February 4, 2007

From the Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Iraq

The White House~by Craig Unger
An Advance Viewing of a VANITY FAIR Major Investigative Report--March 2007

The same neocon ideologues behind the Iraq war have been using the same tactics—alliances with shady exiles, dubious intelligence on W.M.D.—to push for the bombing of Iran. As President Bush ups the pressure on Tehran, is he planning to double his Middle East bet?

In the weeks leading up to George W. Bush's January 10 speech on the war in Iraq, there was a brief but heady moment when it seemed that the president might finally accept the failure of his Middle East policy and try something new. Rising anti-war sentiment had swept congressional Republicans out of power. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had been tossed overboard. And the Iraq Study Group (I.S.G.), chaired by former secretary of state James Baker and former congressman Lee Hamilton, had put together a bipartisan report that offered a face-saving strategy to exit Iraq. Who better than Baker, the Bush family's longtime friend and consigliere, to talk some sense into the president?

The White House--by Craig Unger
An Advance Viewing of a VANITY FAIR
Major Investigative Report--March 2007

By the time the president finished his speech from the White House library, however, all those hopes had vanished. It wasn't just that Bush was doubling down on an extravagantly costly bet by sending 21,500 more American troops to Iraq; there were also indications that he was upping the ante by an order of magnitude. The most conspicuous clue was a four-letter word that Bush uttered six times in the course of his speech: Iran.

In a clear reference to the Islamic Republic and its sometime ally Syria, Bush vowed to "seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies." At about the same time his speech was taking place, U.S. troops stormed an Iranian liaison office in Erbil, a Kurdish-controlled city in northern Iraq, and arrested and detained five Iranians working there.

Already, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on the war in Iraq. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people have been killed. Countless more are wounded or living as refugees. Launched with the intention of shoring up Israeli security and replacing rogue regimes in the Middle East with friendly, pro-Western allies, the war in Iraq has instead turned that country into a terrorist training ground. By eliminating Saddam Hussein, the U.S.-led coalition has sparked a Sunni-Shiite civil war, which threatens to spread throughout the entire Middle East. And, far from creating a secular democracy, the war has empowered Shiite fundamentalists aligned with Iran. The most powerful of these, Muqtada al-Sadr, commands both an anti-American sectarian militia and the largest voting bloc in the Iraqi parliament.

"Everything the advocates of war said would happen hasn't happened," says the president of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist, an influential conservative who backed the Iraq invasion. "And all the things the critics said would happen have happened. [The president's neoconservative advisers] are effectively saying, 'Invade Iran. Then everyone will see how smart we are.' But after you've lost x number of times at the roulette wheel, do you double-down?"

By now, the story of how neoconservatives hijacked American foreign policy is a familiar one. With Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld leading the way, neocons working out of the office of the vice president and the Department of Defense orchestrated a spectacular disinformation operation, asserting that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction posed a grave and immediate threat to the U.S. Veteran analysts who disagreed were circumvented. Dubious information from known fabricators was hyped. Forged documents showing phony yellowcake-uranium sales to Iraq were promoted.

What's less understood is that the same tactics have been in play with Iran. Once again, neocon ideologues have been flogging questionable intelligence about W.M.D. Once again, dubious Middle East exile groups are making the rounds in Washington—this time urging regime change in Syria and Iran. Once again, heroic new exile leaders are promising freedom.

Meanwhile, a series of recent moves by the military have lent credence to widespread reports that the U.S. is secretly preparing for a massive air attack against Iran. (No one is suggesting a ground invasion.) First came the deployment order of U.S. Navy ships to the Persian Gulf. Then came high-level personnel shifts signaling a new focus on naval and air operations rather than the ground combat that predominates in Iraq. In his January 10 speech, Bush announced that he was sending Patriot missiles to the Middle East to defend U.S. allies—presumably from Iran. And he pointedly asserted that Iran was "providing material support for attacks on American troops," a charge that could easily evolve into a casus belli.

"It is absolutely parallel," says Philip Giraldi, a former C.I.A. counterterrorism specialist. "They're using the same dance steps—demonize the bad guys, the pretext of diplomacy, keep out of negotiations, use proxies. It is Iraq redux."

The neoconservatives have had Iran in their sights for more than a decade. On July 8, 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's newly elected prime minister and the leader of its right-wing Likud Party, paid a visit to the neoconservative luminary Richard Perle in Washington, D.C. The subject of their meeting was a policy paper that Perle and other analysts had written for an Israeli-American think tank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic Political Studies. Titled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," the paper contained the kernel of a breathtakingly radical vision for a new Middle East. By waging wars against Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, the paper asserted, Israel and the U.S. could stabilize the region. Later, the neoconservatives argued that this policy could democratize the Middle East.

"It was the beginning of thought," says Meyrav Wurmser, an Israeli-American policy expert, who co-signed the paper with her husband, David Wurmser, now a top Middle East adviser to Dick Cheney. Other signers included Perle and Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy during George W. Bush's first term. "It was the seeds of a new vision."

Netanyahu certainly seemed to think so. Two days after meeting with Perle, the prime minister addressed a joint session of Congress with a speech that borrowed from "A Clean Break." He called for the "democratization" of terrorist states in the Middle East and warned that peaceful means might not be sufficient. War might be unavoidable.

Netanyahu also made one significant addition to "A Clean Break." The paper's authors were concerned primarily with Syria and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but Netanyahu saw a greater threat elsewhere. "The most dangerous of these regimes is Iran," he said.

Ten years later, "A Clean Break" looks like nothing less than a playbook for U.S.-Israeli foreign policy during the Bush-Cheney era. Many of the initiatives outlined in the paper have been implemented—removing Saddam from power, setting aside the "land for peace" formula to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon—all with disastrous results.

