Blowup? America's Hidden War With Iran
    By Michael Hirsh and Maziar Bahari

    Jalal Sharafi was carrying a video game, a gift for his daughter, when
he found himself surrounded. On that chilly Sunday morning, the second
secretary at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad had driven himself to the
commercial district of Arasat Hindi to checkout the site for a new Iranian
bank. He had ducked into a nearby electronics store with his bodyguards, and
as they emerged four armored cars roared up and disgorged at least 20 gunmen
wearing bulletproof vests and Iraqi National Guard uniforms. They flashed
official IDs, and manhandled Sharafi into one car. Iraqi police gave chase,
guns blazing. They shot up one of the other vehicles, capturing four
assailants who by late last week had yet to be publicly identified. Sharafi
and the others disappeared.

    At the embassy, the diplomat's colleagues were furious. "This was a
group directly under American supervision," said one distraught Iranian
official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. Abdul Karim Inizi,
a former Iraqi Security minister close to the Iranians, pointed the finger
at an Iraqi black-ops unit based out at the Baghdad airport, who answer to
American Special Forces officers. "It's plausible," says a senior Coalition
adviser who is also not authorized to speak on the record. The unit does
exist - and does specialize in snatch operations.

    The Iranians have reason to feel paranoid. In recent weeks senior
American officers have condemned Tehran for providing training and deadly
explosives to insurgents. In a predawn raid on Dec. 21, U.S. troops barged
into the compound of the most powerful political party in the country, the
Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and grabbed two men they
claimed were officers in Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Three weeks later U.S.
troops stormed an Iranian diplomatic office in Irbil, arresting five more
Iranians. The Americans have hinted that as part of an escalating
tit-for-tat, Iranians may have had a hand in a spectacular raid in Karbala
on Jan. 20, in which four American soldiers were kidnapped and later found
shot, execution style, in the head. U.S. forces promised to defend

    Some view the spiraling attacks as a strand in a worrisome pattern. At
least one former White House official contends that some Bush advisers
secretly want an excuse to attack Iran. "They intend to be as provocative as
possible and make the Iranians do something [America] would be forced to
retaliate for," says Hillary Mann, the administration's former National
Security Council director for Iran and Persian Gulf Affairs. U.S. officials
insist they have no intention of provoking or otherwise starting a war with
Iran, and they were also quick to deny any link to Sharafi's kidnapping. But
the fact remains that the longstanding war of words between Washington and
Tehran is edging toward something more dangerous. A second Navy carrier
group is steaming toward the Persian Gulf, and NEWSWEEK has learned that a
third carrier will likely follow. Iran shot off a few missiles in those same
tense waters last week, in a highly publicized test. With Americans and
Iranians jousting on the chaotic battleground of Iraq, the chances of a
small incident's spiraling into a crisis are higher than they've been in

    Sometimes it seems as if a state of conflict is natural to the
U.S.-Iranian relationship - troubled since the CIA-backed coup that restored
the shah to power in 1953, tortured since Ayatollah Khomeini's triumph in
1979. With the election of George W. Bush on the one hand, and Iranian
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the other, the two countries are now led by
men who deeply mistrust the intentions and indeed doubt the sanity of the
other. Tehran insists that U.S. policy is aimed at toppling the regime and
subjugating Iran. The White House charges that Iran is violently sabotaging
U.S. efforts to stabilize the Middle East while not so secretly developing
nuclear weapons. As the raids and skirmishes in Iraq underscore, a hidden
war is already unfolding.

    Yet a NEWSWEEK investigation has also found periods of marked
cooperation and even tentative steps toward possible reconciliation in
recent years - far more than is commonly realized. After September 11 in
particular, relations grew warmer than at any time since the fall of the
shah. America wanted Iran's help in Afghanistan, and Iran gave it, partly
out of fear of an angry superpower and partly in order to be rid of its
troublesome Taliban neighbors. In time, hard-liners on both sides were able
to undo the efforts of diplomats to build on that foundation. The damage
only worsened as those hawks became intoxicated with their own success. The
secret history of the Bush administration's dealings with Iran is one of
arrogance, mistrust and failure. But it is also a history that offers some

