March 5, 2007
from TheNewYorker Website
have involved the United States in worsening Sunni-Shiite
A STRATEGIC SHIFT
The "redirection," as some inside the White
House have called the new strategy, has brought the United States closer to
an open confrontation with Iran and, in parts of the region, propelled it
into a widening sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine
operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these
activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a
militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al
Its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made defiant pronouncements about the destruction of Israel and his country's right to pursue its nuclear program, and last week its supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on state television that,
After the revolution of 1979 brought a religious government to power, the United States broke with Iran and cultivated closer relations with the leaders of Sunni Arab states such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
That calculation became more complex after the September 11th attacks, especially with regard to the Saudis. Al Qaeda is Sunni, and many of its operatives came from extremist religious circles inside Saudi Arabia. Before the invasion of Iraq, in 2003, Administration officials, influenced by neoconservative ideologues, assumed that a Shiite government there could provide a pro-American balance to Sunni extremists, since Iraq's Shiite majority had been oppressed under Saddam Hussein.
They ignored warnings from the intelligence
community about the ties between Iraqi Shiite leaders and Iran, where some
had lived in exile for years. Now, to the distress of the White House, Iran
has forged a close relationship with the Shiite-dominated government of
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Iran and Syria, she said,
Some of the core tactics of the redirection are not public, however.
The clandestine operations have been kept secret, in
some cases, by leaving the execution or the funding to the Saudis, or by
finding other ways to work around the normal congressional appropriations
process, current and former officials close to the Administration said.
While Rice has been deeply involved in shaping the public policy, former and current officials said that the clandestine side has been guided by Cheney.
(Cheney's office and the White House declined to comment for this story; the
Pentagon did not respond to specific queries but said, "The United States is
not planning to go to war with Iran.")
The Sunni states,
Martin Indyk, a senior State Department official in the Clinton Administration who also served as Ambassador to Israel, said that,
Indyk, who is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, added that, in his opinion, it was not clear whether the White House was fully aware of the strategic implications of its new policy.
The Administration's new policy for containing Iran seems to complicate its strategy for winning the war in Iraq.
Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iran and the deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued, however, that closer ties between the United States and moderate or even radical Sunnis could put "fear" into the government of Prime Minister Maliki and "make him worry that the Sunnis could actually win" the civil war there.
Clawson said that this might give Maliki an
incentive to cooperate with the United States in suppressing radical Shiite
militias, such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
A memorandum written late last year by Stephen Hadley, the national-security adviser, suggested that the Administration try to separate Maliki from his more radical Shiite allies by building his base among moderate Sunnis and Kurds, but so far the trends have been in the opposite direction.
As the Iraqi Army continues to founder in its
confrontations with insurgents, the power of the Shiite militias has
President George W. Bush, in a speech on January 10th, partially spelled out this approach.
In the following weeks, there was a wave of allegations from the Administration about Iranian involvement in the Iraq war.
On February 11th, reporters were
shown sophisticated explosive devices, captured in Iraq, that the
Administration claimed had come from Iran. The Administration's message was,
in essence, that the bleak situation in Iraq was the result not of its own
failures of planning and execution but of Iran's interference.
The Pentagon consultant confirmed that hundreds of Iranians have been captured by American forces in recent months.
But he told me that that total includes many Iranian humanitarian and aid workers who "get scooped up and released in a short time," after they have been interrogated.
According to current and former American intelligence and military officials, secret operations in Lebanon have been accompanied by clandestine operations targeting Iran.
American military and special-operations teams
have escalated their activities in Iran to gather intelligence and,
according to a Pentagon consultant on terrorism and the former senior
intelligence official, have also crossed the border in pursuit of Iranian
operatives from Iraq.
The ambiguity of Rice's reply prompted a response from Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, who has been critical of the Administration:
The Administration's concern about Iran's role in Iraq is coupled with its long-standing alarm over Iran's nuclear program.
On Fox News on January 14th, Cheney warned of the possibility, in a few years,
He also said,
The Administration is now examining a wave of new intelligence on Iran's weapons programs.
Current and former American officials told me that the intelligence, which came from Israeli agents operating in Iran, includes a claim that Iran has developed a three-stage solid-fuelled intercontinental missile capable of delivering several small warheads - each with limited accuracy - inside Europe.
The validity of this human intelligence is still
Many in Congress have greeted the claims about Iran with wariness; in the Senate on February 14th, Hillary Clinton said,
Still, the Pentagon is continuing intensive planning for a possible bombing attack on Iran, a process that began last year, at the direction of the President.
In recent months, the former intelligence
official told me, a special planning group has been established in the
offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged with creating a contingency
bombing plan for Iran that can be implemented, upon orders from the
President, within twenty-four hours.
