US Unit Works Quietly To Counter Iran's Sway

January 3rd, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: US Unit Works Quietly To Counter Iran's Sway

Boston Globe
January 2, 2007
Pg. 1

Backs dissidents, nearby nations
By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- For nearly a year, a select group of US officials has been quietly coordinating actions to counter the looming threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, including increasing the military capabilities of Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.
The group, known as the Iran Syria Policy and Operations Group, or ISOG, is also coordinating a host of other actions, which include covert assistance to Iranian dissidents and building international outrage toward Iran by publicizing its alleged role in a 1994 terrorist attack in Argentina, according to interviews with half a dozen White House, Pentagon, and State Department officials who are involved in the group's work.
Pentagon officials involved with the group intend to ask Congress as early as February to increase funding for transfers of military hardware to allies in the Persian Gulf and to accelerate plans for joint military activities. The request, which is still being formulated, is expected to include but not be limited to more advanced-missile defense systems and early-warning radar to detect and prevent Iranian missile strikes.
"There is the perception in the Gulf that Iran is really on the rise," said Emile El-Hokayem, research fellow at the Stimpson Center, a Washington-based think tank. "Washington wants to prepare for a potential show down."
The existence of ISOG reflects an intensification of the Bush administration's planning on Iran. Syria, which has linked itself to Iran through military pacts, is a lesser focus for the group. Its workings have been so secretive that several officials in the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs bureau said they were unaware it existed.
The United States has repeatedly said its policy is not to overthrow the Iranian regime, but one former US official who attended a meeting during ISOG's initial phase eight months ago said in an interview that he got the impression that regime change was a key goal of many of the meetings' participants.
He said that some of the intelligence reports ordered by members of the group were so highly classified that they were accessible to less than a dozen people in the US government, suggesting that some of the group's activities were far from routine.
But interviews with half a dozen current White House, Pentagon, and State Department officials indicated that ISOG's aims are more modest. Several said that as much as they would like to see the regimes in Tehran and Damascus go, ongoing military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan have limited their range of options. The main goal now, they said, is Cold War style "containment" of Iran in the hopes that Iranians one day will opt to change their own government.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the topic to the press, described ISOG as an inter agency clearinghouse for ideas and strategies to roll back the influence of Iran. Senior officials of the State Department, White House, CIA, Treasury Department, and other agencies meet weekly to report their day-to-day operations.
"It's really more operational, to provide a forum for ongoing interagency group discussions on Iran and Syria, share ideas, and follow things up week after week," said Kate Starr , a National Security Council spokeswoman.
ISOG's work, which focuses on isolating and containing Iran, is consistent with the administration's refusal to reach out diplomatically to Iran and Syria, as the Iraq Study Group has recommended.
"Iran is the key to everything at the strategic level -- the biggest problem we have faced in a long time," said a senior State Department official involved in ISOG, citing Iran's negative impact on Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. "These are all things they are doing because they sense weakness [on the part of the United States]. The best thing for us to project is strength, not 'please talk to us.' "
ISOG was modeled after the Iraq Policy and Operations Group, set up in 2004 to shepherd information and coordinate US action in Iraq. ISOG has raised eyebrows within the State Department for hiring BearingPoint -- the same Washington-based private contracting firm used by the Iraq group -- to handle its administrative work, rather than State Department employees.
Some lower level State Department officials saw the decision to outsource responsibility for scheduling meetings, record keeping, and distributing reports as an effort to circumvent the normal diplomatic machinery and provide extra secrecy for the group.
But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said BearingPoint was hired for its experience and good work on Iraq. He said that about a dozen BearingPoint contractors work out of the Iraq Policy and Operations Group office on the sixth floor of the State Department, and that a few of them have begun working on the Iran and Syria group.
ISOG is led by a steering committee with two leading hawks on Middle East policy as chairmen: James F. Jeffrey, prinicipal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, who once headed Iraq policy, and Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser for "Global Democracy Strategy." Michael Doran, a Middle East specialist at the White House, steps in when Abrams is away. Elizabeth Cheney, the vice president's daughter, who was the former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, served as cochairwoman before she took a maternity leave earlier this year.
ISOG is made of five main "pillars," or working groups. The military group explores ways to bolster Arab defenses and create more military cooperation between the Persian Gulf states. The initiative was set into motion in May , when John Hillen, assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs, traveled to the region on his first of a series of trips to the Gulf.
In October, Hillen and Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter W. Rodman, along with National Security Council staff and others, traveled to Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain to discuss ways to beef up the military capabilities of those countries.
US officials also conducted the first naval training exercises in the Persian Gulf designed to intercept weapons shipments to and from Iran, with participation from Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
A second working group deals with "democracy outreach," focusing on the State Department's effort to provide secret financial assistance to dissidents and reformist organizations inside Iran and Syria. It also seeks ways to use scientific exchanges and human rights conferences to learn more about what is happening inside Iran, officials said.
US financing of pro democracy activities in Iran is expected to double in 2008, according to the senior State Department official. In 2006, $85 million was allocated for such programs.
A third working group focuses on finances and the Treasury Department's efforts to beef up bilateral restrictions on money transfers to and from Iranian banks. A fourth group focuses on Iran's "special relationships" with Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and terrorist organizations. That group has closely followed Iran's alleged role in a 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Argentina.
A fifth working group coordinates media outreach to the people of Iran, Syria, and the region.

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