the call of the manifesto was echoed in The Weekly Standard, the magazine that had become the mouth-piece of the neocon movement.

The Standard and the PNAC were small, but they were staffed by heavy hitters with connections to key members of Congress, and their efforts quickly paid off. In the fall of 1998, Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which called on the United States to provide nearly $100 million in aid, including arms, to Iraqi dissidents. The act was crucial, because it stated clearly that the policy of the United States [was] to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein." This meant it was now legal to work with groups inside and outside Iraq to foment regime change, even though Anthony Zinni, America's own military commander in the Persian Gulf at the time, dismissed the plan as a potential catastrophe.

After George W. Bush won the election in 2000, many of the men and women who'd signed the PNAC manifesto formally entered government. By 2001 the Pentagon had set up an internal intelligence-gathering cell focused on documenting links between Iraq and terrorist networks. The intel gatherers relied in part on information gained from Iraqi exiles who had themselves been funded by Pentagon allies in Congress. They'd formed a perfect circle. Now the only thing needed to get the American public to support spilling blood in the Middle East was a triggering event. September 11 could not have served them better.

The political maneuvering taking place today is eerily familiar. As with Iraq, the next step is to formalize congressional support for a harder-line policy. Congressional hawks, from powerful right-wing senators to members of the Honse Committee on International Relations, have already tried to introduce Iran resolutioos patterned on the Iraq Liberation Act. Last summer, Senate Republican Rick Santorum cosponsored the Iran Freedom and Support Act. A draft of the act that I read sounded eerily familiar: "It should be the policy of the United States to support regime change for the Islamic Republic of Iran.... The President is authorized to provide assistance to foreign and domestic pro-democracy groups opposed to the non-democratic Government of Iran." Another resolution anthorizes "all appropriate means" to curtail Iran's nuclear-weapons program.

With each draft, the State Department, along with moderate Republicans like Indiana senator Dick Lugar, objected to the language calling for regime change and managed to stave off passage of Santorum's act. But with Armitage and Powell gone and with Lugar weakened by an incoming class of tough congressional Republicans, a new Iran Freedom and Support Act has been proposed and seems likely to pass. It would provide $10 million in funding for Iranian dissidents and also bar any representatives of Tehran from even entering U.S. government buildings, a stipulation that, needless to say, would make any efforts at d├ętente considerably harder.

Once passed, the act will commit America to taking the gloves off regarding Iran, and a major hurdle in the hard-liners' strategy will have been cleared. But there is a subtler agenda at work as well, one most congresspeople won't openly discuss. The bill helps ratchet up and build a case against Iran, should military action be necessary," one congressional aide tells me. "There is here an incremental raising of the bar, so that if a military strike is necessary, we can say, 'We've tried these elements and failed,' and we can move up the ladder of action." In other words, if relations with Tehran continue to disintegrate and the mullahs remain in power, hard-liners can point back to this bill and say, "Look, we tried to promote peaceful change, but it didn't work."

A day after hearing plans for an Iran liberation act, I found myself sitting in the baroque lobby of a Washington apartment building. My contact, a conservative former high-ranking government official who maintains close links to the Pentagon, eventually arrived and moved us to a back room so no one could overhear our conversation. When maintenance staff wandered through, he laughed and chatted with them until they left, then quickly turned serious.

Out of his briefcase he pulled a long transcript of his recent meetings with leaders of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), the biggest Iranian opposition group. The MEK has a political front, the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), which operates primanly out of France, but the group also has a large base in Iraq and many agents inside Iran. My companion said he had learned from the group that Iran has sent many intelligence specialists into Iraq to create havoc for American troops. He considered the MEK's information valuable and has suggested that the administration utilize it—and the MEK's legions—against Tehran. He's delivered these transcripts to top officials at the Pentagon, he told me.

