Psychological warfare between the US and Iran

They finally met for talks, but both sides are ramping up the pressure.

There are intriguing new developments in the psychological warfare going on between the United States and Iran.

Last week, ABC News breathlessly reported that President Bush had authorized a "black," or covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation to destabilize the Iranian regime. "Destabilize" has an ominous ring about it, but the project was specifically required to be "nonlethal." In other words, nobody was to be assassinated, but the Iranian regime was to be made uncomfortable by propaganda, newspaper articles, broadcasting, and perhaps some currency manipulation.

ABC caught considerable public flak for exposing a clandestine operation but excused itself by saying that it had given the CIA and the White House six days' notice of its intention to air the report, and there had been no administration plea to withhold it. Instead, there had been only the standard "we don't confirm or deny allegations about intelligence matters."

Over the years, when media organizations have been about to report and possibly jeopardize secret government operations, various administrations have called newspaper editors and TV news directors and urged them to hold off on grounds of national security. There was no such plea in this case, suggesting that the Bush administration may not have been entirely unhappy about the news reaching the Iranians. Indeed, it would not have taken long for the Iranians to find out about a "covert" operation that involved propaganda, newspaper articles, and broadcasting.

Then on Saturday, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry announced that it had uncovered spy rings organized by the US and its Western allies, infiltrating from Iraq and involving "Iraqi groups." These infiltrating elements were said to be operating in western, southwestern, and central Iran. Once again, the White House responded with a noncommittal: "We do not confirm or deny allegations about intelligence matters."

Given Iran's refusal to permit certain United Nations inspections of its fast-developing nuclear program, and its bellicose statements against Israel, it would not be surprising if there were American-sponsored ground operations from neighboring Iraq to gather intelligence and complement satellite surveillance from above. Journalist Seymour Hersh has also written about US special operations units making intelligence forays into Iran.

There have also been extensive US fleet maneuvers off the Iranian coast, which, though blandly dismissed as routine by the Navy, have captured the attention of the Iranians and been interpreted, perhaps correctly, as part of a US war of nerves against them.

Intriguingly, all this transpired on the eve of Monday's ambassadorial-level talks between the US and Iran in Baghdad. Those talks were confined to discussions about turmoil in Iraq, and not about overall US-Iranian relations. Indeed, major policy shifts by either nation would ordinarily be negotiated at substantially higher diplomatic levels. However, those on the American side who have been urging serious discussion between the two countries argue that the ambassador-to-ambassador meeting could be a forerunner to more-substantive discussions.

Whichever way events play out, it appears that the US, deeply engaged in Iraq, and apparently not eager for military action against Iran, has nevertheless been ramping up the psychological pressure. The Iranians have similarly been stoking things on their side of this war of nerves. Unmoved by UN sanctions, they have defied calls to slow the level of their uranium enrichment. They have provocatively turned to hostage-taking of visiting Iranian-Americans who seem unlikely threats to Iran's stability.

Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington went to Iran last year to visit her 93-year-old mother. She was barred from leaving the country, jailed in the notorious Evin prison earlier this month, and accused of trying to undermine the government. Also this month, the Iranians detained Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American urban planning expert who has worked for the World Bank and is a senior research fellow at the New School in New York. He currently works for the Open Society Institute, a foundation supported by the financier George Soros that encourages democracy around the world. The Iranian Intelligence Ministry charges that he, like Ms. Esfandiari, is engaged in a plot to overthrow the government. A third Iranian-American, Parnaz Azima, a reporter for Radio Farda, the Farsi-language station operated by the United States, has been prevented from leaving Iran and interrogated since January, when her passport was seized.

Reason should dictate that a shooting war is not in the interests of either the US or Iran. But neither does the present posturing suggest the speedy advance of amity.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is a professor of communications at Brigham Young University.

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