If U.S. policymakers are in search of a strategic roadmap to navigate the Iranian nuclear issue, they may want to pick up a DVD box set of HBO’s “The Wire.” In the acclaimed crime drama, rival Baltimore street gangs fight for control of the city’s drug trade. Despite their violent criminal pedigree, their leaders display a streetwise pragmatism that bears a striking resemblance to the realpolitik often played out on the world stage.
The street gangs of “The Wire” strive to maintain a fragile stability, masterfully employing the art of brinksmanship in pursuit of their objectives—profit, power, territory—or, as they call it, “holdin’ them corners.” They even establish an ersatz United Nations in which to don the cloak of rational diplomacy to veil the dagger of violent action, and therein lies the lesson.
The blackout curtain on diplomacy with Iran has yet to fully descend—even if only letting in a thin crack of daylight. More daylight seems to rest between Israel and the United States concerning a timetable for any military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, with Jerusalem playing the Saber-Rattler-in-Chief most likely to keep the pressure on the White House and let Iran—and the world for that matter—know that Israel will defend its own interests and security.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently stated that Israel will not wait “much longer” for a diplomatic resolution. Indeed, Israel may launch an attack before the end of the year. The Israelis are concerned that Iran may be playing the clock on negotiations to bury their program deep enough underground to make it invulnerable to military strikes before actually constructing a nuclear weapon. Washington wants more time to back the Iranians off their nuclear aspirations through sanctions, but so far have kept the military option on the table as a last resort. Even so, several U.S. and Israeli senior officials question whether a military attack—most likely in the form of airstrikes—could effectively destroy Iran’s nuclear program, or set it back enough to make them worthwhile, particularly considering the potential fallout. According to the New York Times, a recent U.S. military simulation code-named Internal Look predicted a full-blown regional conflict in the wake of Israeli and American airstrikes.
Over the last two decades, the Middle East has gone from a powder keg with its fuse already lit, to one exploding in high-definition slow-mo. Complex airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear program, while possibly inflicting only marginal damage, could act as a precursory accelerant to an all-out shooting war, one that could risk turning into an even wider, unforeseen conflict—as any such aggression would have sparked during the Cold War, back when Mother Russia and Uncle Sam were playing a dangerous game of chicken with many of the same strategic nuclear warheads that they still have pointing at each other today.
On the other hand, some experts believe that Tehran, as a rational actor itself, might pursue a more contained response as a matter of self-preservation, most likely favoring the use of proxy terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Iranian and Hezbollah agents have already mounted a series of violent operations against Israeli assets in Georgia, India, Azerbaijan and Thailand. The attacks come in the retaliatory wake of alleged covert U.S. and Israeli sabotage and targeted killing operations that have destroyed suspected Iranian nuclear equipment and facilities, and eliminated at least five scientists reportedly connected to Tehran’s nuclear program.
The U.S. has been pursuing a more intensive covert war against Iran since 2007, when President Bush authorized CIA paramilitary operations officers and military special operators in Iraq to hunt down members of Iran’s shadowy Quds Force, even if it meant crossing the Iranian border.
Washington and its allies must now tune up the tempo of its covert offensive, expand the scope of their operations to include Iranian assets beyond the back-alleys and bazaars of the Middle East. An aggressive covert war against Iran should not only aim to increase the likelihood of diplomatic success and to damage Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon, but employ a more complex, strategic array of objectives that seek to destabilize the Iranian regime from within.
Israel, of course, is no stranger to muscular covert and clandestine operations—infiltration, sabotage, subversion, elimination. But it is exactly these types of operations in which the United States and its Western allies must increasingly invest their support and participate—cunning, aggressive, and above all else, plausibly deniable. Upon establishing Great Britain’s Special Operations Executive, responsible for covert operations in occupied Europe during WWII, Winston Churchill issued its operatives a single order: “set Europe ablaze.” Now, it is time for the U.S. to set Iran ablaze through covert war rather than aerial bombardment.
An even more aggressive covert campaign against Iran could also better prepare Western intelligence services and counterterrorism officers to deal with the looming threat from Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies across the globe. A proactive and persistent intelligence-gathering effort against these organizations may yield information that could blow away terrorist cells before they can retaliate at Tehran’s behest.
Hezbollah has built a robust presence throughout Latin America—well within shooting range of the porous U.S. border. In October 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice charged two men with aiding Quds Force in a plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States on American soil. The plot involved an attempt to hire a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the attack. In recent testimony before the United States Congress, Mitchell Silber, head of the New York Police Department’s division for intelligence analysis, stated that since 2005, authorities had interviewed 13 people seen taking pictures of New York City landmarks—all of them connected to the Iranian government.
Iran has been waging a covert war against the United States from the moment the vanguard of its Islamic Revolution stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and took 52 Americans hostage. Iran’s intelligence services subsequently stepped it up when they unleashed Hezbollah to bomb the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut and kidnap Western journalists and intelligence officials throughout the 1980s. It’s time for the U.S. to work closely with Israel with a collective vision of not simply maintaining covert parity with Iran, but achieving total supremacy.
For now, the U.S. and its allies should continue pursuing diplomacy as the best means of resolving the Iranian nuclear issue and avoiding the risk of a wider conflict. But the days of Clintonian showboat, champagne-toasting, treaty-signing summits are long over. Just as the gang leaders in “The Wire” adopted the orthodox realpolitik of modern foreign policy decision-making while pursuing their objectives, so too must the U.S. and other Western nations take on an even tougher, streetwise covert musculature to at once achieve their aims and maintain stability. Only then will they truly be able to keep “holdin’ them corners.”