Context is everything

I have two reactions to this ABC News Blotter post: The CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount a covert “black” operation to destabilize the Iranian government, current and former officials in the intelligence community tell the Blotter on ABCNews.com. The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

I have two reactions to this ABC News Blotter post: The CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount a covert "black" operation to destabilize the Iranian government, current and former officials in the intelligence community tell the Blotter on ABCNews.com. The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject, say President Bush has signed a "nonlethal presidential finding" that puts into motion a CIA plan that reportedly includes a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran's currency and international financial transactions. "I can't confirm or deny whether such a program exists or whether the president signed it, but it would be consistent with an overall American approach trying to find ways to put pressure on the regime," said Bruce Riedel, a recently retired CIA senior official who dealt with Iran and other countries in the region.... The sources say the CIA developed the covert plan over the last year and received approval from White House officials and other officials in the intelligence community.... Current and former intelligence officials say the approval of the covert action means the Bush administration, for the time being, has decided not to pursue a military option against Iran. "Vice President Cheney helped to lead the side favoring a military strike," said former CIA official Riedel, "but I think they have come to the conclusion that a military strike has more downsides than upsides.".... The "nonlethal" aspect of the presidential finding means CIA officers may not use deadly force in carrying out the secret operations against Iran. Still, some fear that even a nonlethal covert CIA program carries great risks. "I think everybody in the region knows that there is a proxy war already afoot with the United States supporting anti-Iranian elements in the region as well as opposition groups within Iran," said Vali Nasr, adjunct senior fellow for Mideast studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "And this covert action is now being escalated by the new U.S. directive, and that can very quickly lead to Iranian retaliation and a cycle of escalation can follow," Nasr said.On the one hand, of course the CIA should be doing this kind of thing. Iran's current regime -- whether of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-let's-wipe-Israel-off-the-face-of-the-map-crazy variant or the Ali Kamenei let's-act-in-a-more-prudent-fashion-to-establish-our-regional-hegemony-and-then-wipe-Israel-off-the-map variant -- clearly respresent a challenge to U.S. interests in the region (Saudia Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, etc.). It's natural for the U.S. to pursue covert policies to encourage a new regime in a country who's populace is pretty pro-American. On the other hand, I have four qualms with this: a) The CIA has a mixed track record at best when it comes to peaceful regime change. And the agency's particularly baleful history in Iran means the deck is already stacked against ay success. b) Look, maybe I'm biased by past events, but I simply don't trust the Bush administration to competently manage this kind of operation. Any other administration, the fallout from a failed attempt would be contained. With this administration, I can't help but think that a failed attempt would have regional implications. The fact that current personnel are blabbing to the press also suggests to me that there isn't unanimity on this, which lowers the odds of success. c) If I have to choose between a 20% chance at regime change (I'm being generous) or an 80% chance of Iran's current regime agreeing to suspend its nuclear weapons program (equally generous), I'll take the latter option. For that option to succeed, the CIA can't be doing this kind of thing (or, at the vey least, be so fractious that ABC can report about it). d) The timing of this news story could not be worse for Haleh Esfandiari. It actually gives Ahmadinejad a rhetorical leg to stand on. So, in the abstract, I'd have no problem with this kind of intelligence finding. In the here and now, yeah, I've got big problems with it.

I have two reactions to this ABC News Blotter post:

The CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount a covert “black” operation to destabilize the Iranian government, current and former officials in the intelligence community tell the Blotter on ABCNews.com. The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject, say President Bush has signed a “nonlethal presidential finding” that puts into motion a CIA plan that reportedly includes a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran’s currency and international financial transactions. “I can’t confirm or deny whether such a program exists or whether the president signed it, but it would be consistent with an overall American approach trying to find ways to put pressure on the regime,” said Bruce Riedel, a recently retired CIA senior official who dealt with Iran and other countries in the region…. The sources say the CIA developed the covert plan over the last year and received approval from White House officials and other officials in the intelligence community…. Current and former intelligence officials say the approval of the covert action means the Bush administration, for the time being, has decided not to pursue a military option against Iran. “Vice President Cheney helped to lead the side favoring a military strike,” said former CIA official Riedel, “but I think they have come to the conclusion that a military strike has more downsides than upsides.”…. The “nonlethal” aspect of the presidential finding means CIA officers may not use deadly force in carrying out the secret operations against Iran. Still, some fear that even a nonlethal covert CIA program carries great risks. “I think everybody in the region knows that there is a proxy war already afoot with the United States supporting anti-Iranian elements in the region as well as opposition groups within Iran,” said Vali Nasr, adjunct senior fellow for Mideast studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And this covert action is now being escalated by the new U.S. directive, and that can very quickly lead to Iranian retaliation and a cycle of escalation can follow,” Nasr said.

On the one hand, of course the CIA should be doing this kind of thing. Iran’s current regime — whether of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-let’s-wipe-Israel-off-the-face-of-the-map-crazy variant or the Ali Kamenei let’s-act-in-a-more-prudent-fashion-to-establish-our-regional-hegemony-and-then-wipe-Israel-off-the-map variant — clearly respresent a challenge to U.S. interests in the region (Saudia Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, etc.). It’s natural for the U.S. to pursue covert policies to encourage a new regime in a country who’s populace is pretty pro-American. On the other hand, I have four qualms with this:

a) The CIA has a mixed track record at best when it comes to peaceful regime change. And the agency’s particularly baleful history in Iran means the deck is already stacked against ay success. b) Look, maybe I’m biased by past events, but I simply don’t trust the Bush administration to competently manage this kind of operation. Any other administration, the fallout from a failed attempt would be contained. With this administration, I can’t help but think that a failed attempt would have regional implications. The fact that current personnel are blabbing to the press also suggests to me that there isn’t unanimity on this, which lowers the odds of success. c) If I have to choose between a 20% chance at regime change (I’m being generous) or an 80% chance of Iran’s current regime agreeing to suspend its nuclear weapons program (equally generous), I’ll take the latter option. For that option to succeed, the CIA can’t be doing this kind of thing (or, at the vey least, be so fractious that ABC can report about it). d) The timing of this news story could not be worse for Haleh Esfandiari. It actually gives Ahmadinejad a rhetorical leg to stand on.

So, in the abstract, I’d have no problem with this kind of intelligence finding. In the here and now, yeah, I’ve got big problems with it.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

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