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Persian Gulf

So far America's war on terrorism has converged nicely with the regional interests of the world's leading sponsor of international terrorism: Iran. After September 11, 2001, the United States worked with Tehran's mullahs to help oust their Sunni rivals to the east in Afghanistan, the Taliban. And now, nearly 13 months after Osama bin Laden's hijackers toppled the World Trade Center, President Bush has made it clear he intends to repeat the favor by toppling Iran's rival to the west: Saddam Hussein.

Nonetheless, the Islamic Republic is worried--worried enough to ask a delegation of former high-ranking U.S. diplomats and congressional staffers last month whether the president respects the sovereignty of Ayatollah Ali Khomeini's government. "They are not happy about what the Bush administration has to say about them, and they believe they are the next card in the deck," says Edward Walker, President Clinton's former assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs. Walker, along with former Undersecretary of Defense Frank Wisner, former Undersecretary of State Tom Pickering, and a handful of congressional staff members, met Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi on September 12 at Iran's U.N. mission in New York during the U.N. General Assembly meeting. According to Walker, Kharrazi bluntly said he believed the Bush administration has a "hidden agenda" to undermine his government and asked the delegation to convey this concern to the State Department.

Until this summer the Iranians had had plenty of opportunity to discuss such matters with U.S. diplomats directly. Indeed, during the last General Assembly meeting in November 2001, the State Department met frequently with Iranian diplomats to plan the Bonn Conference that ultimately established the interim Afghan authority. Since July, however, U.S. policy toward Iran has shifted from exploring ways to cooperate with Tehran on regional issues to supporting the greatest threat to the regime--the students, writers, clerics, and workers who have taken to the streets in open opposition to the government. At this month's U.N. General Assembly, the only face-to-face conversation between Kharrazi and Secretary of State Colin Powell was during a meeting with foreign ministers from Afghanistan, its neighbors, and Russia--a grouping referred to as the "six plus two" in diplomatic shorthand--to discuss policy toward the Central Asian state. Thus the Iranians must rely on the assurances of former ambassadors that the United States does not intend to change its regime. "We made assurances that there was no administration policy to overthrow the regime, regardless of what people might think," Walker said.

But Walker may be wrong. While the United States is still a party to the 1981 Algiers agreement--which codified U.S. recognition of the Islamic Republic of Iran after the revolution and subsequent hostage crisis--Bush and his advisers have also decided there is no value in working with the country's elected, though largely powerless, president, Mohammed Khatami. As Zalmay Khalilzad, senior director for Southwest Asia, Near East, and North Africa on the National Security Council, put it in August, "Our policy is not about Khatami or Khomeini, reform or hard-line; it is about supporting those who want freedom, human rights, democracy, and economic and educational opportunity for themselves and their fellow countrymen and women." Considering that by almost all indications the Iranians "who want freedom" also want to overthrow the government, it is understandable why Kharrazi would ask for a clarification of the president's plans for Tehran.

If Iran isn't reassured, it may begin causing real problems for America's upcoming war with Iraq--either by undermining the military effort itself or, more likely, by interfering with the post-Saddam political order the United States tries to establish. "The current U.S. policy, which is ambiguous, could influence the Iranians in a post-Saddam Iraq to try to secure their own interests, which may not fit into what we're trying to do," Walker says. In other words, the Bush team's goals of regime change in Baghdad and regime change in Tehran may be about to slam into one another.

U.S. relations with Iran were tenuous prior to the first Gulf war as well. In August 1990, shortly after Saddam invaded Kuwait, then-Secretary of State James Baker instructed his diplomats to draft a short note, to be passed on to Ayatollah Khomeini's government through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, explaining that the United States would not use the opportunity of its pending war with Iraq to attack Iran and would expect similar reassurances from the mullahs. "There was kind of a mutual understanding," says David Mack, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs at the time. "We should communicate with each other and do this in a way that made sure the Iranians knew [that] when one of our cruise missiles should stray into their territory it was not meant for them."

Because the first President Bush opted not to send in the Army to occupy Baghdad, there was no need to gauge Tehran's likely reaction to an American occupation of Iraq. This time, however, the United States needs to know ahead of time. And if Iran's approach to a post-Saddam Iraq is anything like its approach to a post-Taliban Afghanistan, the Bush administration has reason to be concerned. For starters, the CIA believes Iran's intelligence services have funneled arms and cash to Ismail Khan, a former mujahedin warlord and the current governor of Herat, a city near the Iranian border. Furthermore, U.S. officials from Khalilzad to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have openly accused the Iranian intelligence services of providing safe haven for senior Al Qaeda leaders during and after Operation Enduring Freedom. One former U.S. intelligence official, still working in a consulting capacity on the war on terrorism, says, "Iran is scared poopieless about the prospect of pro-American regimes on either side of it."

