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Negotiators for Iran, the U.S., Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany are to meet in Turkey this Friday, face to face, for the first time in more than a year. There are small signs of possible future compromise on both sides when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program (and a semi-public demand from Washington that could be an instant deal-breaker). Looking at the big picture, though, there’s a remarkable amount we simply don’t know about Washington’s highly militarized policy toward Iran.
Every now and then, like a flash of lightning in a dark sky, some corner of it — and its enormity and longevity — is illuminated. For example, in 2008, the New Yorker’s indefatigable Seymour Hersh reported that the previous year Congress had granted a Bush administration request for up to $400 million “to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran,” including “cross-border” operations from Iraq. Just recently, Hersh offered a window into another little part of the U.S. program: the way, starting in 2005, the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command spent years secretly training members of M.E.K., an Iranian opposition-group-cum-cult that’s on the State Department’s terror list, at a Department of Energy site in the Nevada desert.
Similarly, from time to time, we get glimpses of the U.S. basing and naval build-up in the Persian Gulf, which is massive and ongoing. As for the skies over Iran, last year the Iranians suddenly announced that they had acquired — downed, they claimed (though this was later denied by the Americans) — an advanced U.S. spy drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel. Indeed, they had the photos to prove it. Until then, there had been no publicity about American drones flying over Iranian territory and initially the U.S. military claimed that the plane had simplystrayed off course while patrolling the Afghan border.
Last week, however, a range of typically anonymous officials leaked to Washington Postreporters Joby Warrick and Greg Miller the news that the CIA’s drone surveillance program over Iran was more than three years old, large-scale, and itself just part of an “intelligence surge” focused on that country. According to their sources, “The effort has included ramped-up eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, formation of an Iran task force among satellite-imagery analysts, and an expanded network of spies.” In addition, under former CIA Director Leon Panetta, “partnerships” were built “with allied intelligence services in the region capable of recruiting operatives for missions inside Iran.”
Such reports and leaks give us at least the bare and patchy outlines of a concerted military, covert action, spying, surveillance, and propaganda program of staggering proportions (and that’s without even adding in the Israeli version of the same, which evidently includes the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists). All of this, we have to believe, is but part of an even larger set of intertwined, militarized operations against a modest-sized regional power with relatively limited military capabilities. It’s a program that we’re sure to know less about than we think we do, filled with what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would have called “known unknowns” as well as “unknown unknowns.”