The MEK is a powerful force, with over 3,500 members who've dedicated their lives to fighting Tehran and collecting information on its abuses and nuclear activities. They have launched numerous successful sabotage missions against the mullahs, including bombings of Iranian embassies. They're also stark bonkers. As Elizabeth Rubin reported in The New York Times two years ago when she visited the group's Iraq base, the MEK locks up followers who disagree with its leaders, requires its members to practice celibacy, and trains a Stepford Wives-like coterie of female fighters who are fiercely loyal to the husband-and-wife duo who are its leaders. Most Iran experts, including some of the smartest neocons, like Eli, say the MEK is also hated inside Iran because the group sided with Iraq in the bloody Iran-Iraq war. Oh, and there's this: The MEK, which killed U.S. civilians in the 1970s, has been on the State Department's list of proscribed foreign terrorist organizations since 1997.

The former official is hardly deterred. He's convinced that there's now sufficient sympathy toward the MEK in the Pentagon and Congress to review the group's status. "Taking the MEK off the terrorist list...it will now be considered," he said. Top Pentagon hawks appear to share his views. As one administration official with access to high-level internal debates told me, "It's my impression that the Defense Department has argued we should arm the MEK and go let them fight." And on Capitol Hill, hard-liners still quietly push for the Mujahideen. "Why is the MEK on the terror list?" one congressional aide asked me, behind her closed door. "They take on hard targets of an enemy of the US."

When the NCRI was also officially declared a foreign terrorist entity in 2003, its offices in Washington's National Press Building were shut down, and the Treasury Department issued a notice "prohibiting transactions between U.S. persons and these organizations." So I was surprised when a friend suggested I check out the new digs of Alireza Jafarzadeh, who was the NCRI's Washington representative. Jafarzadeh had moved exactly two blocks ftom the Press Building, to an office in a stylish warren of rooms taken up by various consulting and advocacy firms. When I arrived, Jafarzadeh spoke into his phone, and moments later a smiling attendant brought us coffee. Friends from other offices in the building intermittently poked their heads in throughout our conversation.

Jafarzadeh swiveled back in his chair, sipped his coffee, and all but winked at me as he began to talk. "I can't speak for the MEK," he said, "but I can talk to you about them."

"Okay," I replied, happy to play along, and Jafarzadeh, a seasoned Washington operator with sound bites at the ready, launched into his talking points. The MEK is the largest, most organized opposition force, he emphasized, and it continues to collect a wealth of valuable information on Iran's nuclear program. The MEK's operatives in Iraq, he assured me, "have established a good relationship with the U.S. military on the ground. We help each other." He pulled out a thick file for me to peruse: satellite photos and intricate diagrams of suspected nuclear sites, with notes in Farsi scrawled on them.

When I asked him if being labeled a terrorist group has troubled the organization at all, he suggested that it wasn't a huge concern. He himself has weathered the trauma of being part of a terrorist organization quite nicely. The FBI and Treasury never even interviewed him, he said, and his livelihood was not threatened. "I still write op-eds, do interviews, give speeches," he told me, smiling. "I got a job as an analyst for Fox News."

* * *

TO MAKE REGIME transformation work, exiles are vital. With Iraq, the role of exiled spokesman and devourer of government funds was played, often with Oscar-caliber skill, by Ahmad Chalabi. And while it's a matter of some shame that since the invasion of Iraq, Chalabi has been accused of providing cooked intelligence and of having little or no support on the ground among Iraqis, to plenty of Iranian exiles Chalabi's is hardly a cautionary tale. After all, he got the entire U.S. government on board. "Chalabi showed Iranian Amencans if you bring in these opposition forces and they're willing to liberate their country, as with Iraq...the U.S. will back you," says one influential Iranian American leader.

With that in mind, Iranian exiles have been lining up to meet with U.S. officials, and neocons laying the groundwork for Transformation 2.0 have been auditioning all comers. Reza Pahlavi, the Virginia-based son of the former shah, most clearly echoes the Chalabi model. Like Chalabi, the urbane Pahlavi enjoys the support of the neoconservative world, appears at events sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, and understands how to woo hard-liners with visions of a restoration in Iran.