    For Iran's reformists, 9/11 was a blessing in disguise. Previous
attempts to reach out to America had been stymied by conservative mullahs.
But the fear that an enraged superpower would blindly lash out focused minds
in Tehran. Mohammad Hossein Adeli was one of only two deputies on duty at
the Foreign Ministry when the attacks took place, late on a sweltering
summer afternoon. He immediately began contacting top officials, insisting
that Iran respond quickly. "We wanted to truly condemn the attacks but we
also wished to offer an olive branch to the United States, showing we were
interested in peace," says Adeli. To his relief, Iran's top official,
Ayatollah Ali Khameini, quickly agreed. "The Supreme Leader was deeply
suspicious of the American government," says a Khameini aide whose position
does not allow him to be named. "But [he] was repulsed by these terrorist
acts and was truly sad about the loss of the civilian lives in America." For
two weeks worshipers at Friday prayers even stopped chanting "Death to

    The fear dissipated after Sept. 20, when the FBI announced that Al Qaeda
was behind the attacks. But there was new reason for cooperation: for years
Tehran had been backing the Afghan guerrillas fighting the Taliban, Osama
bin Laden's hosts. Suddenly, having U.S. troops next door in Afghanistan
didn't seem like a bad idea. American and Iranian officials met repeatedly
in Geneva in the days before the Oct. 7 U.S. invasion. The Iranians were
more than supportive. "In fact, they were impatient," says a U.S. official
involved in the talks, who asked not to be named speaking about topics that
remain sensitive. "They'd ask, 'When's the military action going to start?
Let's get going!' "

    Opinions differ wildly over how much help the Iranians actually were on
the ground. But what is beyond doubt is how critical they were to
stabilizing the country after the fall of Kabul. In late November 2001, the
leaders of Afghanistan's triumphant anti-Taliban factions flew to Bonn,
Germany, to map out an interim Afghan government with the help of
representatives from 18 Coalition countries. It was rainy and unseasonably
cold, and the penitential month of Ramadan was in full sway, but a carnival
mood prevailed. The setting was a splendid hotel on the Rhine, and after
sunset the German hosts laid on generous buffet meals under a big sign
promising that everything was pork-free.

    The Iranian team's leader, Javad Zarif, was a good-humored University of
Denver alumnus with a deep, measured voice, who would later become U.N.
ambassador. Jim Dobbins, Bush's first envoy to the Afghans, recalls sharing
coffee with Zarif in one of the sitting rooms, poring over a draft of the
agreement laying out the new Afghan government. "Zarif asked me, 'Have you
looked at it?' I said, 'Yes, I read it over once'," Dobbins recalls. "Then
he said, with a certain twinkle in his eye: 'I don't think there's anything
in it that mentions democracy. Don't you think there could be some
commitment to democratization?' This was before the Bush administration had
discovered democracy as a panacea for the Middle East. I said that's a good

    Toward the end of the Bonn talks, Dobbins says, "we reached a pivotal
moment." The various parties had decided that the suave, American-backed
Hamid Karzai would lead the new Afghan government. But he was a Pashtun
tribal leader from the south, and rivals from the north had actually won the
capital. In the brutal world of Afghan power politics, that was a recipe for
conflict. At 2 a.m. on the night before the deal was meant to be signed, the
Northern Alliance delegate Yunus Qanooni was stubbornly demanding 18 out of
24 new ministries. Frantic negotiators gathered in the suite of United
Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. A sleepy Zarif translated for Qanooni.
Finally, at close to 4 a.m., he leaned over to whisper in the Afghan's ear:
"This is the best deal you're going to get." Qanooni said, "OK."

    That moment, Dobbins says now, was critical. "The Russians and the
Indians had been making similar points," he says. "But it wasn't until Zarif
took him aside that it was settled ... We might have had a situation like we
had in Iraq, where we were never able to settle on a single leader and
government." A month later Tehran backed up the political support with
financial muscle: at a donor's conference in Tokyo, Iran pledged $500
million (at the time, more than double the Americans') to help rebuild

    In a pattern that would become familiar, however, a chill quickly
followed the warming in relations. Barely a week after the Tokyo meeting,
Iran was included with Iraq and North Korea in the "Axis of Evil." Michael
Gerson, now a NEWSWEEK contributor, headed the White House speechwriting
shop at the time. He says Iran and North Korea were inserted into Bush's
controversial State of the Union address in order to avoid focusing solely
on Iraq. At the time, Bush was already making plans to topple Saddam
Hussein, but he wasn't ready to say so. Gerson says it was Condoleezza Rice,
then national-security adviser, who told him which two countries to include
along with Iraq. But the phrase also appealed to a president who felt
himself thrust into a grand struggle. Senior aides say it reminded him of
Ronald Reagan's ringing denunciations of the "evil empire."

