Inside the CIA’s Iran mission center
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was adamant—just hours after it happened—that the explosions on two Norwegian and Japanese oil tankers were the responsibility of Iran. Iran did this, he said, and Iran would have to pay the price. The United States government offered no evidence for this claim, apart from a grainy video that showed little that seemed conclusive. Pompeo took no questions.
It is important to know that the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran at that time. Abe, who has been trying to maintain the Iran nuclear deal, made no belligerent comments, nor did he storm out of the country. The head of the Japanese shipping company said that there was no evidence that this event had been conducted by Iran. In fact, he disputed the claim that a limpet mine had been attached to his ship. He said that “flying objects” had struck the ship.
The Norwegian shipping company did not make any kind of statement about the events either, certainly not anything that blamed Iran for the incident. The Norwegian government remained silent as well—no threats of any kind from Oslo. The shipping company said an investigation would be conducted in due course.
The crew from both the vessels had been rescued by U.S. and Iranian boats and taken to safety.
Chief of Staff of Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri said that his military will not try to close the Strait of Hormuz by deceit. If they want to close the strait, he said, it will be an open military operation. He fully denies that Iran hit those two tankers.
No U.S. ship was assaulted. These incidents took place in international waters—in the Strait of Hormuz, off the coasts of Iran and Oman. Not on U.S. territory, nor on a U.S. military base or on U.S. government property. Yet, it was the U.S. government that made the claims and made the threats. This has become an ugly habit.
It has also become impossible for the region, where there remains an electric sense of foreboding. Will Trump be mad enough to launch missiles? Will the United States of America want to open wider the doors of hell in West Asia, doors that the United States opened wide with its illegal war on Iraq?
Iran Mission Center
In 2017, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) created a special unit—the Iran Mission Center—to focus attention on the U.S. plans against Iran. The initiative for this unit came from CIA director John Brennan, who left his post as the Trump administration came into office. Brennan believed that the CIA needed to focus attention on what the United States sees as problem areas—North Korea and Iran, for instance. This predated the Trump administration.
Brennan’s successor—Mike Pompeo, who was CIA director for just over a year (until he was appointed U.S. Secretary of State)—continued this policy. The CIA’s Iran-related activity had been conducted in the Iran Operations Division (Persia House). This was a section with Iran specialists who built up knowledge about political and economic developments inside Iran and in the Iranian diaspora.
It bothered the hawks in Washington—as one official told me—that Persia House was filled with Iran specialists who had no special focus on regime change in Iran. Some of them, due to their long concentration on Iran, had developed sensitivity to the country. Trump’s people wanted a much more focused and belligerent group that would provide the kind of intelligence that tickled the fancy of his National Security Adviser John Bolton.
To head the Iran Mission Center, the CIA appointed Michael D’Andrea. D’Andrea was central to the post-9/11 interrogation program, and he ran the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. Assassinations and torture were central to his approach.
It was D’Andrea who expanded the CIA’s drone strike program, in particular the signature strike. The signature strike is a particularly controversial instrument. The CIA was given the allowance to kill anyone who fit a certain profile—a man of a certain age, for instance, with a phone that had been used to call someone on a list. The dark arts of the CIA are precisely those of D’Andrea.
What is germane to his post at the Iran Mission Center is that D’Andrea is close to the Gulf Arabs, a former CIA analyst told me. The Gulf Arabs have been pushing hard for action against Iran, a view shared by D’Andrea and parts of his team. For his hard-nosed attitude toward Iran, D’Andrea is known—ironically—as “Ayatollah Mike.”
D’Andrea and people like Bolton are part of an ecosystem of men who have a visceral hatred for Iran and who are close to the worldview of the Saudi royal family. These are men who are reckless with violence, willing to do anything if it means provoking a war against Iran. Nothing should be put past them.
D’Andrea and the hawks edged out several Iran experts from the Iran Mission Center, people like Margaret Stromecki—who had been head of analysis. Others who want to offer an alternative to the Pompeo-Bolton view of things either have also moved on or remain silent. There is no space in the Trump administration, a former official told me, for dissent on the Iran policy.
Saudi Arabia’s War
D’Andrea’s twin outside the White House is Thomas Kaplan, the billionaire who set up two groups that are blindingly for regime change in Iran. The two groups are United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and Counter Extremism Project. There is nothing subtle here. These groups—and Kaplan himself—promote an agenda of great disparagement of Muslims in general and of Iran in particular.
Kaplan blamed Iran for the creation of ISIS, for it was Iran—Kaplan said—that “used a terrible Sunni movement” to expand its reach from “Persia to the Mediterranean.” Such absurdity followed from a fundamental misreading of Shia concepts such as taqiya, which means prudence and not—as Kaplan and others argue—deceit. Kaplan, bizarrely, shares more with ISIS than Iran does with that group—since both Kaplan and ISIS are driven by their hatred of those who follow the Shia traditions of Islam.
It is fitting that Kaplan’s anti-Iran groups bring together the CIA and money. The head of UANI is Mark Wallace, who is the chief executive of Kaplan’s Tigris Financial Group, a financial firm with investments—which it admits—would benefit from “instability in the Middle East.” Working with UANI and the Counter Extremism Project is Norman Roule, a former national intelligence manager for Iran in the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Roule has offered his support to the efforts of the Arabia Foundation, run by Ali Shihabi—a man with close links to the Saudi monarchy. The Arabia Foundation was set up to do more effective public relations work for the Saudis than the Saudi diplomats are capable of doing. Shihabi is the son of one of Saudi Arabia’s most well-regarded diplomats, Samir al-Shihabi, who played an important role as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Pakistan during the war that created al-Qaeda.
These men—Kaplan and Bolton, D’Andrea and Shihabi—are eager to use the full force of the U.S. military to further the dangerous goals of the Gulf Arab royals (of both Saudi Arabia and of the UAE). When Pompeo walked before cameras, he carried their water for them. These are men on a mission. They want war against Iran.
Evidence, reason. None of this is important to them. They will not stop until the U.S. bombers deposit their deadly payload on Tehran and Qom, Isfahan and Shiraz. They will do anything to make that our terrible reality.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than twenty books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (The New Press, 2007), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013), The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016) and Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017). He writes regularly for Frontline, the Hindu, Newsclick, AlterNet and BirGün.