President bush said last week he expects a "bloody" summer in Iraq. What he didn't say is that a growing covert war between the United States and Iran may be one reason the conflict is escalating. U.S. intelligence has identified the principal unit behind Tehran's efforts to supply Shia insurgent cells in Iraq. It is a super secret group called Department 9000, which is part of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to three U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reporting and analysis on the Iraqi insurgency who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive material. Department 9000 acts as a liaison between the insurgents and the IRGC, the Iranian regime's principal internal-security mechanism, providing guidance and support. More recently, says one of the officials, these secret Iranian paramilitaries have even begun to help Sunni insurgent groups in order to keep the Americans bogged down. "The new developments with Sunni groups are more operational in nature and are more direct in terms of their involvement in groups attacking the Coalition," he said.
Bush, meanwhile, has raised the stakes in the covert war himself. The president recently approved a secret order, or "finding," authorizing the CIA to use covert methods to harass—but not overthrow—Iran's theocratic regime, according to government sources familiar with the issue, anonymous due to the highly sensitive nature of the subject. The CIA operation that the president OK'd is meant as a response to what the administration sees as an Iranian government policy of arming Shia insurgents with ordnance designed to kill American troops.
Precise details of what methods the CIA has been authorized to use to pressure Iran are unclear and highly classified. (A CIA spokesman said the agency never comments on allegations of covert action.) One former U.S. undercover operative (anonymous because of intel sensitivities) who has talked with current agency employees about the new CIA effort said that among the ideas that have been discussed are various methods for trying to extend the range of uncensored Internet service into Iranian border areas. According to the ABC News investigative unit, which first reported on the CIA operation last week, the CIA plan "reportedly includes a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran's currency and international financial transactions."
If CIA methods are still unclear, so are the plan's objectives. The ayatollahs would not be easy to topple. Officials familiar with the assessments of U.S. intelligence agencies have told NEWSWEEK that top analysts at the CIA and other agencies do not believe that Iran is in a "pre revolutionary condition." And in public Senate testimony last year, the then U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said it was the consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies that "regime-threatening instability is unlikely" in Iran. "These kind of measures are not going to overthrow the regime," says Middle East expert Bruce Riedel, who left the CIA late last year. Riedel said that this was not the first occasion on which an American administration has tried to foment disruption in Iran, but that such efforts have always proved "ineffectual" in the past.
It's not known how effective Department 9000 has been on the Iranian side of the covert war either. "It's been difficult to quantify whether Iran is simply a catalyst in sectarian violence and is feeding it or whether they are directing any of it," says one of the U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence. "We simply don't know enough to make a call either way." Late last year Bush authorized U.S. forces in Iraq to crack down on the alleged IRGC-Quds Force connection and suspected Department 9000 operatives. Todate, said the official, who monitors results of the crackdown in Iraq, U.S. actions against suspected IRGC-QF operatives and supporters have reduced the number of IED attacks attributable to weapons of suspected Iranian design or origin. However, the rate of such attacks goes up and down, and U.S. progress is rated as "patchy," according to this official. The only thing certain is that it's going to be a long, hot summer.