    Once again, Iran's reformists were knocked back on their heels. "Those
who were in favor of a rapprochement with the United States were
marginalized," says Adeli. "The speech somehow exonerated those who had
always doubted America's intentions." The Khameini aide concurs: "The Axis
of Evil speech did not surprise the Supreme Leader. He never trusted the

    It would be another war that nudged the two countries together again. At
the beginning of 2003, as the Pentagon readied for battle against Iraq, the
Americans wanted Tehran's help in case a flood of refugees headed for the
border, or if U.S. pilots were downed inside Iran. After U.S. tanks
thundered into Baghdad, those worries eased. "We had the strong hand at that
point," recalls Colin Powell, who was secretary of State at the time. If
anything, though, America's lightning campaign made the Iranians even more
eager to deal. Low-level meetings between the two sides had continued even
after the Axis of Evil speech. At one of them that spring, Zarif raised the
question of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a rabidly anti-Iranian militant
group based in Iraq. Iran had detained a number of senior Qaeda operatives
after 9/11. Zarif floated the possibility of "reciprocity" - your terrorists
for ours.

    The idea was brought up at a mid-May meeting between Bush and his chief
advisers in the wood-paneled Situation Room in the White House basement.
Riding high, Bush seemed to like the idea of a swap, says a participant who
asked to remain anonymous because the meeting was classified. Some in the
room argued that designating the militants as terrorists had been a mistake,
others that they might prove useful against Iran someday. Powell opposed the
handover for a different reason: he worried that the captives might be
tortured. The vice president, silent through most of the meeting as was his
wont, muttered something about "preserving all our options." (Cheney
declined to comment.) The MEK's status remains unresolved.

    Around this time what struck some in the U.S. government as an even more
dramatic offer arrived in Washington - a faxed two-page proposal for
comprehensive bilateral talks. To the NSC's Mann, among others, the Iranians
seemed willing to discuss, at least, cracking down on Hizbullah and Hamas
(or turning them into peaceful political organizations) and "full
transparency" on Iran's nuclear program. In return, the Iranian "aims" in
the document called for a "halt in U.S. hostile behavior and rectification
of the status of Iran in the U.S. and abolishing sanctions," as well as
pursuit of the MEK.

    An Iranian diplomat admits to NEWSWEEK that he had a hand in preparing
the proposal, but denies that he was its original author. Asking not to be
named because the topic is politically sensitive, he says he got the rough
draft from an intermediary with connections at the White House and the State
Department. He suggested some relatively minor revisions in ballpoint pen
and dispatched the working draft to Tehran, where it was shown to only the
top ranks of the regime. "We didn't want to have an 'Irangate 2'," the
diplomat says, referring to the secret negotiations to trade weapons for
hostages that ended in scandal during Reagan's administration. After Iran's
National Security Council approved the document (under orders from
Khameini), a final copy was produced and sent to Washington, according to
the diplomat.

    The letter received a mixed reception. Powell and his deputy Richard
Armitage were suspicious. Armitage says he thinks the letter represented
creative diplomacy by the Swiss ambassador, Tim Guldimann, who was serving
as a go-between. "We couldn't determine what [in the proposal] was the
Iranians' and what was the Swiss ambassador's," he says. He added that his
impression at the time was that the Iranians "were trying to put too much on
the table." Quizzed about the letter in front of Congress last week, Rice
denied ever seeing it. "I don't care if it originally came from Mars," Mann
says now. "If the Iranians said it was fully vetted and cleared, then it
could have been as important as the two-page document" that Richard Nixon
and Henry Kissinger received from Beijing in 1971, indicating Mao Zedong's
interest in opening China.

