ADVICE+DISSENT: Intelligence File Ghosts of Iran

Is a covert policy in Iran doomed to fail?

Next to Iraq, the administration and its would-be successors face no greater foreign policy dilemma than what to do about Iran-its suspected nuclear weapons program, its support for terrorists and its influence in Iraq, for starters. These issues loom large on the presidential campaign trail, but come January 2009, the challenge of actually dealing with Iran will fall into the laps of U.S. intelligence officials. They have, for the most part, been at the center of the delicate and dangerous dance with Iran for the past three decades, and while much of their work has been motivated by the best of intentions, it has suffered repeatedly from the deception and compromise that covert operations demand.

The first explosive chapter was written in the mid-1980s, when, as now, the United States was looking for a way to undermine the ruling regime in Iran and break through to supposed moderate elements who might be in a position to favorably influence the country's policy toward the West. Some of these moderate forces, eager to restock their supply of missiles and weapons systems to use against Iraq, reached out to U.S. intelligence and national security officials.

The Americans agreed to sell the Iranians weapons if they, in turn, would help secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon, held by Iranian-backed terrorists.

The covert operation was exposed in 1986, and it led to a political scandal that nearly toppled the Reagan White House. Several senior national security officials were indicted for their attempts to conceal the work. For a president who had publicly insisted that he would never negotiate with terrorists, but also agonized over the plight of the captive Americans, the secret arms-for-hostages swap was an unmitigated disaster.

Decades later come new revelations that the United States again is engaged in covert operations with factions inside Iran, in part aimed at undermining the regime in power. In July, New Yorker staff writer Seymour Hersh reported on an intelligence directive from the president that authorizes the CIA and an elite special operations command to direct money to minority and dissident groups. The activities also include gathering information on Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, Hersh noted. What precisely the administration has promised those groups, if anything, wasn't clear from the report, but questions already are being raised-as they were in the 1980s-about whether the administration has informed Congress about the breadth of the activities and whether they might contradict any policies or, worse, violate any laws.

It should come as no surprise that the United States' method of choice for approaching Iran has been of the clandestine variety. Tehran, after all, has shown no inclination to openly seek good relations or to abandon support for terrorists who have killed hundreds of Americans. But covert operations have never come without a heavy cost. Now, as in the Reagan administration, the intelligence community risks a backlash.

This one, however, might not come from the American public, but Iranian citizens. "This is the ultimate for the Iranians-to blame the CIA," retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner told Hersh. Gardiner monitors the Iranian press as part of his work conducting war games for the U.S. government, and he has been particularly tuned into public reaction to allegations of U.S. military and intelligence meddling. He called present operations in Iran "a ratcheting up of tensions. It rallies support for the regime and shows people that there is continuing threat from the 'Great Satan.' "

Twenty years ago, the American public rejected covert operations in Iran. Now, the Iranian public-whose support is just as crucial to an improved relationship-could be turned off, as well. It might be time to ask whether a covert policy toward Iran, having failed to achieve the United States' largest goals, is worth the cost. The problem is, an overt policy hasn't produced many dividends, either.

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.

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