For years, the United States and Israel have engaged in a covert effort to
destabilize Iran's government and sabotage its nuclear program. But these
operations frequently escape mention in public discussions. By ignoring the
covert effort, the current debate about the relative wisdom of diplomacy,
sanctions, and preventive military action addresses an incomplete picture. To
understand the challenges and potential of US-Iranian relations, the covert
program must be factored into the equation.
Although sabotage may prove successful in slowing Iranian nuclear progress in
the short term, it actually stands as a barrier to a long-term resolution.
United States covert action in Iran has played a historically destructive role
in US-Iranian relations. In 1953, when the United
States was planning to overthrow Iran's prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh,
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent Roger Goiran warned that the endeavor
would harm long-term US interests and lead Iran to view the United States as a
supporter of "Anglo-French colonialism".
The CIA fired Goiran for his opposition and went forward with its plan, but his
prediction came true. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 brought to power a leader
who dubbed America "the Great Satan" and established a government legally
founded on "the rejection of all forms of domination" and "non-alignment with
respect to the hegemonist superpowers", to quote Article 152 of Iran's
During the Iran hostage crisis, Iran only agreed to free the 52 trapped
Americans after the United States pledged non-intervention in Iranian affairs.
As stated in the 1981 Algiers Accords, "it is and from now on will be the
policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly,
politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs."
However, the United States has not lived up this commitment. In 1995, American
news media revealed a US$18 million covert effort by the CIA to destabilize
Iran, confirming Iranian suspicions of the "Great Satan".
Iran's foreign minister wrote to the United Nations Security Council, calling
the US policy "nothing but a flagrant support of state terrorism", and one
member of Iran's parliament called the United States "a renegade government
whose logic was no different from Genghis Khan or Hitler".
Covert efforts were also a factor in the breakdown of negotiations in 2005
between Iran and the E3/European Union, a group composed of representatives
from Germany, France the United Kingdom and the European Union's Common Foreign
and Security Policy.
Only one year earlier, relations with Iran seemed promising. Iran had joined
the E3/EU in signing the Paris Accord, in which Iran pledged that it would "not
seek to acquire nuclear weapons", voluntarily implement the International
Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) Additional Protocol, and voluntarily halt all
uranium-enrichment activities. The accord's signatories pledged to negotiate an
agreement that would encompass not just nuclear and economic cooperation but
also "firm commitments on security issues".
Iran's desired security commitments, as the British House of Commons' report on
the negotiations indicates, included a UN Security Council-backed commitment to
prevent "any direct or indirect attack or sabotage or threat against Iranian
United States actions in the mid-2000s gave credence to Iran's concern. The US
was collaborating with the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a group devoted to overthrowing
Iran's government, in cross-border raids to gather intelligence about Iran's
nuclear program; supporting Jundallah, a Pakistani-based tribal terrorist group
that has struck Iranian targets; and had established a "covert infrastructure"
within Iran to reach out to Iranian dissidents.
And in 2005, the US Congress authorized $3 million to fund "the advancement of
democracy and human rights" in Iran, a move the Iranian UN ambassador called a
"clear violation of the Algiers accords".
Ultimately, the E3/EU did not accept Iran's security proposal and instead
offered only to reaffirm existing security guarantees. Iran thus concluded that
the E3/EU "did not have the intention or the ability" to make "firm commitments
on security issues", let alone progress on nuclear and economic cooperation,
and Iran announced it would once again begin enriching uranium.
As the UN Security Council began passing sanctions against Iran, news reports
indicate that covert efforts escalated. In 2007, CBS News reported on "covert
efforts by US and other allied intelligence agencies to actively sabotage
[Iran's] nuclear program".
When Iranian nuclear scientist Ardeshire Hassanpour died under mysterious
circumstances that same year, sources told The Times that Mossad, the Israeli
secret service, had assassinated him. In 2008, president George W Bush signed a
"non-lethal presidential finding" that, according to ABC News, initiated a CIA
plan involving "a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and
manipulation of Iran's currency and international financial transactions".
In early 2009, The New York Times reported that Bush had "stepped up
intelligence-sharing" with Israel and had authorized a covert program "aimed at
the entire industrial infrastructure that supports the Iranian nuclear
The Bush administration handed off this program to President Barack Obama. In
the first month of Obama's presidency, the Telegraph reported that Israel was
"using hitmen, sabotage, front companies and double agents to disrupt the
regime's illicit weapons project".
Reuters reported that Israel "planned to target Iranian nuclear scientists with
letter bombs and poisoned packages", possibly as part of "a psychological
warfare campaign". And when Iran suffered a cyber-attack from the Stuxnet
computer virus, The New York Times reported on possible US involvement, noting
that Bush's covert program "has been accelerated since President Obama took
The sabotage effort has seemingly been successful in delaying Iranian progress
on uranium enrichment. But sabotage also disrupts diplomatic progress.
The Obama administration has presented Iran with a "stark choice" - accede to
Western demands and join the "community of nations" or "face even more pressure
and isolation". Iran scoffs at both options.
As for "pressure and isolation", President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has stated he
doesn't believe the United States or Israel will actually undertake preventive
military action. This belief is most likely correct, as the Obama
administration has successfully convinced Israel that the Iranian nuclear
threat is not imminent.
Ahmadinejad has also said that sanctions are "of no concern to us" and "have,
in fact, encouraged us to be firmer in the pursuit of our economic goals". This
claim is under debate, even within Iran. Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani, for example, has urged Iranian officials to take the sanctions
seriously. But the sanctions do seem to have benefited Ahmadinejad by giving
"an excuse to the Iranian government to suppress the opposition", according to
Iranian reformist Mehdi Karroubi.
As for joining the "community of nations", Iran does not perceive a community
it wishes to join. Instead, it sees an "inhumane" and "discriminatory
management of the world" in which "the very same goals of colonialists and the
slave masters" are “pursued with a new facade", and thus the global system
"requires a major overhaul", as Ahmadinejad stated in his recent UN address.
For this reason, Iran strives for UN Security Council reform and global nuclear
disarmament under the slogan, "nuclear energy for everyone, nuclear arms for no
Still, there are signs that Iran and the West can reach an agreement. Both Iran
and the United States have said they are open to more talks. And though the US
would like Iran to halt enrichment entirely, a feasible middle ground exists.
As former US secretary of state Colin Powell stated recently on Meet The Press:
... I think if you take them at their word, "trust, but verify,"
[former US president Ronald] Reagan's old line ... then put in place a set of
sanctions that would be devastating to them if they violate that agreement, and
then put in place an IAEA inspection regime ... you might be able to live with
an Iran that has a nuclear power capability
risk undermining this possibility. The United States needs to show Iran that a
genuine settlement is possible. If Iran fears that US covert intervention will
continue, Iran is unlikely to sign on to an agreement of the sort Powell
described. Like in 1953, by pursuing the sabotage option, the US is sacrificing
its long-term interests for short-term gains.
Rob Grace, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, blogs for the
Foreign Policy Association. He is also an award-winning playwright whose work
has been produced around the world.