    A few days later bombs tore through three housing complexes in Saudi
Arabia and killed 29 people, including seven Americans. Furious
administration hard-liners blamed Tehran. Citing telephone intercepts, they
claimed the bombings had been ordered by Saif al-Adel, a senior Qaeda leader
supposedly imprisoned in Iran. "There's no question but that there have been
and are today senior Al Qaeda leaders in Iran, and they are busy," Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld growled. Although there was no evidence the
Iranian government knew of Adel's activities, his presence in the country
was enough to undermine those who wanted to reach out.

    Powell, for one, thinks Bush simply wasn't prepared to deal with a
regime he thought should not be in power. As secretary of State he met
fierce resistance to any diplomatic overtures to Iran and its ally Syria.
"My position in the remaining year and a half was that we ought to find ways
to restart talks with Iran," he says of the end of his term. "But there was
a reluctance on the part of the president to do that." The former secretary
of State angrily rejects the administration's characterization of efforts by
him and his top aides to deal with Tehran and Damascus as failures. "I don't
like the administration saying, 'Powell went, Armitage went ... and [they]
got nothing.' We got plenty," he says. "You can't negotiate when you tell
the other side, 'Give us what a negotiation would produce before the
negotiations start'."

    Terrorism wasn't the only concern when it came to Iran. For decades,
Washington's abiding fear has been that Iran might pick up where the shah's
nuclear program (initially U.S.-backed) left off, and make the Great Satan
the target of its atomic weapons. The Iranians, who were signatories to the
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, insisted they had nothing to hide. They
lied. In August 2002, a group affiliated with the MEK revealed the extent of
nuclear activities at a facility in Isfahan, where the Iranians had been
converting yellowcake to uranium gas, and in Natanz, where the
infrastructure needed to enrich that material to weapons-grade uranium was
being built. A year later Pakistani scientist AQ Khan's covert
nuclear-technology network unraveled, bringing further embarrassments and

    For months, European negotiators worked to get Tehran to formalize a
temporary and tenuous deal to freeze its nuclear fuel-development program.
In May 2005, they met with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani,
at the Iranian ambassador's opulent Geneva residence. There was some reason
to be optimistic: in Washington, Rice had announced that the United States
would not block Iran's bid to join the World Trade Organization. Yet a sense
of enormous tension filled the room, according to a diplomat who was there
but asked not to be identified revealing official discussions. The Europeans
told Rowhani they hadn't nailed down exactly what they could offer in return
for a freeze, and the Americans still weren't fully onboard. Iran would have
to wait for the details for a few more months. But in the meantime, the
program had to remain suspended.

    Rowhani, in full clerical robes and turban, obviously was not authorized
to make any such deal. "The man was in front of us sweating," says the
European diplomat. "He was trapped: he couldn't go further ... I realized
very clearly that he couldn't deliver, that he was not allowed to deliver.
Psychologically he was broken. Physically he was almost broken."

    Part of the problem was that elections in Iran were only a few days
away. They brought to power a man who satisfied the darkest stereotypes of
Iran's fervid leaders. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly renounced the freeze on
Iran's nuclear fuel-development program, broke the seals the International
Atomic Energy Agency had placed on Iran's conversion facilities at Isfahan
and pushed ahead with work at Natanz. In the span of no more than a month or
two, nuclear enrichment had become a symbol of national pride for a much
wider spectrum of Iranian society than the voters who elected Ahmadinejad.
In a warped parallel to Bush, who found his voice after 9/11 rallying
Americans to the struggle against a vast and unforgiving enemy, the Iranian
president rose in stature throughout the Middle East as he railed against
America. The one problem U.S. negotiators had always had with Iran was
determining who in the Byzantine regime to talk to, and whether they could
deliver anything. Now they faced another: the Iranians had almost no
incentive to talk. With the United States bogged down in Iraq, Iran now had
the leverage - roles had reversed.

    In its second term the Bush administration, despite Powell's sour
memories, has supported European efforts to resolve the nuclear impasse
diplomatically. Rice has offered to meet her Iranian counterpart "any time,
anywhere." "What has blocked such contact is the refusal of Iran to meet the
demands of the entire international community," says a White House official,
who could not be named discussing Iran. The official expressed deep
frustration with critics. He argued they were naive about Tehran's
intentions, and "parroting Iranian propaganda."

