May 29, 2003 -- The Pentagon is considering a massive covert action program to overthrow Iran's ruling ayatollahs as the only way to stop the country's nuclear weapons ambitions, senior State Department and Pentagon officials told ABCNEWS.
The proposal, which would include covert sponsorship of a group currently deemed terrorist by the U.S. government, is not new, and has not won favor with enough top officials to be acted upon.
But sources say it is a viable option that is getting a new look as the administration ramps up its rhetoric against Iran, and it is likely to be one of the top items on the agenda as high-level U.S. policymakers meet today to discuss how to deal with the Islamic republic.
The proposal, sources say, includes using all available points of pressure on the Iranian regime, including backing armed Iranian dissidents and employing the services of the Mujahedeen e Khalq, a group currently branded as terrorist by the United States.
The MEK, which had been primarily supported by Iraq and was responsible for numerous attacks inside Iran, agreed after the Iraq war to a cease-fire with U.S. forces. And, as the State Department insisted and the White House concurred, the group agreed to disarm, but their forces are still in place and their weapons are in storage.
Sources said Pentagon officials specifically set aside a proposal to reconstitute the MEK under a different banner and promote their armed incursions into Iran, much as the MEK had been doing under Saddam.
The Pentagon officials argue that the MEK is disciplined, well-trained, and an effective lever against the ayatollahs, and could be renamed and placed under American clandestine guidance.
According to sources, the office of Doug Feith, undersecretary for policy at the Department of Defense, argued that the MEK has not targeted Americans since the 1970s, which is true, and was only put on the terrorist list by the Clinton administration as a gesture to improve relations with Iran.
The State Department argument was that MEK is on the terrorist list and any failure to disarm it would be an act of hypocrisy, which was the same line taken by the Iranians in confidential meetings that have been ongoing in Geneva, until the United States recently cut them off, sources said.
A Pentagon spokesman denied that such a plan was under consideration by any senior officials in the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans and Near Eastern South Asian Affairs, which covers Iran, and answers to Feith. He could not, however, rule out discussions elsewhere within the Department of Defense.
"It's not the Pentagon, but I cannot say unequivocally that it hasn't been considered, or advocated, somewhere," said Lt. Col. David Lapan.
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For the moment, this proposal is blocked, but will be revisited as part of the greater proposal to institute massive covert action against the ayatollahs, sources said.
This covert action program, which has not been approved or even recommended by the so-called deputies committee of Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Armitage, National Security Council Deputy Steven Hadley and the deputy to the director of Central Intelligence, would include intelligence collaboration with Iranian dissidents, as well as lethal aid (i.e., guns and other military assistance to anti-Iranian government elements, both inside and outside Iran).
The objective of the proposal to destabilize the Iranian government is based on the belief that the religious hard-liners are opposed by the majority of the Iranian population and any pressure would make them crack — a view that some analysts find dubious.
The debate over Iran comes after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Tuesday warned Iran against meddling in Iraq, and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer described the Islamic republic's efforts to root al Qaeda leaders out of the country as insufficient.
New accusations also surfaced this week from an Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, that the government has built a uranium-enrichment plant for bomb materials, echoing existing charges from the United States.
Whether the Pentagon proposal gets to the point of a covert action program is partly dependent on Iranian responses to U.S. demands, such as turning over high-ranking al Qaeda lieutenant Saif Al-Adel and closing down the alleged nuclear weapons program, sources said.
The State Department favors diplomatic and political pressure, utilizing the International Atomic Energy Agency as one pressure point on the nuclear program.
Whether or not that al Qaeda leaders will be handed over, as the United States formally requested last week, depends on politics within Iran.
There is an apparent debate under way in Iran between more hard-line elements led by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, and moderates led by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.
Khatami seems to argue that cooperation with the United States on al Qaeda is necessary, and that Al-Adel should be turned over. The hard-liners apparently are using the issue of protection of senior al Qaeda as a tool against the pragmatists who wish to improve relations with the United States.
Some senior American intelligence sources are optimistic that the issue can be resolved in the United States' favor soon.
But the nuclear issue remains, and U.S. officials are apparently divided on how imminent the threat is.
The Pentagon, and Vice President Dick Cheney, are said to believe that Iran may have all the means necessary to build a nuclear bomb without further foreign assistance, although CIA intelligence sources say their assessments are at variance with these assumptions.
The intelligence agency apparently believes that Iran is trying to build a bomb, but that it still needs help for parts of the program.