But there are others in the running. Michael Ledeen has been reaching out to the Iranian American community, whipping up crowds and pushing them to present a united face, and trying to bring Iranian opposition figures to the United States. At one surreal event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Ledeen introduced a most unique speaker, calling the opportunity "a singular personal pleasure, one I never expected to have." The typical Washington crowd of policymakers, academics, and journalists looked on as a youngish Middle Eastern man in dark, flowing robes and a turban, his beetle brows familiar to any American over the age of 20, glided to the front of the room. Until recently, the cleric had resided in various Shiite holy cities, and Ledeen praised him as a man who had seen the light and turned against the mullahs. The cleric, Ledeen announced, had realized that "freedom is the most important thing, and that all people share a belief in freedom and have a common need for freedom."

The holy man soaked up the rapt applause, then went on to deliver the discourse he had been summoned to Washington for, detailing the rot within the clerical state and pleading for the United States to help Iranians overthrow their government. "The Iranian people have become tired, fatigued, after twenty-five years of deprivation and suppression," he declared. "They have been deprived of the basic means of life, of living. We cannot remain silent and watch the destruction further destruction of Iran and Iranian people." When he was finished, amid even more applause, Hussein Khomeini, the grandson of the Ayatollah Khomeini, was whooshed out of the room.

* * *

IN MID-MARCH, as part of the new U.S. charm offensive toward Europe, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the United States shares "the desire of European governments to secure Iran's adherence to its obligations through peaceful and diplomatic means." It was certainly a different tune from what had been sung, at least internally, since George Bush began his second term. It was also largely empty.

Within the executive branch, there's little doubt that Dick Cheney along with Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton, Bush's choice to be the new ambassador to the United Nations—is committed to a tougher Iran policy. Cheney's daughter Elizabeth has been assigned to the State Department to head democratization efforts there. "Vice President Cheney is giving interviews and speeches that paint a stark picture of a soon-to-be-nuclear-armed Iran and declaring that this is something the Bush administration will not tolerate." David Kay, the White House's former weapons inspector in Iraq, warned. He added that, as with Iraq, "Iranian exiles are providing the press and government with a steady stream of new 'evidence' concerning Iran's nuclear-weapons activities."

In the spring of 2003, hawks in the Pentagon drafted a national-security presidential directive on Iran, a statement that formally commits the White House to a certain policy, the way a congressional act does for Congress. According to one official, the proposed language argued that the United States should push harder for regime change and target Iran's key economic and political centers, using independent actors not formally employed by the U.S. government. Due to infighting within the administration, the presidential directive was never formalized. Several current and former officials say they now expect movement toward a presidential directive to begin again.

No matter what Rice says publicly, administration hawks also have been pushing for a stronger commitment to the possibility of outright military strikes action Rice herself has pointedly refused to rule out. New Yorker writer Seymour Hersh recently reported that the United States has been conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside Iran, identifying potential nuclear, chemical, and missile sites that could be targets of missile strikes and commando raids. One government official I spoke with confirmed that last fall, after a meeting of "principals"—cabinet secretaries and other top officials—Iran specialists within the administration were told that a secret new strategy of "deterrence and disruption" toward Tehran was being adopted. This strategy, the official said, could mean a number of different things. It involves conducting stepped-up intelligence assessments of Iranian nuclear facilities, as well as launching covert actions by Special Forces inside Iran in an effort to sabotage those facilities. "You'll start seeing reports;' he told me, "of an 'accidental gas leak' at Natanz," a suspected nuclear site.

* * *

WHEN WOULD unofficial policy become official? How would the hammer drop on Tehran? What would convince the American public that Iran was worth taking on, at the possible cost of thousands more casualties? Well, Iran might cause its own demise: Judgment day may be coming if Iran continues secretly seeking a nuclear-weapons program. Tehran has so far rebuffed European diplomacy, making deals with the European Union only to break them. If this behavior continues in the face of increasing pressure to reveal the scope of its nuclear capabilities, it could be just the triggering event the administration is looking for. "At this point, the president will be forced to make a decision." one prominent neocon told me. "And a president not facing another term, who goes by his instincts..." His voice trailed off. A lot of groundwork has been laid, and a lot of powerful people believe this may be their one chance to remake America's most implacable foe in the Middle East. My companion smiled. To think that this won't happen, he seemed to be suggesting, is a little naive.

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK is foreign editor of The New Republic.