Downed Drone in Iran Reveals Broader US Covert War

December 8th, 2011 - by admin & The Washington Post – 2011-12-08 23:46:08

Downed US Drone in Iran Reveals Broader Covert War

Downed US Drone in Iran Reveals Broader Covert War
John Glaser /

(December 8, 2011) — Iran’s recovery of a downed US surveillance drone publicized America’s ongoing covert war on Iran, a part of the Obama administration’s strategy even more bellicose than his predecessor’s.

US actions towards Iran are being couched as an attempt to prevent their attainment of nuclear weapons, despite a failure to put forth a shred of evidence that a weapons program is underway. [See third story below.]

In a statement on Thursday, President Obama reiterated this confrontational approach with a popular euphemism for international aggression: “No options off the table means I’m considering all options.”

And many options are indeed being carried out. columnist and former CIA agent Philip Giraldi wrote this week that sources have revealed to him secret presidential findings “authorizing stepped-up covert action” against Iran.

“A ‘finding,'” he explained, “is top-level approval for secret operations considered to be particularly politically sensitive.” President Bush had issued a number of findings authorizing “the use of intelligence assets to disrupt Iranian Revolutionary Guard” as well as one in 2007 that authorized “attacks against Iranian nuclear scientists” and the use of “computer viruses to disrupt the Iranian computer network.”

But President Obama has gone a step further. He recently issued a finding which “extends existing initiatives and is intended to strangle Iran by creating insurgencies along all of the country’s borders,” primarily by supporting Iranian dissident groups to conduct domestic terrorism and undermine the Iranian regime.

In addition to those efforts, according to the Washington Post, the “White House also has boosted sales of bunker-busting munitions, fighter jets and other military hardware to Persian Gulf states as well as to Israel, building on long-running efforts to boost the military capabilities of key US allies in the region” in a broad effort to garrison Iran’s surroundings with provocative militarism.

The Iranian government issued a formal complaint and summoned Swiss ambassador Livia Leu Agosti, who handles diplomacy for the US in Iran. Iranian officials said the US drone they are now in possession of is evidence of espionage efforts inside Iran and that Iran “strongly protests the violation of an RQ-170 spy aircraft deep into its airspace,” and asked for “an urgent response and compensation from the US government.”

Rhetoric from the White House and Congress remains aggressive and threatening towards Iran, despite being exposed as the aggressors themselves. Surely, if the US had uncovered a number of Iranian spy operations and terrorism-funding programs inside America, Washington would be doing much more than issuing formal complaints.

Stealth Drone Highlights Tougher US Strategy on Iran
Joby Warrick and Greg Miller / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON (December 7, 2011) — The CIA’s use of surveillance drones over Iran reflects a growing belief within the Obama administration that covert action and carefully choreographed economic pressure may be the only means of coercing Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, current and former US officials say.

The administration’s shift toward a more confrontational approach — one that also includes increased arms sales to Iran’s potential rivals in the Middle East as well as bellicose statements by US officials and key allies — suggests deepening pessimism about the prospects for a dialogue with Iran’s leaders, the officials say.

The administration’s evolving strategy includes expanded use of remote-controlled stealth aircraft, such as the one that came down in eastern Iran last week, as well as other covert efforts targeting Iran’s nuclear program, according to US government officials and Western diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence-gathering efforts.

The US officials said the stealth drone was part of a fleet of secret aircraft that the CIA has used for several years in an escalating espionage campaign targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities.

As those efforts have surged, the White House also has boosted sales of bunker-busting munitions, fighter jets and other military hardware to Persian Gulf states as well as to Israel, building on long-running efforts to boost the military capabilities of key US allies in the region, the officials say.

Underscoring the implied military threat, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta last week cited contingency plans for “a wide range of military options” to be used against Iran if necessary. He expressed the administration’s “determination to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” a phrase that suggested an intention to stop the Islamic republic from obtaining the technological building blocks of nuclear arms. Previous White House statements have vowed only to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear bombs.

The sharpened tone comes against a backdrop of increased diplomatic efforts to ratchet up the economic pain for the Iranian regime, as Washington enlists European and Asian allies in coordinated efforts to choke Iran’s economy.

But while endorsing the increased use of sanctions, US officials also are growing increasingly aware of the limits of such measures. A congressional study released this week suggested that Iran has managed to limit the damage to its economy from international sanctions — in part because of immense profits gained from near-record oil prices in recent years. And the study warns that harsher sanctions targeting Iran’s petroleum and banking industries could drive oil prices still higher.

“The easy stuff has been done already,” said a senior administration official involved in strategy toward Iran. “The choices now are much harder.”

The more-robust measures stand in contrast with the administration’s early optimism that it could draw Iran’s ruling clerics into negotiations on curbing their country’s nuclear program. Although insisting that the door remains open to talks, administration officials see little evidence that top Iranian officials are interested in engaging, or capable of doing so.

“There’s greater skepticism now,” said Ray Takeyh, a former State Department official who advised the administration on Iran policy in 2009, when President Obama famously made direct appeals to Iran in an attempt to improve relations. Since Iran’s rebuff of numerous public and private overtures, the administration’s goal is to “press Iran further and isolate Iran further,” Takeyh said.

Current and former US officials say the administration is ramping up its covert efforts inside Iran, even as the White House is seeking a thaw in bilateral relations.

The officials say the RQ-170 Sentinel drone that went down over Iran was part of a fleet of secret aircraft that enabled the CIA to carry out dozens of high-altitude surveillance flights deep into Iranian territory without being detected.

A former senior Defense Department official said the stealth drone flights had been underway for “at least four years,” The aircraft, built by Lockheed Martin, is best known for its role in surveilling the compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was killed. “But it wasn’t only being flown in Pakistan,” the former official said.

