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Attacking Iran May Trigger Terrorism
Iran's intelligence service, operating out of its embassies around the world, assassinated dozens of monarchists and political dissidents in Europe, Pakistan, Turkey and the Middle East in the two decades after the 1979 Iranian revolution, which brought to power a religious Shiite government. Argentine officials also believe Iranian agents bombed a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, killing 86 people. Iran has denied involvement in that attack.
Iran's intelligence services "are well trained, fairly sophisticated and have been doing this for decades," said Crumpton, a former deputy of operations at the CIA's Counterterrorist Center. "They are still very capable. I don't see their capabilities as having diminished."
Both sides have increased their activities against the other. The Bush administration is spending $75 million to step up pressure on the Iranian government, including funding non-governmental organizations and alternative media broadcasts. Iran's parliament then approved $13.6 million to counter what it calls "plots and acts of meddling" by the United States.
"Given the uptick in interest in Iran" on the part of the United States, "it would be a very logical assumption that we have both ratcheted up [intelligence] collection, absolutely," said Fred Barton, a former counterterrorism official who is now vice president of counterterrorism for Stratfor, a security consulting and forecasting firm. "It would be a more fevered pitch on the Iranian side because they have fewer options."
The office of the director of national intelligence, which recently began to manage the U.S. intelligence agencies, declined to allow its analysts to discuss their assessment of Iran's intelligence services and Hezbollah and their capabilities to retaliate against U.S. interests.
"We are unable to address your questions in an unclassified manner," a spokesman for the office, Carl Kropf, wrote in response to a Washington Post query.
The current state of Iran's intelligence apparatus is the subject of debate among experts. Some experts who spent their careers tracking the intelligence ministry's operatives describe them as deployed worldwide and easier to monitor than Hezbollah cells because they operate out of embassies and behave more like a traditional spy service such as the Soviet KGB.
Other experts believe the Iranian service has become bogged down in intense, regional concerns: attacks on Shiites in Pakistan, the Iraq war and efforts to combat drug trafficking in Iran.
As a result, said Bahman Baktiari, an Iran expert at the University of Maine, the intelligence service has downsized its operations in Europe and the United States. But, said Baktiari, "I think the U.S. government doesn't have a handle on this."
Because Iran's nuclear facilities are scattered around the country, some military specialists doubt a strike could effectively end the program and would require hundreds of strikes beforehand to disable Iran's vast air defenses. They say airstrikes would most likely inflame the Muslim world, alienate reformers within Iran and could serve to unite Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, which have only limited contact currently.
A report by the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks cited al-Qaeda's long-standing cooperation with the Iranian-back Hezbollah on certain operations and said Osama bin Laden may have had a previously undisclosed role in the Khobar attack. Several al-Qaeda figures are reportedly under house arrest in Iran.
Others in the law enforcement and intelligence circles have been more dubious about cooperation between al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, largely because of the rivalries between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Al-Qaeda adherents are Sunni Muslims; Hezbollah's are Shiites.
Iran "certainly wants to remind governments that they can create a lot of difficulty if strikes were to occur," said a senior European counterterrorism official interviewed recently. "That they might react with all means, Hezbollah inside Lebanon and outside Lebanon, this is certain. Al-Qaeda could become a tactical alliance."
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.