(Among other concerns, war games have shown that the carriers could be vulnerable to swarming tactics involving large numbers of small boats, a technique that the Iranians have practiced in the past; carriers have limited maneuverability in the narrow Strait of Hormuz, off Iran's southern coast.)
The former senior intelligence official said that the current contingency plans allow for an attack order this spring.
He added, however, that senior officers on the Joint Chiefs were counting on the White House's not being,
Bandar served as the Ambassador to the United States for twenty-two years, until 2005, and has maintained a friendship with President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. In his new post, he continues to meet privately with them.
Senior White House officials have made several
visits to Saudi Arabia recently, some of them not disclosed.
In a royal family rife with competition, Bandar has, over the years, built a power base that relies largely on his close relationship with the U.S., which is crucial to the Saudis.
Bandar was succeeded as Ambassador by Prince Turki al-Faisal; Turki resigned after eighteen months and was replaced by Adel A. al-Jubeir, a bureaucrat who has worked with Bandar.
A former Saudi diplomat told me that during Turki's tenure he became aware of private meetings involving Bandar and senior White House officials, including Cheney and Abrams.
Although Turki dislikes Bandar, the Saudi said,
he shared his goal of challenging the spread of Shiite power in the Middle
Worldwide, ninety per cent of Muslims are Sunni, but Shiites are a majority in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain, and are the largest Muslim group in Lebanon.
Their concentration in a volatile, oil-rich region has led to concern in the West and among Sunnis about the emergence of a "Shiite crescent" - especially given Iran's increased geopolitical weight.
If Bandar was seen as bringing about a shift in
U.S. policy in favor of the Sunnis, he added, it would greatly enhance his
standing within the royal family.
The royal family believes that Iranian operatives, working with local Shiites, have been behind many terrorist attacks inside the kingdom, according to Vali Nasr.
(Saudi Arabia has seventy-five thousand troops
in its standing army.)
The Saudi royal family has been, by turns, both a sponsor and a target of Sunni extremists, who object to the corruption and decadence among the family's myriad princes.
The princes are gambling that they will not be
overthrown as long as they continue to support religious schools and
charities linked to the extremists. The Administration's new strategy is
heavily dependent on this bargain.
Hundreds of young Saudis were sent into the border areas of Pakistan, where they set up religious schools, training bases, and recruiting facilities.
Then, as now, many of the operatives who were
paid with Saudi money were Salafis. Among them, of course, were Osama bin
Laden and his associates, who founded Al Qaeda, in 1988.
The Saudi said that, in his country's view, it was taking a political risk by joining the U.S. in challenging Iran: Bandar is already seen in the Arab world as being too close to the Bush Administration.
In the past year, the Saudis, the Israelis, and the Bush Administration have developed a series of informal understandings about their new strategic direction.
At least four main elements were involved, the
U.S. government consultant told me. First, Israel would be assured that its
security was paramount and that Washington and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni
states shared its concern about Iran.
However, Israel and the U.S. have expressed
dissatisfaction with the terms.)
The Saudi government is also at odds with the Syrians over the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister, in Beirut in 2005, for which it believes the Assad government was responsible. Hariri, a billionaire Sunni, was closely associated with the Saudi regime and with Prince Bandar.
(A U.N. inquiry strongly suggested that the
Syrians were involved, but offered no direct evidence; there are plans for
another investigation, by an international tribunal.)
The new diplomatic approach, he added,
The Pentagon consultant had a different view.
He said that the Administration had turned to
Bandar as a "fallback," because it had realized that the failing war in Iraq
could leave the Middle East "up for grabs."
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is struggling to stay in power against a persistent opposition led by Hezbollah, the Shiite organization, and its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
Hezbollah has an extensive infrastructure, an
estimated two to three thousand active fighters, and thousands of additional
(Nasrallah has denied that the group was involved in these incidents.)
Nasrallah is seen by many as a staunch terrorist, who has said that he regards Israel as a state that has no right to exist. Many in the Arab world, however, especially Shiites, view him as a resistance leader who withstood Israel in last summer's thirty-three-day war, and Siniora as a weak politician who relies on America's support but was unable to persuade President Bush to call for an end to the Israeli bombing of Lebanon.
(Photographs of Siniora kissing Condoleezza Rice
on the cheek when she visited during the war were prominently displayed
during street protests in Beirut.)
A donors' conference in Paris, in January, which
the U.S. helped organize, yielded pledges of almost eight billion more,
including a promise of more than a billion from the Saudis. The American
pledge includes more than two hundred million dollars in military aid, and
forty million dollars for internal security.
The problem was that such money,
American, European, and Arab officials I spoke to told me that the Siniora government and its allies had allowed some aid to end up in the hands of emerging Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south.