In Afghanistan, Iran's two main intelligence services, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the Pasdaran (the intelligence arm of the Revolutionary Guard), have exercised influence through the Northern Alliance warlords they supported in the six years prior to the September 11 attacks--when the United States largely stayed out of the Afghan civil war. In the case of Iraq, Iran's intelligence apparatus supports, to varying degrees, three different opposition groups, all of whom sent high-ranking delegations to Washington in August for meetings with Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and the undersecretaries of state and defense.

The first of these groups is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the semi-autonomous party that controls the eastern part of Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran began providing small arms to the PUK in 1995, a development that led its rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, to align with Saddam in the mini-civil war that took place in northern Iraq in 1996. The PUK's leader, Jalal Talabani, went to Iran last February--only a few weeks after Bush's State of the Union address declaring Iran a member of the "axis of evil"--and received assurances that the border between his territory and Iran would remain open despite his intention to forge a close alliance with the United States. That border is crucial for Talabani because the Iranians sell the Kurds gasoline and occasionally sell spare parts and ammunition for the PUK militia.

The second Iraqi opposition group that receives support from Iran is the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Ahmad Chalabi, one of the founders of the INC and the opposition leader with the best connections in Washington, visited Iran twice this summer and has served as a back channel between Washington and Tehran. In August he told the administration the Iranians would not interfere with America's war and may even assist U.S. efforts to oust Saddam. Chalabi has managed to get the Iranians to allow his men to use Iranian territory to launch operations into southern Iraq and even to set up a radio transmitter in Iran to broadcast into northern Iraq. In addition, the INC operates a U.S.-funded office in Tehran and has regular contacts with the Iraqi opposition group with the greatest allegiance to Iranian intelligence: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.

Iran does not tell Chalabi or Talabani what to do, and in many ways their relationships with the mullahs stem from necessity--until fairly recently the U.S. government would not offer protection or serious assistance to either group. SCIRI, however, is a different story. And its relationship with Tehran should sound alarm bells in Washington.

SCIRI is essentially an umbrella group for fundamentalist Shia Islamists who oppose Saddam's rule. Its office space in Tehran is provided and paid for by its Iranian hosts. Its operational arm is largely made up of groups that trace themselves back to Al Dawa, or "the Call," an organization of Islamic radicals supported by Iran in the 1980s and 1990s. Seventeen members of Al Dawa were rounded up and imprisoned in Kuwait in 1984 after launching a spectacular series of suicide attacks on Western targets in the country, including truck bombings of the U.S. and French Embassies on December 12, 1983, that killed five people and wounded dozens. The leader of the group was Mustafa Youssef Badreddin, the brother-in-law and cousin of Hezbollah master terrorist Imad Mughniyah--who earlier that year planned the bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks and Embassy in Lebanon. One of Mughniyah's demands for the release of hostages later that decade was the release of the "Kuwait 17."

Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Kuwait 17 either broke out of prison or were freed (reports vary) and, according to Mack, allied themselves with their former Kuwaiti captors in opposition to Saddam. And after the Gulf war Al Dawa began working with the United States. "We took a decision that their past was sufficiently ambiguous and unseemly and involved terrorism against the United States, so I didn't meet with them," Mack said. "However, they saw other people at a lower level."

Today four separate groups trace themselves back to Al Dawa and help to compose SCIRI. All four maintain regular contacts with Iranian intelligence. Nabeel Musawi, the INC's chief diplomat and a key link with the Iran-based Iraqi opposition, said in a phone interview that different Iranian security services wield power over different Al Dawa factions. Which brings us back to the question of whether the Iranian government believes it is a target in the war on terrorism. If the Iranians believe Bush seeks an end to their regime, then there is plenty of trouble they could cause U.S. efforts in Iraq, particularly during the rebuilding phase that would follow Saddam's overthrow. And the four Al Dawa branches of SCIRI would make the perfect front men through whom the mullahs could act.

Danielle Pletka, a former Republican staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says she would not be surprised if Iranian intelligence attempted in post-Saddam Iraq an operation similar to the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers, a housing facility for U.S. service personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia. "If in fact the Iranians feel the safety and security of their regime is hanging in the balance, I can imagine them using all the tools at their disposal, including terrorism. Remember Khobar Towers."

Another possibility is that the Iranians might use their influence near the border in Basra--where one Al Dawa branch, known as the Union of Islamic Forces, is based--to create a base of operations to attack pro-American officials in a post-Saddam government. (The parallel here might be Iran's ongoing support of Ismail Khan in Eastern Afghanistan.) As Francis Brooke, Washington adviser to the INC, points out, "If the Iranians believe the Americans are a mortal threat to their regime, you could see a situation where the Iranians provoke Iraqi officials in the next government to go after those they see as pro-American." Or the Al Dawa groups might return to their old form and try to blow up the U.S. Embassy in a liberated Baghdad. Changing regimes in one "axis of evil" state is hard enough. But changing regimes in two, the Bush administration may soon find out, is harder still.