Our Gift to Iran's Hardliners

| Thu Jun. 10, 2010 6:08 PM EDT

On May 24th, a piece headlined "US Is Said to Expand Secret Actions in Mideast" appeared on the front page of the New York Times. It clearly involved a leak of a key, previously unknown document, though not as far as a reader could tell by someone unfriendly to its policy implications; nor did the Obama administration make a fuss about it. In fact, despite its front-paging, it vanished from the news with next to no commentary or follow up, and few expressions of surprise.

Too bad. It should have been attended to. According to the Times' Mark Mazzetti, in September 2009 Centcom commander General David Petraeus signed a "secret directive" expanding the use of US Special Operations forces throughout the Greater Middle East "and beyond"—"to build networks that could 'penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy' al Qaeda and other militant groups, as well as to 'prepare the environment' for future attacks by American or local military forces..."

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Among the most striking, if least discussed, aspects of this leaked story were the brief summaries of Centcom's military policy towards Iran where, we were told, the seven-page directive "appears to authorize specific operations in Iran, most likely to gather intelligence about the country's nuclear program or identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive."  The report—too ho-hum for most Americans to concern themselves with—was surely read with care in Tehran, for it offered a genuine gift to the present Iranian regime. How useful to its hardline leaders to know that the US military has already inserted, or is considering inserting, Special Forces teams into their country to "identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive."

And there was more. The piece quoted an unnamed "Pentagon official with knowledge of General Petraeus's order" saying, "The Defense Department can't be caught flat-footed"—in the event, that is, "that President Obama ever authorizes a strike [on Iran]."

In fact, this sort of thing is little better than a poison pill for that country's dissident Green Movement, reinforcing the claims Iranian hardliners find it so convenient to make—that some reformist elements are proxies for foreigners, even paving the way for future US military action. From a purely practical point of view, this new policy is delusional, whether ordered only by General Petraeus or by President Obama himself, since—despite raging fears on the left in the US—the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, is functionally incapable of launching a military operation against Iranian nuclear facilities, no less the Iranian fundamentalist government, while it has two wars on its hands. It is, however, remarkably typical of the blustering and blundering in Washington that has left Iranian dissidents saying, as one did in the Los Angeles Times recently, "Just leave us alone, please."

Juan Cole, who runs Informed Comment, the blog that offers the single best running commentary on the Middle East available and whose most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World, considers other ways in which, on the first anniversary of the fraudulent Iranian elections and the rise of the Green Movement, both US and Israeli policy moves have continued to backfire in Iran.