These groups, though small, are seen as a buffer
to Hezbollah; at the same time, their ideological ties are with Al Qaeda.
Alastair Crooke, who spent nearly thirty years in MI6, the British intelligence service, and now works for Conflicts Forum, a think tank in Beirut, told me,
Crooke said that one Sunni extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon.
Its membership at the time was less than two hundred.
The largest of the groups, Asbat al-Ansar, is situated in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp.
Asbat al-Ansar has
received arms and supplies from Lebanese internal-security forces and
militias associated with the Siniora government.
The men had been arrested while trying to
establish an Islamic mini-state in northern Lebanon. The Crisis Group noted
that many of the militants "had trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan."
(He also arranged a pardon for Samir Geagea, a Maronite Christian militia leader, who had been convicted of four political murders, including the assassination, in 1987, of Prime Minister Rashid Karami.)
Hariri described his actions to reporters as
He related this to concerns that Iran or Syria
might decide to turn Lebanon into a "theatre of conflict."
But if Hezbollah agreed to a settlement yet still maintained a separate army, allied with Iran and Syria,
The Bush Administration has portrayed its support of the Siniora government as an example of the President's belief in democracy, and his desire to prevent other powers from interfering in Lebanon.
When Hezbollah led street demonstrations in
Beirut in December, John Bolton, who was then the U.S. Ambassador to the
U.N., called them "part of the Iran-Syria-inspired coup."
The fall of the Siniora government would be seen, Gelb said,
Martin Indyk, of the Saban Center, said, however, that the United States,
In January, after an outburst of street violence in Beirut involving supporters of both the Siniora government and Hezbollah, Prince Bandar flew to Tehran to discuss the political impasse in Lebanon and to meet with Ali Larijani, the Iranians' negotiator on nuclear issues.
According to a Middle Eastern ambassador, Bandar's mission - which the ambassador said was endorsed by the White House - also aimed "to create problems between the Iranians and Syria."
There had been tensions between the two countries about Syrian talks with Israel, and the Saudis' goal was to encourage a breach.
However, the ambassador said,
Walid Jumblatt, who is the leader of the Druze minority in Lebanon and a strong Siniora supporter, has attacked Nasrallah as an agent of Syria, and has repeatedly told foreign journalists that Hezbollah is under the direct control of the religious leadership in Iran.
In a conversation with me last December, he
depicted Bashir Assad, the Syrian President, as a "serial killer." Nasrallah,
he said, was "morally guilty" of the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the
murder, last November, of Pierre Gemayel, a member of the Siniora Cabinet,
because of his support for the Syrians.
He and his colleagues advised Cheney that, if
the United States does try to move against Syria, members of the Syrian
Muslim Brotherhood would be "the ones to talk to," Jumblatt said.
Membership in the Brotherhood is punishable by death in Syria. The Brotherhood is also an avowed enemy of the U.S. and of Israel.
Nevertheless, Jumblatt said,
There is evidence that the Administration's redirection strategy has already benefitted the Brotherhood.
The Syrian National Salvation Front is a coalition of opposition groups whose principal members are a faction led by Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian Vice-President who defected in 2005, and the Brotherhood.
A former high-ranking C.I.A. officer told me,
He said that Khaddam, who now lives in Paris, was getting money from Saudi Arabia, with the knowledge of the White House.
(In 2005, a delegation of the Front's members
met with officials from the National Security Council, according to press
reports.) A former White House official told me that the Saudis had provided
members of the Front with travel documents.
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, who has been in hiding, had agreed to an interview. Security arrangements for the meeting were secretive and elaborate. I was driven, in the back seat of a darkened car, to a damaged underground garage somewhere in Beirut, searched with a handheld scanner, placed in a second car to be driven to yet another bomb-scarred underground garage, and transferred again.
Last summer, it was reported that Israel was trying to kill Nasrallah, but the extraordinary precautions were not due only to that threat.
Nasrallah's aides told me that they believe he is a prime target of fellow-Arabs, primarily Jordanian intelligence operatives, as well as Sunni jihadists who they believe are affiliated with Al Qaeda.
(The government consultant and a retired four-star general said that Jordanian intelligence, with support from the U.S. and Israel, had been trying to infiltrate Shiite groups, to work against Hezbollah. Jordan's King Abdullah II has warned that a Shiite government in Iraq that was close to Iran would lead to the emergence of a Shiite crescent.)
This is something of an ironic turn: Nasrallah's
battle with Israel last summer turned him - a Shiite - into the most popular
and influential figure among Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region. In
recent months, however, he has increasingly been seen by many Sunnis not as
a symbol of Arab unity but as a participant in a sectarian war.
One of his advisers said that he was not likely to remain there overnight; he has been on the move since his decision, last July, to order the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid set off the thirty-three-day war.
