Newsweek: Hidden war with Iran; Will it 'blowup?'
Published: Sunday February 11, 2007
Print This  Email This

The cover story of the latest Newsweek explores the "hidden war with Iran," asking will it "blowup?"

"The longstanding war of words between Washington and Tehran is edging toward something more dangerous," states a Newsweek press release sent to RAW STORY. "A second Navy carrier group is steaming toward the Persian Gulf, and Newsweek has learned that a third carrier will likely follow."

The press release adds, "Iran shot off a few missiles in those same tense waters last week, in a highly publicized test. On the chaotic battleground of Iraq, a hidden war between the United States and Iran is already unfolding. But, ironically, the history of the Bush administration's dealings with Iran also offers a surprising degree of hope. A special investigation by a team of Newsweek reporters, led by Senior Editor Michael Hirsh in Washington and Correspondent Maziar Bahari in Tehran, has uncovered periods of marked cooperation and even tentative steps toward possible reconciliation in recent years far more than is commonly realized."

"At least one former White House official contends that some Bush advisers secretly want an excuse to attack Iran," Michael Hirsh and Maziar Bahari report for Newsweek.

The article continues, "'They intend to be as provocative as possible and make the Iranians do something [America] would be forced to retaliate for,'" says Hillary Mann, the administration's former National Security Council director for Iran and Persian Gulf Affairs U.S. officials insist they have no intention of provoking or otherwise starting a war with Iran, and they were also quick to deny any link to Sharafi's kidnapping. But the fact remains that the longstanding war of words between Washington and Tehran is edging toward something more dangerous. A second Navy carrier group is steaming toward the Persian Gulf, and NEWSWEEK has learned that a third carrier will likely follow. Iran shot off a few missiles in those same tense waters last week, in a highly publicized test. With Americans and Iranians jousting on the chaotic battleground of Iraq, the chances of a small incident's spiraling into a crisis are higher than they've been in years."

Excerpts from article:


It would be another war that nudged the two countries together again. At the beginning of 2003, as the Pentagon readied for battle against Iraq, the Americans wanted Tehran's help in case a flood of refugees headed for the border, or if U.S. pilots were downed inside Iran. After U.S. tanks thundered into Baghdad, those worries eased. "We had the strong hand at that point," recalls Colin Powell, who was secretary of State at the time. If anything, though, America's lightning campaign made the Iranians even more eager to deal. Low-level meetings between the two sides had continued even after the Axis of Evil speech. At one of them that spring, Zarif raised the question of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a rabidly anti-Iranian militant group based in Iraq. Iran had detained a number of senior Qaeda operatives after 9/11. Zarif floated the possibility of "reciprocity"—your terrorists for ours.

The idea was brought up at a mid-May meeting between Bush and his chief advisers in the wood-paneled Situation Room in the White House basement. Riding high, Bush seemed to like the idea of a swap, says a participant who asked to remain anonymous because the meeting was classified. Some in the room argued that designating the militants as terrorists had been a mistake, others that they might prove useful against Iran someday. Powell opposed the handover for a different reason: he worried that the captives might be tortured. The vice president, silent through most of the meeting as was his wont, muttered something about "preserving all our options." (Cheney declined to comment.) The MEK's status remains unresolved.

Around this time what struck some in the U.S. government as an even more dramatic offer arrived in Washington—a faxed two-page proposal for comprehensive bilateral talks. To the NSC's Mann, among others, the Iranians seemed willing to discuss, at least, cracking down on Hizbullah and Hamas (or turning them into peaceful political organizations) and "full transparency" on Iran's nuclear program. In return, the Iranian "aims" in the document called for a "halt in U.S. hostile behavior and rectification of the status of Iran in the U.S. and abolishing sanctions," as well as pursuit of the MEK.


The letter received a mixed reception. Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage were suspicious. Armitage says he thinks the letter represented creative diplomacy by the Swiss ambassador, Tim Guldimann, who was serving as a go-between. "We couldn't determine what [in the proposal] was the Iranians' and what was the Swiss ambassador's," he says. He added that his impression at the time was that the Iranians "were trying to put too much on the table." Quizzed about the letter in front of Congress last week, Rice denied ever seeing it. "I don't care if it originally came from Mars," Mann says now. "If the Iranians said it was fully vetted and cleared, then it could have been as important as the two-page document" that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger received from Beijing in 1971, indicating Mao Zedong's interest in opening China.


Critics have questioned how much of that plan is military—whether the administration is secretly setting a course for war as it did back in 2002. Last week officials were at great pains to deny that scenario. "We are not planning offensive military operations against Iran," said Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns. The Pentagon does have contingency plans for all-out war with Iran, on which Bush was briefed last summer. The targets would include Iran's air-defense systems, its nuclear- and chemical-weapons facilities, ballistic missile sites, naval and Revolutionary Guard bases in the gulf, and intelligence headquarters. But generals are convinced that no amount of firepower could do more than delay Tehran's nuclear program. U.S. military analysts have concluded that nothing short of regime change would completely eliminate the threat—and America simply doesn't have the troops needed.