Gerard Group International: As the United States and Iran move ever closer to the endgame of an exceptionally hostile 28 year confrontation, it might be useful to step back from the heated rhetoric of 2007 to consider how successfully Iran has managed to string things along this far without precipitating an actual military strike by the U.S. Gerard Group International
By Clare Lopez
As the United States (U.S.) and Iran move ever closer to the endgame of an exceptionally hostile 28 year confrontation, it might be useful to step back from the heated rhetoric of 2007 to consider how successfully Iran has managed to string things along this far without precipitating an actual military strike by the U.S. We need to recognize that the clerics who run Iran’s totalitarian theocracy are past masters of denial and deception, mind war, and psychological operations. The ideal outcome of such tactics is achievement of one’s national objectives, the bending of the opponent to one’s will, without the use of force or coercionin fact, without the opponent even realizing that the outcome was imposed from without and not his own desired outcome all along.
This is a regime that kicked off its 1979 coup d’etat by attacking the American Embassy in Tehran and holding hostage dozens of our diplomats for over a year. Shortly thereafter, it created in southern Lebanon a proxy terrorist organization (Hizballah) that not only launched armed attacks on our ally, Israel, with which we share a mutual defense agreement, but kidnapped, tortured, and killed our citizens at will throughout the 1980s.
Next, Iran orchestrated the 1983 bombings of our Embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut, that killed hundreds of our citizens and servicemen. The clerical regime’s complicity in the 1996 bombing of the U.S. Air Force facility at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia is publicly documented, as is its support and training role (again via Hizballah) for the al-Qa’eda bombers who destroyed American Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania in 1998. They likewise were responsible for the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. Since 9/11, Iran has harbored on its territory dozens of top al-Qa’eda operatives, including at least one of Usama bin Laden’s sons and the al-Qa’eda military operations commander, Saif al-Adl.
Since the 2003 launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iran has flooded Iraq with thousands of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), and irregular Bassij operatives who have infiltrated Iraq’s fledgling government and established liaison with both Sunni and Shi’a terrorist militias in order to provide the documents, logistics, training, and weapons that have killed hundreds of American troops (and thousands of Iraqi civilians). Iranian intent to prevent the emergence of a stable, democratic Iraq that is self-sufficient and able to defend itself could not be more clearnor could its visceral enmity for the U.S. goal of enabling the emergence of liberal democracy in the Middle East.
And yet, to date, there has been no meaningful official American response to this litany of provocations that, in fact, amounts to a state of war between our two nations. No official U.S. acknowledgement that such a state of war actually exists has yet been forthcoming, despite the accelerating drumbeat of complaints from our military commanders in Iraq that Iranians there are involved in direct offensive military operations against American troops. Soaring rhetoric from President Bush and other administration figures about supporting the Iranian people’s aspirations for freedom and democracy, standing up to totalitarian Islamo-fascism, and preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the most dangerous regime in the Middle East simply has not been matched by action.
We must ask ourselves, “Why?”
Let us begin to solve this puzzle by looking at Iran’s nuclear weapons program. This is a program that the Ayatollah Khomeini revived in the 1980s as the endless, brutal war with Iraq entered its eighth year with no end in sight. Although its origins date back to the 1950s, when the U.S. and the Shah’s Iran were close allies, under Khomeini and his successors, the program turned in earnest to acquisition of ‘the bomb’. Even though Iran was an early signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970, once Khomeini gave the green light, the clerical regime created a clandestine weapons program that has operated in the shadows ever since. Until the democratic Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), publicly blew the lid off of this secret program in 2002, neither the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nor the public in general knew that the mullahs were pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.
How did they keep such a secret from public knowledge for so long? Many of Iran’s clerical leadership studied directly under the Soviet KGB and proved apt students of their denial and deception, mind war, and psychological operations tactics. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for instance, is a graduate of the KGB training school, Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow.
Clearly also, a totalitarian regime is far better able to conceal and obfuscate than an open society with free speech, an energetic media, and demanding electorate. Scientists within a police state like Iran’s often are co-opted to their work from university, graduation from which can be a privilege that may only be available (or affordable) to those who agree to a regime’s ‘offer’. Laboratories, research facilities, and production plants are built behind an opaque wall of secrecy that includes remote or disguised locations, electronic fences, dual-use programs, buried bunkers, and pervasive intelligence and security supervision.
A massive and intricate web of front companies and undercover operatives seeks out blueprints, components, know-how, and precursor materiel from willing violators of international non-proliferation regimes across the world. The A.Q. Khan network and North Korea both are known to have provided critical assistance to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. For a price, so have numerous individuals and companies in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and even the U.S. Some of the collection work is overt, such as the trolling that goes on at most professional scientific conferences or in libraries and on the Internet. Some of it is completely clandestine and involves the usual spotting, assessing, developing, and recruiting that comprise most national-level intelligence programs. Top scientific talent is lured away from collapsing nuclear programs such as those in South Africa, Russia, and other places in the former Soviet Union.
Government spokesmen carefully frame any references to the clandestine facilities to deflect and discourage investigative interest or follow-up. An internal media that is completely dominated by the security services complies with the government-issued script on any issue even remotely related to the program. A well-rehearsed cadre of English-speaking academics, NGO and think tank staffers, and writers fans out across the world to murmur soothing reassurances at Western universities, human rights organizations, and on television interview shows about the ‘peaceful intentions’ and ‘guaranteed rights’ of Iran’s ‘civilian’ nuclear development program. And finally, top level national and international institutions are infiltrated with operatives and what used to be called ‘fellow travelers’ who can influence important policy decisions that might affect the program.