Nevertheless, neoconservatives still advocate continuing on the path Netanyahu staked out in his speech and taking the fight to Iran. As they see it, the Iraqi debacle is not the product of their failed policies. Rather, it is the result of America's failure to think big. "It's a mess, isn't it?" says Meyrav Wurmser, who now serves as director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute. "My argument has always been that this war is senseless if you don't give it a regional context."

She isn't alone. One neocon after another has made the same plea: Iraq was the beginning, not the end. Writing in The Weekly Standard last spring, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, made the neocon case for bombing Iran's nuclear sites. Brushing away criticism that a pre-emptive attack would cause anti-Americanism within Iran, Gerecht asserted that it "would actually accelerate internal debate" in a way that would be "painful for the ruling clergy." As for imperiling the U.S. mission in Iraq, Gerecht argued that Iran "can't really hurt us there." Ultimately, he concluded, "we may have to fight a war—perhaps sooner rather than later—to stop such evil men from obtaining the worst weapons we know."

More recently, Netanyahu himself, who may yet return to power in Israel, went as far as to frame the issue in terms of the Holocaust. "Iran is Germany, and it's 1938," he said during a CNN interview in November. "Except that this Nazi regime that is in Iran … wants to dominate the world, annihilate the Jews, but also annihilate America."

Like the campaign to overthrow Saddam, the crusade for regime change in Iran got under way in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. One of the first shots came in The Wall Street Journal in November 2001, when Eliot Cohen, a member of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century (PNAC), declared, "The overthrow of the first theocratic revolutionary Muslim state [Iran] and its replacement by a moderate or secular government … would be no less important a victory in this war than the annihilation of bin Laden."

Then, as now, the U.S. had no official diplomatic communications with Iran, but a series of back-channel meetings from 2001 to 2003 put unofficial policy initiatives into action. The man who initiated these meetings was Michael Ledeen, an Iran specialist, neocon firebrand, and Freedom Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. During the Iran-contra investigations of the late 80s, Ledeen won notoriety for having introduced President Ronald Reagan's chief intriguer, Oliver North, to Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms dealer and con man.

Ghorbanifar helped set up the first meetings, in Rome in December 2001. Among those attending were Harold Rhode, a protégé of Ledeen's, and Larry Franklin, of the Office of Special Plans, the Pentagon bureau that manipulated pre-war intelligence on Iraq. (Franklin has since pleaded guilty to passing secrets to Israel and has been sentenced to 12 years in prison.)

Ghorbanifar reportedly arranged an additional meeting in Rome in June 2002. This one was attended by a high-level U.S. official and dissidents from Egypt and Iraq. Then, in June 2003, just three months after the invasion of Iraq, Franklin and Rhode met secretly with Ghorbanifar in Paris at yet another gathering that was not approved by the Pentagon.

According to Ledeen, Ghorbanifar and his sources produced valuable information at the 2001 meetings about Iranian plans for attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But it is also likely that there was some discussion of de-stabilizing Iran. As the Washington Monthly reported, the meetings raised the possibility "that a rogue faction at the Pentagon was trying to work outside normal U.S. foreign policy channels to advance a 'regime-change' agenda."

Also in attendance at the first meetings, according to administration sources who spoke to Warren P. Strobel, of Knight Ridder Newspapers, were representatives of the Mujahideen e-Khalq, or MEK, an urban-guerrilla group that practiced a brand of revolutionary Marxism heavily influenced by Mao Zedong and Che Guevara.

Having expertly exploited phony intelligence promoted by the Iraqi National Congress (I.N.C.), a dubious exile group run by the convicted embezzler Ahmad Chalabi, the neocons were now pursuing an alliance with an even shadier collection of exiles. According to a 2003 report by the State Department, "During the 1970s, the MEK killed US military personnel and US civilians working on defense projects in Tehran.… The MEK detonated bombs in the head office of the Islamic Republic Party and the Premier's office, killing some 70 high-ranking Iranian officials.… In 1991, it assisted the Government of Iraq in suppressing the Shia and Kurdish uprisings in southern Iraq and the Kurdish uprisings in the north." In other words, the MEK was a terrorist group—one that took its orders from Saddam Hussein.

To hear some neocons tell it, though, the MEK militants weren't terrorists—they were America's best hope in Iran. In January 2004, Richard Perle was the guest speaker at a fundraiser sponsored by the MEK, although he later claimed to have been unaware of the connection. And in a speech before the National Press Club in late 2005, Raymond Tanter, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recommended that the Bush administration use the MEK and its political arm, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (N.C.R.I.), as an insurgent militia against Iran. "The National Council of Resistance of Iran and the Mujahedeen-e Khalq are not only the best source for intelligence on Iran's potential violations of the nonproliferation regime. The NCRI and MEK are also a possible ally of the West in bringing about regime change in Tehran," he said.

Tanter went as far as to suggest that the U.S. consider using tactical nuclear weapons against Iran. "One military option is the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, which may have the capability to destroy hardened deeply buried targets. That is, bunker-busting bombs could destroy tunnels and other underground facilities." He granted that the Non-Proliferation Treaty bans the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, such as Iran, but added that "the United States has sold Israel bunker-busting bombs, which keeps the military option on the table." In other words, the U.S. can't nuke Iran, but Israel, which never signed the treaty and maintains an unacknowledged nuclear arsenal, can.

Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, when the U.S. mission there seemed accomplished or at least accomplishable, Iran came to fear that it would be next in the crosshairs. To stave off that possibility, Iran's leadership, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, began to assemble a negotiating package. Suddenly, everything was on the table—Iran's nuclear program, policy toward Israel, support of Hamas and Hezbollah, and control over al-Qaeda operatives captured since the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan.....

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