The CIA's Role in Iranian Regime Change

I would guess that in the past year, there were more regime-change-in-Iran plots floated by members of the intelligence community than there are Iranians.

During that time, research for my novel Once A Spy (Doubleday, 2010) brought me into contact with an array of intelligence community personnel ranging from analysts to CIA Director Michael Hayden. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would estimate their overall enthusiasm for a change of regime was a 9. Among Israeli intelligence officers (who didn't exactly cotton to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's dismissal of the Holocaust as a myth or to his frequent mentions of the end of the Zionist regime and Iran's nuclear program in the same breath), the average was 12.

Still, the consensus on actively promoting regime change was: "Let's wait and see what happens in the election in June." After all, the United States hasn't had the easiest time installing new foreign governments lately (see: Iraq). And certainly not in Iran (see: Shah, The).

What was the intelligence community's best-case scenario? Short of outright regime change or Ahmadinejad climbing aboard a missile and accidentally launching himself at Pyongyang Strangelove-style, we are now witnessing it: An election leaving the Iranian people--and the world--outraged.

According to former CIA operations officer Fred Rustmann, "If we were doing our job, and I'm not sure we are, we would be knee deep into supporting opposition factions in Iran and would be able to claim at least partial credit for what's going on there today."

"The agency's political warfare capability has been dead since the days of Bill Casey," says John Lenczowski, the president of the Institute of World Politics whose extensive foreign policy résumé includes Director of European and Soviet Affairs for the National Security Council.

Regardless, Rustmann and Lenczowski say, the CIA may now help set Tehran's smoldering tinder ablaze by supplying the opposition factions with money, intel, press placement, and weapons--perhaps the most potent of which may be BlackBerrys.

"What we could do immediately is essentially manipulate Iranian media, especially the media that serves the Iranian diaspora," says another former CIA operations officer, who goes by--and wrote an espionage memoir under--the pseudonym Ishmael Jones. "The internet-driven communication between Iranians worldwide and those in Iran is frenetic."

"The CIA already has a cooperative program in place with [certain American publications]," he adds. "Reporters from [those publications] meet regularly with the top CIA officials--not a conspiracy hatched in a smoke-filled room, but the natural result of reporters working hard to develop top-level sources within the CIA. Just switching [those reporters] for journalists who serve the Iranian diaspora would do the trick. These journalists will be eager to [cooperate]. The CIA must certainly have extensive and true information about Iranian government corruption. This information, supplied by Iranian diaspora journalists, would be read within hours by ordinary Iranians and would strengthen resistance to the current regime."

It wouldn't be unprecedented. "Some of the most powerful instruments the United States had during the cold war were Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and the Voice of America," Lenczowski says. "Now such communication can enable the Iranian people to see the world differently."

And, thanks to Twitter, almost instantaneously.

Lenczowski adds, "Iranians have to be emboldened for resistance. Some may not be sufficiently fed up. Many are too fearful." He cautions, "One of the difficulties of this sort of action is you have to have a sufficient level of distance so that it doesn't look like Uncle Sam is the marionetteer. Intelligently conceived communications with Iranians talking to Iranians can penetrate barriers and make a significant difference."

Additional operations of this nature may include increasingly delegitimizing the current regime--although Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei have done much of the job themselves--and isolating the Ayatollahs from their supporting factions and allies, particularly Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. "The Israelis are already onto this one through their own negotiations with Syria," Lenczowski points out. "A Camp David style agreement between Israel and Syria would go a long way toward removing Syria from Iran's orbit." At the same time the CIA will continue to work in conjunction with liaison counterparts like Israel's Mossad.

And at the end of the day: "The best thing the CIA chief can do is to give President Obama an honest assessment of what we know and what we do not know about the Iranian situation," says Jones. "Obama's decisions will be better if he realizes that he lacks key human source intelligence. If CIA briefers instead seek to impress him, and lead him to believe that he possesses an omnipotent view of the situation, then he will be making decisions blindly."

In any case, President Obama and CIA Director Leon Panetta will continue to deny any involvement, while Ahmadinejad and company will blame the West--particularly the United States--for meddling. So there's little to lose there, providing American fingerprints aren't found on the BlackBerry keyboards.