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Affair May Slow Push for Regime Change in Tehran

The disclosure this week of an FBI investigation into the activities of a Defense Department official involved in Iran policy is being seen as a blow to advocates of regime change in Tehran.

A key Pentagon supporter of such a policy, Lawrence Franklin, is reportedly under investigation for allegedly passing classified information about American policy on Iran to Israel through officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Analysts said the development could tilt the balance toward advocates of a softer approach to Iran, even if President Bush is re-elected.

News of the FBI probe comes as the administration is re-evaluating its policy toward Iraq in light of harsh congressional and public censure regarding intelligence failures and mistakes in planning for the postwar period. Many of the problems have been blamed on the Pentagon.

“Coming after Iraq, this could take away momentum for a regime-change policy in a second Bush term,” Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East affairs specialist with the Congressional Research Service, said of the disclosure.

The Kerry campaign, for its part, last week indicated a willingness to reach out to Tehran to discuss its nuclear ambitions, thus distancing itself from a regime-change policy.

Analysts said the affair also might be a policy setback for Israel, which shares the Pentagon’s hawkish views on Iran. In recent months, Israel has been urging Washington and its Western allies to take an uncompromising approach toward Iran’s nuclear ambitions. With a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear activities due this week and a meeting of the agency coming up September 13, Jerusalem and Tehran have been trading threats of military strikes. Iran announced on Tuesday that it had arrested several alleged spies, accusing them of disclosing nuclear secrets.

The FBI is conducing an investigation into whether Franklin, the main Iran desk officer in the Pentagon’s policy planning office, handed over a draft of a presidential order on American policy toward Iran to two Aipac officials, who in turn allegedly passed the documents to Israel, according to news reports.

Both Israel and Aipac have denied any wrongdoing.

The investigation is the latest in a series of inquiries centering on the Pentagon policy planning office headed by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. The office has come under withering criticism for its alleged role in trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein and what critics say is its botched postwar planning in Iraq.

The FBI is investigating whether Pentagon officials handed highly classified U.S. Intelligence to a leading Iraqi exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, which may in turn have passed it on to Iran.

An intelligence source said that the FBI might be soliciting Franklin’s help in that investigation.

Moreover, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee is investigating a secret back channel between officials from Feith’s office and controversial former Iran-contra arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar, according to a recent report in The Washington Monthly.

The Boston Globe reported Tuesday that a third investigation, this one in a preliminary stage and conducted by the House Judiciary Committee, is looking into whether another former official in Feith’s office, Michael Maloof, was involved in unauthorized back-channel talks aimed at destabilizing Syria.

Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst and a forceful critic of what he maintains was the administration’s manipulation of intelligence on Iraq, offered an alternative view.

He claimed that the Franklin affair derived from the investigation into which administration officials unlawfully “outed” CIA operative Valerie Plame by disclosing her identity to Washington Post columnist Robert Novak. The leak allegedly was orchestrated to retaliate against Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, after he undermined a key administration argument about Iraq’s efforts to buy enriched uranium in Africa.

“I think there are several grand jury investigations going on in the Plame investigation, and one of them is focusing on the activities of the neocons at the Pentagon and in the vice president’s office,” Johnson said. Investigators, he added, were exploring the possibility that forged documents showing Iraqi nuclear procurement activities in Africa could have originated in Israel.

David Saranga, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said he “had never heard about such an allegation.”

Franklin, a career analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, moved to the Pentagon in 2001 to work on Iranian affairs in the office of William J. Luti, deputy undersecretary of defense for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs.

Luti, a former aide to Newt Gingrich, has come under fire for running two small operations, the so-called Office of Special Plans and the Counterterrorism Evaluation Group, which critics say sought to manipulate intelligence in order to improve the Bush administration’s case for war against Iraq.

House and Senate intelligence committee investigators found no evidence corroborating allegations that the offices tried to bypass the CIA or had a major effect on the prewar debate. Even so, three Democratic senators — John Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, Carl Levin of Michigan and Richard Durbin of Illinois — blasted the Office of Special Plans in an appendix to the Senate report.

Franklin is part of a team of hawks at the Pentagon who clashed regularly with State Department officials over Iran policy, leading to what both advocates of engagement and hardliners agree is a deadlock. While the hawks seemed to gain traction before the Iraq war, their efforts largely fizzled in the spring of 2003 when the situation in that country worsened, observers said.

At around the same time, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered Pentagon officials to stop meeting with Ghorbanifar and Iranian dissidents, sources said. Between December 2001 and the summer of 2003, Franklin and another Pentagon official, Harold Rhode, held several secret meetings with Ghorbanifar and the Iranians in Italy and France that were arranged by Michael Ledeen, a staunch supporter of regime change in Tehran who had known Ghorbanifar since the days of the Iran-Contra scandal.

Ledeen declined to comment.

Morris Amitay, a former Aipac official who shares Ledeen’s views on Iran, disputed the perception that the Franklin affair was a blow to the advocates of regime change.

“I don’t think that a misguided FBI investigation will change the policy,” he told the Forward.

That view was seconded by Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who stressed that there is general agreement in the administration on the urgent need to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue.

In an indication of the fluid nature of American Iran policy, the administration has shifted between support for European efforts to find a compromise with Iran and the threat to refer the issue to the Security Council, which could enforce sanctions against Tehran.

Unconfirmed press reports have pointed to a possibe Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Katzman, the congressional expert, said the ongoing investigations centering on the Pentagon, as well as Iraq, also could have a dampening effect on such intentions.

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