Attacking Iran May Trigger Terrorism

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By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

As tensions increase between the United States and Iran, U.S. intelligence and terrorism experts say they believe Iran would respond to U.S. military strikes on its nuclear sites by deploying its intelligence operatives and Hezbollah teams to carry out terrorist attacks worldwide.

Iran would mount attacks against U.S. targets inside Iraq, where Iranian intelligence agents are already plentiful, predicted these experts. There is also a growing consensus that Iran's agents would target civilians in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, they said.

U.S. officials would not discuss what evidence they have indicating Iran would undertake terrorist action, but the matter "is consuming a lot of time" throughout the U.S. intelligence apparatus, one senior official said. "It's a huge issue," another said.

Citing prohibitions against discussing classified information, U.S. intelligence officials declined to say whether they have detected preparatory measures, such as increased surveillance, counter-surveillance or message traffic, on the part of Iran's foreign-based intelligence operatives.

But terrorism experts considered Iranian-backed or controlled groups -- namely the country's Ministry of Intelligence and Security operatives, its Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah -- to be better organized, trained and equipped than the al-Qaeda network that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The Iranian government views the Islamic Jihad, the name of Hezbollah's terrorist organization, "as an extension of their state. . . . operational teams could be deployed without a long period of preparation," said Ambassador Henry A. Crumpton, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism.

The possibility of a military confrontation has been raised only obliquely in recent months by President Bush and Iran's government. Bush says he is pursuing a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but he has added that all options are on the table for stopping Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Speaking in Vienna last month, Javad Vaeedi, a senior Iranian nuclear negotiator, warned the United States that "it may have the power to cause harm and pain, but it is also susceptible to harm and pain. So if the United States wants to pursue that path, let the ball roll," although he did not specify what type of harm he was talking about.

Government officials said their interest in Iran's intelligence services is not an indication that a military confrontation is imminent or likely, but rather a reflection of a decades-long adversarial relationship in which Iran's agents have worked secretly against U.S. interests, most recently in Iraq and Pakistan. As confrontation over Iran's nuclear program has escalated, so has the effort to assess the threat from Iran's covert operatives.

U.N. Security Council members continue to debate how best to pressure Iran to prove that its nuclear program is not meant for weapons. The United States, Britain and France want the Security Council to threaten Iran with economic sanctions if it does not end its uranium enrichment activities. Russia and China, however, have declined to endorse such action and insist on continued negotiations. Security Council diplomats are meeting this weekend to try to break the impasse. Iran says it seeks nuclear power but not nuclear weapons.

Former CIA terrorism analyst Paul R. Pillar said that any U.S. or Israeli airstrike on Iranian territory "would be regarded as an act of war" by Tehran, and that Iran would strike back with its terrorist groups. "There's no doubt in my mind about that. . . . Whether it's overseas at the hands of Hezbollah, in Iraq or possibly Europe, within the regime there would be pressure to take violent action."

Before Sept. 11, the armed wing of Hezbollah, often working on behalf of Iran, was responsible for more American deaths than in any other terrorist attacks. In 1983 Hezbollah truck-bombed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241, and in 1996 truck-bombed Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. service members.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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