Although massively engaged in building up its campaign against Iraq, the Bush administration is not neglecting neighboring Iran, another Gulf state hurtling towards a nuclear capability and, moreover, up to its turbans in international terror.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources learn that the CIA is pumping small, guerrilla- trained special units into Iran, broadening the scope of the extensive undercover operations the agency is running in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, the Gulf and Middle East. The first two 15-20-man units crossed into Iran from Afghanistan in late August, all handpicked from among Iranian dissidents living in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Among them too are Afghans who spent years in refugee camps in Iran until repatriated last year. All are fluent in Iranian Farsi.
Tehran is perfectly aware of what is going on and is frantic to stop the American operation. Last week, Iran’s foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi hinted at this knowledge in public, when he complained that, although Teheran had aided in the fight terrorism in Afghanistan, America was enlisting “bandits” and terrorists along Iran’s eastern border to violate the Islamic Republic’s interests.
Wednesday, September 11, Iran’s defense minister Ali Shamkhani promised Iran would not violate Iraq’s border if the US launches an attack against Baghdad – even if that border is weakened. He went on to accuse Washington of making contacts with “bandits” to spread disorder on Iraq’s eastern border region with Afghanistan.
The training program the CIA recruits undergo at installations in the Los Angeles area teaches them, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources, how to forge contacts in the field, gather intelligence, disseminate propaganda and plant disinformation. They are also drilled in sabotage techniques for Iranian military targets and strategic facilities. The next stage of their training – courses in guerrilla tactics and orientation in their target areas – takes place at a special base 60 kilometers (35 miles) west of the Afghan city of Herat near the Iranian border. For practical experience in undercover operations in alien territory, the recruits are transferred to the south Afghan province of Kandahar, where they join up with US special forces fighting al-Qaeda.
The first group of fighters who went into Iran entered near the Iranian-Afghan border way station of Taybad. Its mission: to reach Mashhad, capital of the Khorasan province, and link up with Turkmen tribes in the northeast – near the Turkmenistani frontier and scattered along the southeastern shores of the Caspian Sea. The Sunni Muslim Turkmeni community suffers severe discrimination from the Iranian government; therefore, anyone offering the tribesmen a reasonable amount of cash, arms and help for the creation and training of Turkmen guerrilla units, can be sure of a hearty welcome.
In addition to targeting Tehran, the CIA is advancing a long-term American interest in the Iranian stretch of the Caspian Sea. This entails weakening Iranian control of the Caspian and encouraging the Turkmenis to stake their national and territorial claims to the Iranian section of the inland sea.
As part of their post-war Iraq program, the United States and Turkey have developed plans to establish an autonomous Turkmen state, based economically on one or both northern Iraqi oil towns of Mosul and Kirkuk, with control shared with US and Turkish interests over the main oil pipelines linking Iraq’s northern oilfields to Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel.
(This plan was first disclosed in “The Turkmen belt in Iraq”, DEBKA-Net-Weekly, 67, July 5, 2002.)
By loosening Teheran’s hold on the Caspian region, the CIA also hopes to goad it into dispatching large troop contingents, including commandos, to suppress the Turkmen insurgency. That would keep Iran too busy with its own troubles to interfere with the American military takeover of Iraq. In particular, the Iranians might desist from guerrilla or sabotage action to hamper the American advance into the Shiite areas of southern Iraq.
According to our sources, the first undercover unit the CIA sent into Iran was succeeded soon after by a second unit that entered through Zabul, in the Sistan Baluchistan province. Its assignment was to stir up dissent among the largest population in the area, the Baluchi tribes, working to the same tactical guidelines as those applied for turning the Turkmen against Tehran.
This province is of small strategic value per se. Nonetheless, the CIA finds its infiltration by an anti-Iranian subversive force valuable in two ways:
1. The Baluchis, another of Iran’s impoverished and neglected minorities, make their living by controlling the smuggling routes from Iran to the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf destinations, used mainly by drug and other contraband traffickers. Last December, al Qaeda fugitives, including some 4,000 Saudis, began using these obscure routes on their way from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Lebanon and other points in the Middle East. One task for the CIA’s undercover unit is to close this al Qaeda escape route, a tall order than will take time. Meanwhile, they are to gather intelligence on the different kinds of nefarious traffic using those remote routes.
2. This CIA unit has been assigned additionally to keeping a close watch on the hundreds of al Qaeda fighters who have set up a base in Iranian Baluchistan and penetrate the base, with a view to liquidating the extremists sheltering there.
Tehran, after becoming aware last week of the pro-American unit’s penetration of the province, hastily relocated the most senior 30 al Qaeda operatives and mid-level commanders to hiding places in Tehran and the holy city of Qom. Reporting this, our intelligence sources note that least five of the most high-ranking al Qaeda officers given refuge in Iran were in the group moved out to safe places.
In late May, Arab intelligence sources in the Gulf claimed Iran was harboring no more than two senior al Qaeda operatives: Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian on the FBI's most-wanted list, and Mahfouz Ould Wali, from Mauritania. The two, according to our intelligence sources, turn out to be no more than mid-level operatives. What the Arab sources omitted to mention was the three truly high-ranking al-Qaeda officials who have been given a safe berth in Iran. Their identities Tehran is keeping under wraps and are still unknown to US intelligence. This trio, our sources say, have just been moved to Qom, separated and placed under the watchful eyes and close protection of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
The US administration is now running close-up surveillance of the Iran scene in search of incidents and data that can serve for destabilizing the Islamic Republican government. A group of 50 ex-Iranians living in California were selected by the Interviewing Service of American, Inc. to run day-long telephone campaigns to private citizens and companies in Iran, in order to solicit real-time information on current events in the Islamic republic.