Nasrallah has since said publicly - and repeated to me - that he misjudged the Israeli response.
Nasrallah accused the Bush Administration of working with Israel to deliberately instigate fitna, an Arabic word that is used to mean "insurrection and fragmentation within Islam."
(He did not provide any specific evidence for this.)
He said that the U.S. war in Iraq had increased
sectarian tensions, but argued that Hezbollah had tried to prevent them from
spreading into Lebanon. (Sunni-Shiite confrontations increased, along with
violence, in the weeks after we talked.)
He went on,
Nasrallah said he believed that America also wanted to bring about the partition of Lebanon and of Syria.
In Syria, he said, the result would be to push the country,
But, he said,
Nasrallah told me that he suspected that one aim of the Israeli bombing of Lebanon last summer was,
Partition would leave Israel surrounded by,
In fact, the Bush Administration has adamantly resisted talk of partitioning Iraq, and its public stances suggest that the White House sees a future Lebanon that is intact, with a weak, disarmed Hezbollah playing, at most, a minor political role.
There is also no evidence to support Nasrallah's
belief that the Israelis were seeking to drive the Shiites into southern
Iraq. Nevertheless, Nasrallah's vision of a larger sectarian conflict in
which the United States is implicated suggests a possible consequence of the
White House's new strategy.
He said that the Hezbollah militia, unless attacked, would operate only within the borders of Lebanon, and pledged to disarm it when the Lebanese Army was able to stand up.
Nasrallah said that he had no interest in
initiating another war with Israel. However, he added that he was
anticipating, and preparing for, another Israeli attack, later this year.
President Bush's repeated praise of the Siniora government, Nasrallah said,
There is sharp division inside and outside the Bush Administration about how best to deal with Nasrallah, and whether he could, in fact, be a partner in a political settlement.
The outgoing director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, in a farewell briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee, in January, said that Hezbollah,
In 2002, Richard Armitage, then the Deputy Secretary of State, called Hezbollah,
In a recent interview, however, Armitage acknowledged that the issue has become somewhat more complicated.
Nasrallah, Armitage told me, has emerged as,
In terms of public relations and political gamesmanship, Armitage said, Nasrallah,
Robert Baer, a former longtime C.I.A. agent in Lebanon, has been a severe critic of Hezbollah and has warned of its links to Iranian-sponsored terrorism.
But now, he told me, "we've got Sunni Arabs preparing for cataclysmic conflict, and we will need somebody to protect the Christians in Lebanon. It used to be the French and the United States who would do it, and now it's going to be Nasrallah and the Shiites.
Baer was referring to fears that Nasrallah, in addition to firing rockets into Israel and kidnapping its soldiers, might set in motion a wave of terror attacks on Israeli and American targets around the world.
Most members of the intelligence and diplomatic communities acknowledge Hezbollah's ongoing ties to Iran.
But there is disagreement about the extent to which Nasrallah would put aside Hezbollah's interests in favor of Iran's. A former C.I.A. officer who also served in Lebanon called Nasrallah,
He told me that there was a period in the late eighties and early nineties when the C.I.A. station in Beirut was able to clandestinely monitor Nasrallah's conversations.
He described Nasrallah as,
Two decades ago, the Reagan Administration
attempted to fund the Nicaraguan contras illegally, with the help of secret
arms sales to Iran. Saudi money was involved in what became known as the
Iran-Contra scandal, and a few of the players back then - notably Prince
Bandar and Elliott Abrams - are involved in today's dealings.
As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found:
I was subsequently told by the two government
consultants and the former senior intelligence official that the echoes of
Iran-Contra were a factor in Negroponte's decision to resign from the
National Intelligence directorship and accept a sub-Cabinet position of
Deputy Secretary of State. (Negroponte declined to comment.)
(In the case of covert C.I.A. operations, the President must issue a written finding and inform Congress.)
Negroponte stayed on as Deputy Secretary of State, he added, because,
The government consultant said that Negroponte shared the White House's policy goals but "wanted to do it by the book."
The Pentagon consultant also told me that,
It was also true, he said, that Negroponte,
The Pentagon consultant added that one difficulty, in terms of oversight, was accounting for covert funds.
The budgetary chaos in Iraq, where billions of dollars are unaccounted for, has made it a vehicle for such transactions, according to the former senior intelligence official and the retired four-star general.
He said that Congress was not being briefed on the full extent of the U.S.-Saudi operations.
And, he said,
The issue of oversight is beginning to get more attention from Congress.
Last November, the Congressional Research Service issued a report for Congress on what it depicted as the Administration's blurring of the line between C.I.A. activities and strictly military ones, which do not have the same reporting requirements.
Senate Intelligence Committee, headed by Senator Jay Rockefeller, has
scheduled a hearing for March 8th on Defense Department intelligence