CIA’s ‘Dark Angel’ Takes Over as Trump Toughens Line on Iran

Ed Blanche

US President Donald Trump is expected to unveil a more aggressive strategy against Iran by the end of the month that is not likely to escalate military operations but will almost certainly point to a tougher line by the intelligence agencies that could include seeking regime change in Tehran.
After months of debate over how to handle the Islamic Republic, widely viewed as more of a long-term threat to Middle Eastern stability than even the Islamic State (ISIS) or al-Qaeda, Trump appears to be weighing a more confrontational approach.
Trump’s foreign policy team is filled with hawks on Iran, although thus far the lack of action on the ground “has not significantly differed from Obama’s,” observed Reuel Marc Gerecht of the rightist Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“President Trump has about six months to reverse course and lay out a path to roll back the Islamic Republic in Syria and Iraq or see those two lands become permanent satrapies of an expanding Shiite empire,” he said.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson affirmed before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on June 16 that the administration supports “a philosophy of regime change” in Tehran — the first senior member of Trump’s administration to admit that.
The hardening attitude towards Iran was underlined by the June appointment of Michael D’Andrea, a senior CIA veteran lauded for masterminding covert operations targeting jihadist groups and Iran over the years, as head of the agency’s Iran operations.
The Islamic Republic is seen as a far greater danger than jihadism because Tehran seems determined to develop nuclear weapons, refuses to curtail its growing ballistic missile programme or rein in military support for Shia militias across the region as part of the Islamic Republic’s drive to become the Middle East’s paramount power.
The New York Times took the unusual step of naming D’Andrea after he was appointed and observed that it was “the first major sign that the Trump administration is invoking the hard line the president took against Iran during his campaign.”
Trump branded Iran as “the No. 1 terror state” and vowed to toughen, and even scrap, the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran on the grounds that it did not clamp down hard enough on Iran’s nuclear programme or curb its expansionist designs.
D’Andrea has a reputation as a hard-charging leader with vast experience in the murky demi-monde of clandestine operations. He is known within the intelligence community as “the Dark Prince” or “Ayatollah Mike” for his years leading the undercover war against Osama bin Laden that led to the al-Qaeda founder’s killing in a May 2011 US special forces raid on his hideout in Pakistan.
D’Andrea, described by his intimates as a profane, abrasive chain smoker, was appointed to head Iran operations by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, another Trump appointee who takes a hard line against Tehran.
D’Andrea’s track record of successful clandestine operations as head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Centre during 2006-2015 suggests he will pull no punches in seeking to destabilise Iran. He is a convert to Islam who led the hunt for bin Laden. It is widely said in intelligence circles that he was a key figure in the February 2008 assassination in Damascus — carried out in collaboration with Israel’s Mossad agency — of Imad Mughniyeh, the elusive military chief of Hezbollah whose depredations killed hundreds of Americans. Mughniyeh was a key operative of Iran’s intelligence apparatus.
During D’Andrea’s tenure in the counterterrorism centre, he launched the CIA’s controversial killer drone campaign against al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia that decimated its leadership cadres. These attacks killed thousands of jihadists, but also many more civilians, a toll that has incensed Muslims around the globe and undoubtedly sent many recruits into the arms of ISIS and al- Qaeda.
Iran’s military involvement in the Syrian war as a key ally of President Bashar Assad has accelerated its long-held plans to become the Middle East’s dominant power, a strategy that involves destabilisation of the entire region and support for a legion of proxy paramilitary groups. Tehran’s determination to develop powerful missile systems to hold the region in thrall and eventually threaten the United States is another factor that Trump and D’Andrea must address.
Recent Iranian harassment of US warships in the Arabian Gulf is seen as a concerted effort to prevent effective monitoring of Iran’s most sensitive technologies.
“Such warnings point to the possibility that Iran’s most recent missile activities are part of an accelerated test and training programme to create a viable deterrence and rapid-attack capability against strategic US Navy assets at ranges unattainable by most of its existing anti-ship missiles,” analyst Farzin Nadimi of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy warned in March.
“The president’s reported demand for intelligence to support his policy preference to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal risks politicising intelligence analysis, with potentially grave consequences not only for national security decision-making but also for our ability to address a wide range of international threats,” former CIA deputy director David Cohen warned in an August 4 opinion piece in the Washington Post.
With the Iranians carving out a new Persian empire in Iraq and Syria and with their eyes on a similar expansion into the Gulf monarchies to the south, a tough Iran policy, if that’s what Trump adopts in the weeks ahead, will carry political and security risks that could lead to wider regional conflict. This could involve Iran’s archrival, Saudi Arabia, with which Iran is already waging a shadow war that shows every sign of worsening.
An aggressive CIA campaign by a US administration as incoherent as Trump’s against the Islamic Republic, whether it involves sabotage and assassination or simply stirring up trouble for the Tehran regime in its own back yard, could have unforeseen consequences in a region where nation states are already disintegrating.
“The risks of misunderstanding and dramatic escalation cannot be over-estimated, especially if Iranian investigators come to genuinely believe or at least suspect a connection between ISIS-inspired attacks, Saudi-funded terrorism and CIA-led espionage and subversion,” US-based security analyst Mahan Abedin has warned.
“While the CIA’s war on Iran, and the Iranian response, will be fought mostly in the shadows… repeated terror attacks, be they ISIS-inspired or conducted by local groups funded or directed by the Saudis, may well force an open confrontation.”
Israel, which has waged a constant intelligence war with Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, for more than three decades, could also — deliberately or inadvertently — complicate the US efforts.
Israeli leaders have made it clear that any new conflict between the Jewish state and Hezbollah will, for the first time, undoubtedly directly involve Iranian forces as well.
Both sides seem to be preparing for war as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Lebanese allies build up what will likely be a permanent military presence in Syria. Israel says it will never accept that.
The danger there is that the Israelis want the Americans to back them up, although US military commanders, currently focused on crushing ISIS, argue against such adventurism.

Ed Blanche
has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.
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