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May 25, 2007: With the recent media exposure of covert operations against the Iranian government, the United States has suffered a serious setback in the global war on terror. In essence, a leak not only scrapped a plan to destabilize a state sponsor of terrorism, but it also placed CIA agents and their Iranian allies in danger. The Iranian people in general are now at greater risk because a military confrontation more likely.

The American plan was to destabilize the Iranian government through supporting various opposition groups. This is a logical step, given the general unpopularity of the mullahs among the Iranian people. If opposition groups can gain traction, there is a chance to end the Iranian nuclear crisis in a non-violent manner. For an example of similar covert operations, look at the operations against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Solidarity in Poland was one such group that became a major recipient of CIA support.

With the exposure of the operation, this has been greatly set back. It goes beyond the fact that this particular operation has been compromised. One of the immediate effects is that now, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullah will claim that other domestic opposition groups are being funded by the United States. This will push them back in some areas, and it will also hinder their growth. After all, nobody likes a foreign government messing with their domestic political situation - and the folks who the foreign government are backing will have lower support within Iran. Well, the lucky ones will. The unlucky ones will end up in prison. The really unlucky ones will end up dead.

But the least-realized consequence is the fact that the Iranian people have now been placed at greater risk. This is because a non-military option has been taken off the table for a while. As Iran continues its uranium enrichment and progress towards a nuclear weapon, the United States will be facing a tough decision. Iran's nuclear program is of great concern because Iran not only has had generally bad relations with the United States (this is the predictable result of the storming of the embassy in Tehran back in 1979), but also because Iran is known to be a major sponsor of Hizbollah, a terrorist organization with a propensity for large-scale suicide attacks (like the bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983). In effect, Hizbollah can be seen as a delivery system for an Iranian WMD strike. What scares a lot of people about Iran is not that they seek nuclear weapons for deterrence (say, against an attack), but that they could provide WMD to Hizbollah, who then use it on an Israeli or American target.

When that happens, the United States will have to respond in kind. This would be a case where not using nuclear weapons would be seen as an act of weakness. The targets would probably be extensive (Iran has at least four major chemical weapons facilities, at least one biological weapons facility, plus the nuclear research program, which includes enrichment facilities in at least three locations). Even a limited strike would push the death toll into the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and a limited strike would risk missing some of the Iranian systems. The only way to be sure Iran would be incapable of launching a second attack would be to wipe Iran off the map. The Iranian people would pay a fearsome price for the decisions of the mullahs and/or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The exposure of the covert operation will have many consequences, and will make dealing with Iran much more difficult. Not only was one operation compromised, others will have to lay low. Iran will also be expecting trouble. As a result, Iran will take measures to defend against future operations. This makes it more likely that the solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis will be a violent one. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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