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IRAN: Word of Bush's alleged covert war hits Tehran

June 30, 2008 |  1:17 pm

New Yorker magazine investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s article this week alleging a major upping of the American campaign to fund and back covert operations against Iran became major news in Tehran today.

Seymour_hershThe 6,000-word article alleged a secret campaign to fund ethnic separatist groups fighting the Iranian government and U.S. commandos scooping up intel on clandestine forays onto Iranian soil.

But for both supporters and opponents of the Iranian government one thing stood out in the report above all else: the price tag.

Hersh alleges that the U.S. Congress secretly OKd up to $400 million to fund such activities.

To Iranians, that’s a lot of cash that you can throw around at a lot of people to do a lot of things.

Television news shows went bonkers with the report. “Sabotage of the U.S. in Iran and a new wave of psychological warfare,” was the title of one televised roundtable discussion.

One expert on the show called the Americans’ alleged move “state terrorism” that violated international law and the U.N. charter forbidding interference in the affairs of other countries.

Others called the U.S. Congress’ alleged approval of so much money late last year a strategic milestone that the Iranian government would have to address.

“We understand that  the US administration is sending conflicting signals,”  Iranian lawmaker Kazem Jalali said. “On the one hand they send signals to say they want to negotiate. On the other hand, they try to bully.”

Iranian moderates and dissidents worry that that news of the price tag would bring civil society and pro-democracy groups under even greater suspicion.

Here’s Mohammad Marandi, head of the North American studies department at Tehran University, in a brief interview today with the Los Angeles Times:

From now on, the authorities in Tehran can refer to the article and say this is evidence that America is supporting the separatists and subversive groups. If the U.S. is looking to open the space in Iran, these kinds of budgets are counterproductive. From now on the social and political groups will be under more scrutiny, and the wall of mistrust between the two countries will be greater than before.

For his own sake, Marandi said he’s going to be extra careful to vet all invitations from abroad to make sure he’s not being brought to a U.S. government sponsored event and all requests for visiting American scholars to make sure they’re not spooks.

Human rights attorney Mohammad Ali Dadkhah said word of the cash was bad news for those fighting slowly for change in Iran. He once turned down an offer from Holland to fund a human rights center where he works. “In our norms and tradition, only bad and corrupted politicians are under payroll of foreigners, no matter which country,” he said in an interview.

Even if the government doesn’t crack down, the news of the cash will strain ties between dissident leaders and ordinary people.

“People are very sensitive to any penny received by their intellectuals and dissidents from abroad for democracy,” Reza Kaviani, a student activist, told The Times.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the article or parts of it are wrong, or that even though Bush got cash approved, he hasn't spent it yet.

For their part, U.S. officials have either remained mum or denied some of the allegations in the article, particularly the claim of cross-border commando raids into Iran from southern Iraq.

Abul-Fazel Amoee, a Tehran political scientist close to the hardliners, was a skeptic. He told the Times he thought the article was probably nothing more than psychological warfare, and that Hersh was a has-been:

Seymour Hersh is not well-reputed in Iran any longer. His credentials have been tarnished because of his incorrect predictions regarding attacks on Iran. The U.S. government leaks news of the $400 million, and he writes the article. The U.S. administration is somehow continuing its psychological warfare operations.

Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Seymour Hersh in 2006. Credit: Stanford University news service