In the months after 9/11, rather than relying on the CIA, the State Department or the Pentagon's own Defense Intelligence Agency for information about Iraq's ties to international terrorists and its development of weapons of mass destruction, neo-conservatives in the Pentagon set up a special intelligence shop called the Office of Special Plans (OSP).
The founders, deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, undersecretary for defense for policy, are fervent advocates of a regional restructuring in the Middle East that includes regime change in Iran, Syria and ultimately Saudi Arabia.
In August it was revealed that one of Feith's Middle East policy wonks, Lawrence Franklin, shared classified documents - including a draft National Security Presidential Directive formulated in Feith's office that outlines a more aggressive U.S. national security strategy regarding Iran - with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Israeli officials. The FBI is investigating the document transfer as a case of espionage.
Like neo-conservatives in the U.S., Israeli hardliners believe that Israel's long-term security can best be ensured by a radical make-over of Middle East politics enforced by the superior military power of the U.S. and Israel.
It now appears that Feith's Office of Policy, which was creating dubious intelligence rationales for the Iraq war, was also establishing a covert national security strategy for regime change in Iran - most likely through a combo of pre-emptive military strikes (either by the U.S. or Israel) and support for a coalition of Iranian dissidents.
This covert operation is the subject of the FBI espionage investigation and inquiries by the House Judiciary Committee and Select Senate Intelligence Committee - inquiries that have been postponed until after the election.
Without notifying the State Department or the CIA, Feith's office has been involved in back-channel operations that have included a series of secret meetings in Washington, Rome and Paris over the last three years. These meetings have brought together Office of Policy officials and consultants, an expatriate Iranian arms dealer, AIPAC lobbyists and Italian and Israeli intelligence officers, among others.
For more than two years, an FBI counterintelligence operation has been monitoring Washington meetings between AIPAC, Franklin and Israeli officials. Investigators suspect that the draft security document was passed to Israel through an intermediary, likely AIPAC.
This cast of characters indicates that U.S. Middle East policy involves covert and illegal operations that resemble the Iran-Contra operations of the 80s. Not only are the neo-conservatives once again the leading actors, but these new covert operations involve at least two Iran-Contra conspirators. This time around, however, the apparent aim of these back-channel dealings is to move U.S.-Iran relations beyond the reach of State Department diplomats and into the domain of the Pentagon ideologues.
One of them, Michael Ledeen, the neo-conservative point man in the Iran regime-change campaign, wrote in the National Review Online that too many U.S. government officials "prefer to schmooze with the mullahs" rather than promote "democratic revolution in Iran."
In early 2002, Ledeen, along with Morris Amitay, a former AIPAC executive director as well as a CSP adviser, founded the Coalition for Democracy in Iran (CDI) to build congressional and administration support for Iran regime change. AIPAC and CDI helped ensure passage of recent House and Senate resolutions that condemn Iran, call for tighter sanctions and express support for Iranian dissidents.
Rob Sobhani, an Iranian American who like Ledeen and other neo-conservatives is a friend of the Shah's son Reza Pahlavi, is also a CDI member. CDI expresses the common neo-conservative position that constructive engagement with the Iranian government, even with the democratic reformists, is merely appeasement. Instead, the United States should proceed immediately to a regime change strategy, working closely with the "Iranian people." Representatives of the Iranian people who could be the frontmen for a regime-change strategy, according to the neo-conservatives, include Pahlavi (who has also cultivated close ties with the Likud party in Israel) and the Iraq-based guerrilla group Mujahadin-E Khalq (MEK).
The CDI's Ledeen, Amitay and Sobhani were featured speakers at a May 2003 forum on "the future of Iran." The forum, chaired by the Hudson Institute's Meyrav Wurmser, the Israeli-born wife of David Wurmser (he serves as Cheney's leading expert on Iran and Syria), included a presentation by Uri Lubrani of Israel's Ministry of Defense. Summarizing the sentiment of neo-conservative ideologues and strategists, Meyrav Wurmser said: "Our fight against Iraq was only a battle in a long war. It would be ill-conceived to think we can deal with Iraq alone. We must move on, and faster."
The Israeli government and AIPAC have denied that they engaged in any criminal operations involving classified Pentagon documents about Iran. Natan Sharansky, Israel's minister of diaspora affairs, has said, "There are absolutely no attempts to involve any member of the Jewish community and any general American citizens to spy for Israel against the United States." He observed that the investigation of the Pentagon's Office of Policy staff most likely stemmed from an inter-agency rivalry within the government.
Meanwhile, tensions with Iran deepen, which suits the Iran war party just fine. "Stability," Ledeen once said, "gives me the heebie-jeebies."