The CIA is thought to have a dozen or so of the batwing-shaped, radar-evading aircraft, which are capable of being fitted with different “sensor payloads,” meaning they can be equipped to capture a range of intelligence material, including high-resolution images, radiation measurements and air samples.

US officials have described the loss of the aircraft in Iran as a setback but not a fatal blow to the stealth drone program. “It was never a matter of whether we were going to lose one but when,” the former official said, indicating that the CIA had used technologies that it could afford to have exposed.

Among the main concerns is that Iran could use an intact aircraft to examine the vulnerabilities in stealth technology and take countermeasures with its air defense systems. Another is that China or other adversaries could help Iran extract data from the drone that would reveal its flight history, surveillance targets and other capabilities.

It is unclear whether the drone was programmed to destroy such data in the event of a malfunction. Nor is there agreement on how the aircraft went down. US officials have dismissed Iranian assertions that it was shot or brought down by a cyberattack. Instead, explanations have focused on potential technical failures. The aircraft cover great distances and depend on satellite links. A lost connection or other malfunction could cause them to drift off course and crash when they run out of fuel or room to fly.

Officials said the stealth flights have contributed significantly to improved intelligence on Iran’s nuclear efforts.

Iran’s nuclear program has long been a focus of satellite flights and collection from human sources. But the drone flights have enabled the CIA to fill in substantial gaps, making it difficult for Iran to use windows between satellite passes to move material or conduct tests.

“It’s such a powerful tool to be able to keep eyes on a location for an extended period,” said a former senior US intelligence official. “If you can park something up there, you can get to a situation where somebody can’t do anything without being detected.”

The emphasis of covert measures over diplomacy is unsettling to some former US officials who praised the White House’s earlier attempts at rapprochement with Iran. Greg Thielmann, a former State Department official, said he suspected that the administration was pulling back on its diplomacy because of intensifying pressure from the political right.

“Considering the stakes involved, I can’t accept the idea that we should accept failure and move on to other options,” said Thielmann, who is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

Officially, the Obama administration espouses what White House officials call a “dual-track strategy” of seeking diplomatic engagement with Iran while steadily applying increasing economic and political pressure. On Wednesday, after Iranian authorities blocked access to a Web-based “Virtual Embassy” where ordinary Iranians could access uncensored information about the United States, the State Department released a statement underscoring the US preference for negotiations.

“The United States remains steadfast in our commitment to a dialogue with the Iranian people,” the statement read.

IAEA: Iranian Nuclear Explosive Development ‘May Still Be Ongoing’
John Glaser /

(November 08, 2011) — The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities,” according to a report by the UN watchdog.

The report states that “the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of [Iran’s] declared nuclear material,” but that “Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation” for the IAEA to completely rule out a military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program.

The report charges Iran with being slow to respond to IAEA requests for further information “concerning the construction of ten new uranium enrichment facilities,” the sites for five of which have been decided and only one of which has begun construction.

Based on information provided to the IAEA primarily from Member States (especially the US) and a 2007 interview with a leading figure in the clandestine nuclear supply network, the report claims that there are “indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.”

Summarizing the conclusions regarding the possible development of a nuclear explosive device, the report notes:

* Efforts, some successful, to procure nuclear related and dual use equipment and materials by military related individuals and entities;

* Efforts to develop undeclared pathways for the production of nuclear material;

* The acquisition of nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network; and

* Work on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components.

The report provides circumstantial evidence, provided by Western intelligence sources, that Iran has engaged in research and development activities which are “strong indicators of possible weapon development.” No direct evidence, however, is provided of an active weaponization program; the report’s concerns mostly arise from the absence of evidence disproving weaponization.

Iranian officials have dismissed the report as inaccurate and politically motivated. They charge the IAEA’s new Director General, Yukiya Amano, has a pro-Western bias. Indeed, the Guardian‘s Julian Borger has compiled a series of US State Department diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks which reveal a similar evaluation of Amano by the US.

In October 2009, as Amano was coming in as Director General, the US State Department wrote that he was “DG of all states, but in agreement with us.” Amano reminded the US ambassador that he would have to be “fair-minded and independent, but that he was solidly in the US court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.”

If the IAEA’s concerns about an Iranian nuclear program are correct, close watchers of the Persian Gulf region will not be surprised. US policy influences Iran strongly towards attaining a nuclear deterrent, so that Iran may have such intent has been predictable for years.

The US has waged two aggressive, unnecessary wars directly along Iran’s east and west borders, constantly floods the Persian Gulf with fleets of navy warships, props up client states surrounding Iranian territory with weapons systems and money, and heaps restrictive sanctions on Iran’s energy and banking industries.

In addition, the Bush administration had received from Congress funding for a program of support for rebel ethnic groups in Iran to work to undermine the government. For years now, a concerted covert US campaign of cyber-terrorism, commercial sabotage, targeted assassinations, and proxy wars has been under way in Iran.

Lastly, the close US relationship with Iran’s two adversaries — Saudi Arabia and Israel — have contributed to the implication of an impending US-led attack on Iran. Israel has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran and the Saudi King was revealed in leaked diplomatic cables to have explicitly urged the US to attack Iran.

In such an environment, Iran is acting out of a perception of threat and is much more likely to pursue nuclear weapons capabilities to ensure against an attack from the outside.

The Obama administration has responded to the IAEA report by encouraging more sanctions to be placed on Iran. But the potential for a preemptive, unilateral Israeli strike are raising concerns. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing his cabinet to support a unilateral attack on Iran, and last week Israel tested a ballistic missile while making public statements about an Iranian nuclear threat.

But an attack on Iran is likely to trigger regional war of successive retaliatory attacks. It would also be against the strategic interests of the US and Israel in that it would likely cause Iran to dig in its heels and fully engage in a nuclear weapons program.

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