    By last summer Iran seemed ascendant. Hizbullah's performance in the
Lebanon war had rallied support for Ahmadinejad, one of the group's loudest
proponents, across the Arab world. In a series of meetings in New York in
September the Iranian president was defiant, almost giddy. (A senior British
official who would only speak anonymously about deliberations with the
Americans describes Tehran's mood around this time as "cock-a-hoop.") He
would not back down when grilled about his dismissals of the Holocaust, and
scoffed at the threat of U.N. sanctions over Iran's nuclear defiance.

    The West's patience was running out. In Baghdad, American troops seemed
powerless to stop a wave of gruesome sectarian killings that they claimed
were fueled by Iran. In Amman and Riyadh, Arab leaders warned darkly of a
rising "Shia crescent." After Bush's defeat in the midterm elections,
Israeli officials began wondering aloud if they would have to deal with the
Iranian threat on their own. Partly in consultation with the British, U.S.
officials began to map out a broader strategy to fight back. "We felt we
needed to have a much more knitted-together policy, with a number of
different strands working, to hit different parts of the Iranian system,"
says the senior British official.

    Critics have questioned how much of that plan is military - whether the
administration is secretly setting a course for war as it did back in 2002.
Last week officials were at great pains to deny that scenario. "We are not
planning offensive military operations against Iran," said Under Secretary
of State Nicholas Burns. The Pentagon does have contingency plans for
all-out war with Iran, on which Bush was briefed last summer. The targets
would include Iran's air-defense systems, its nuclear- and chemical-weapons
facilities, ballistic missile sites, naval and Revolutionary Guard bases in
the gulf, and intelligence headquarters. But generals are convinced that no
amount of firepower could do more than delay Tehran's nuclear program. U.S.
military analysts have concluded that nothing short of regime change would
completely eliminate the threat - and America simply doesn't have the troops

    Iraq is another story. American military officials and politicians
accuse the Iranian government of providing Iraqis with an new arsenal of
advanced rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, heavy-duty mortars and the
newest armor-piercing technology for roadside bombs - explosively formed
projectiles (EFPs), said to have been developed by Hizbullah. Military
security experts are especially worried by "passive infrared sensors,"
readily available devices that are often used for burglar alarms or
automatic light switches but increasingly seen as triggers for improvised
explosive devices (IEDs). Unlike cell phones, remote-control systems and
garage-door openers, the sensors emit no signal, making them that much
tougher to spot before they detonate.

    What's scant is hard evidence that the weapons are provided by the
Iranian government, rather than arms dealers or rogue Revolutionary Guard
elements. "Iranian lethal support for select groups of Iraqi Shia militants
clearly intensifies the conflict in Iraq," says the latest National
Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. But the most that can be said with certainty
is that Tehran is failing to stop the traffic. The Iranians themselves admit
they're not trying as hard as they could. "I can give you my word that we
don't give IEDs to the Mahdi Army," says an Iranian intelligence official
who asked not to be named because secrecy is his business. "But if you asked
me if we could control our borders better if we wanted to, I would say:
'Yes, if we knew that the Americans would not use Iraq as a base to attack

    The real thrust of Washington's multipronged attack is political.
Banking restrictions levied by the U.S. Treasury have begun to pinch the
Iranian economy. Voters angry about rising prices dealt Ahmadinejad an
embarrassing blow in municipal elections in December, when his supporters
were trounced. That wouldn't much matter if he still retained Khameini's
support. But that may no longer be the case. The Khameini aide says the
Supreme Leader blames Ahmadinejad's overheated rhetoric about Israel and the
Holocaust for the unanimous Security Council resolution that passed in late
December, demanding that Tehran suspend its nuclear program.

    Every time America or Iran has gained an advantage over the other in the
last five years, however, they've overplayed their hand. More pressure on
Ahmadinejad could well make him popular again - the chief martyr in a martyr
culture. Sunni insurgents in Iraq need only kill some Americans and plant
Iranian IDs nearby to start a full-scale war. Like so many times in this
complicated relationship, this is a moment of opportunity. And one of
equally great danger.

    With reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh in Baghdad and John Barry, Mark
Hosenball, Richard Wolffe in Washington, Christopher Dickey in Paris,
Stryker McGuire in London, and Christian Caryl, Owen Matthews, Scott
Johnson, Kevin Peraino, Ron Moreau and Dan Ephron.