Obviously, such a program involves a huge commitment of Iranian national resources over a period of many years, which indicates just how important the acquisition of nuclear weapons actually is for this regime. Understanding the scope of Iran’s efforts to convince the world it had no nuclear weapons program must lead to the inescapable conclusion that this is a regime that will do literally anything to keep this program moving forward; there are simply no possible incentives the international community can offer that would ever convince this regime to give up what it perceives as the sine qua non of its very existence.
Once the world realized, thanks to the Iranian resistance, what the Iranian regime had been up to for all those years, however, Tehran changed tack on a dime. The next phase of its denial and deception, mind war, and psychological operations campaign began. With satellite photography showing nuclear facilities at the Saghand uranium mines, Isfahan conversion plant, Natanz enrichment site, and Arak heavy water plutonium project now posted to the Internet, Iran could no longer plausibly deny the existence of its nuclear program. Moreover, in reluctant response to a steady barrage of NCRI revelations, the IAEA eventually was prodded to mount a desultory schedule of inspections.
What Iran’s canny leadership could and did deny, however, was the essential nature of its efforts to build a forbidden weapons program. Taken by surprise by the NCRI revelations (that were based on the extensive clandestine intelligence collection program inside Iran run by NCRI member organization, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq or MEK), the mullahs were forced to fall back.
They have now admitted that they actually did have a nuclear program, but had concealed it from international authorities at the IAEA for fourteen years because they feared that American and other countries’ animosity towards their regime might deny them their NPT-given right to develop a legitimate nuclear power industry. Thus, the mullahs lunged quickly for the sympathy of Third World and other rogue regime elements whom they intuitively understood would applaud their defiance of Western and international organizations labeled as ‘oppressive.’ In this way, the new regime line deftly positioned the Iranian nuclear program within the legitimate confines of the NPT, but at the same time garnered instant international support by self-designating Iran as an oppressed member of the developing world ‘victim class’.
Incredibly, much of the world bought it all, lock, stock, and barrel! With Europeans in the lead, the international community rushed to proffer dialogue, incentives, and negotiations naively intended to secure Iran firmly within a largely illusiory system of voluntary restrictions on nuclear weapons proliferation and development. Incredulous protestations by American Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and others served mainly to confirm Iran’s persecution complex. This is mind war conducted at a very sophisticated level indeed.
The real protagonists in this saga of maneuver and deception are the MEK/NCRI. A steady procession of their revelations, many of them eventually validated by the IAEA and other methods, continued to expose Iran’s massive construction projects, now shown to include underground, hardened bunkers and tunnels obviously designed to conceal and protect a nuclear program that Iran stubbornly, but with increasing difficulty, tried to insist was for ‘peaceful purposes.’ So, Iran’s D&D, mind war, and psy ops teams changed gears again.
As speculation about an eventual Israeli or U.S. military strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities swirled with increasing intensity in the 2006-2007 timeframe, word went out from Tehran that the deeply-buried and concrete-reinforced bunkers were out of reach for anything short of tactical nuclear weapons. But if either country were foolish enough to try the kind of military strike that took out Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, Iran was prepared to launch devastating missile attacks against Israel, unleash Hizballah operational cells across the Western world, and intensify lethal assistance to terrorist groups fighting against U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq. In any case, it was asserted, any attack on Iran by Western forces would only propel the Iranian people to rally behind its leadership, all animosity towards a regime that arrests, jails, tortures, and kills them with impunity instantly forgotten.
And once again, many in the U.S. and elsewhere bought it, prefering to accept a diagnosis of impotence rather than challenge the arrogance of the Iranian regime. Regime change was dismissed as ‘too hard’, ‘unrealistic’. Journal and op-ed pieces began to appear and slick Iranian ‘experts’ suddenly swarmed the media to speculate how best to ‘contain’ and ‘deter’ a nuclear-armed Iran. ‘Living with a nuclear Iran’ became the mantra of radio talk shows, think tank panel presentations, and even found an echo within U.S. administration and military circles. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice fairly begged the Iranian regime to attend high-level talks in Baghdad, the UN Security Council (UNSC) in October 2007 postponed discussions about additional sanctions for Iran, and U.S. commanders in Iraq, hunkered down under fire from Iranian-produced munitions, plaintively insisted that Iran was ‘out of their area of responsibility’.
The Iranian mind war operation thus celebrated a seminal victory over its despised international adversaries without having to fire a single shot. By clever application of denial and deception, mind war, and psychological operations tactics, the Iranian regime succeeded in changing global perceptions about its nuclear program. After being caught red-handed of violating the provisions of the nuclear NPT over a fourteen year period, Iran was able to gain the total acquiescence of the international community for the concept of an Iranian nuclear power program and, even more stunning, an acceptance of a nuclear weapons-armed Iran that is allied with al-Qa’eda and a horde of other terrorist groups. Incredible as it may seem, Iran has shifted the thinking of world leaders completely away from its culpability for having and concealing a secret nuclear weapons program and into a subservient position from which it is the party deterred from even considering military strikes against Iran.
The beauty of Iran’s mind war victory is that neither the U.S. nor the international community even seem to realize it’s been maneuvered into total alignment with Iran’s ideologically-driven objectives for geo-strategic expansionism.
Clare M. Lopez is a strategic policy and intelligence expert with a focus on Middle East, homeland security, national defense, and counterterrorism issues. She was an operations officer with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), serving domestically and abroad for 20 years in a variety of assignments.
Clare is currently the Vice President of the International Intelligence Summit organization and was formerly the Director of The Iran Policy Committee. She speaks and writes widely on Middle East, counter-terrorism and WMD issues.