A rising tide of commentary attributes the most recent assassination of a scientist connected with Iran’s nuclear or missile programs—and perhaps previous killings of Iranian scientists—to Israel. The Obama Administration has publicly disavowed any involvement in the killings. Today, Mark Perry published an important article, see here, citing multiple current and retired U.S. intelligence officials as saying that what the Iranian government, several other foreign governments, and any number of Western journalists have perceived as clandestine U.S. support for the Balochi separatist group, Jundallah, is, in fact, a “false flag” operation conducted by Israel’s Mossad without Washington’s approval.
We know and respect Mark Perry, and we do not question his reporting on his contacts and conversations with current and former U.S. intelligence officials. However, in order to assess U.S. involvement in the ongoing covert war against the Islamic Republic, it is important to put Mark’s story in a wider context. We have written, on multiple occasions, see here, here and here, about America’s dangerous dance with Jundallah and, more broadly, anti-Iranian covert action. That the Obama Administration is now trying to distance itself from some aspects of this dance, by fobbing it off on Israel (to be sure, anything but an innocent party), does not extricate it from its past decisions or current actions.
First, that Israel was (and still may be) conducting a false flag operation using Jundallah to carry out lethal attacks inside Iran does not say anything, in itself, about possible U.S. support for the group. Prior Western media reporting on the issue indicates that U.S. support for Jundallah was “indirect”—meaning that, as with Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s, Washington relied on third parties to deliver funding to Jundallah. Moreover, Perry’s sources say that, since the United States learned about this Israeli false flag operation, neither the Bush Administration nor the Obama Administration has done anything to convey its displeasure to Israel. So, one must ask, just how displeased is official Washington?
Second, Washington’s handling of Jundallah’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization remains highly suspicious. Mark’s sources, as well as our own contacts, in the U.S. government, indicate that U.S. intelligence has had sufficient information on Jundallah to warrant its designation as a foreign terrorist organization for years. Yet, both the George W. Bush Administration and the Obama Administration refrained from doing so. In fact, the Obama Administration reviewed the question in detail in February 2009 and again later that year. But, while the Administration designated the Kurdish separatist group PJAK (primarily as a gesture to Turkey, although PJAK has also acted against Iran), it refused to designated Jundallah. U.S. officials have told us that the reason was ongoing interest in maintaining Jundallah as an anti-Iranian card. Washington only designated Jundallah in November 2010, months after Iran had captured and executed its leader.
Third, Mark’s sources say that within weeks of taking office, the Obama Administration “drastically scaled back joint U.S.-Israel intelligence programs targeting Iran.” We are skeptical that this claim is correct; if the Obama Administration had taken such a decision, the Netanyahu government (which took office in 2009), would almost certainly have leaked it as a way of pressuring Washington. But, even if the claim is correct, as the Administration was supposedly ratcheting down its anti-Iranian intelligence activities with Israel, it was ratcheting up its unilateral intelligence activities against the Islamic Republic, primarily through the U.S. military. In May 2010, the New York Times reported on a “Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order”, signed by then CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus in September 2009 authorizing the sending of U.S. Special Operations personnel to Iran “to gather intelligence about the country’s nuclear program” and “identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive.”
Since early in Obama’s presidency, we have criticized, see here, his initial decision to continue the anti-Iranian covert programs he inherited from President Bush, comparing his lack of strategic vision to the statesmanship of President Richard Nixon—who, on coming to the White House in 1969, ordered the CIA to stand down from a longstanding covert action program in Tibet, to show Beijing that he was serious about rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China. For all that parts of the Obama Administration are trying to distance themselves from particularly outrageous Israeli operations, Obama’s overall policy on anti-Iranian covert action continues to head in the wrong direction.
And, in terms of distancing itself from outrageous actions, we think that the Obama Administration could very easily show its seriousness on the point. As Paul Pillar points out, see here, “the killing of an individual foreigner overseas, if carried out for a political or policy purpose by either a non-state actor or clandestine agents of a state is an act of international terrorism”, according to U.S. law. So, Secretary of State Clinton should announce that, if the United States identifies any group involved in caring out politically-motivated murders inside Iran, it will designate that group as a foreign terrorist organization. Furthermore, if the United States identifies any foreign government carrying out, instigating, or facilitating politically-motivated murders inside Iran, it will designate that government as a state sponsor of terrorism.
—Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett