It was late February 2003, a few weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and President George W. Bush's administration still lacked a real strategy for the would-be regional hegemon next door. As the Iran desk officer in the office of the secretary of defense, I felt desperate. We were about to invade Iraq without a definitive policy toward its most bitter foe. I feared a repeat of Vietnam and saw in Iran a new Ho Chi Minh Trail -- the enemy lifeline that snaked through Laos and Cambodia and helped dash U.S. hopes for Southeast Asia. I knew that the Islamic Republic would endeavor to replicate this disaster in the Middle East from the moment U.S. troops stormed Baghdad -- just as it had bloodied our noses in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere for decades.
In fact, I knew from my sources that Tehran had already prepared an entire network of operatives, proxies, and weapons ready to challenge the United States as soon as it toppled Saddam Hussein. I also knew it would be foolish to assume -- as many in the Bush administration did -- that Iraq's many pro-Iranian political and religious leaders could be trusted to cooperate with the United States' stated goal of building "a peaceful … democratic, and united Iraq." I had spoken with many of these people myself and was on friendly terms with the representatives of several prominent Shiite religious leaders. I was not an ideologue, and I spoke Farsi. I was steeped in Islamic culture and history. I suspected that many of these individuals were essentially Iranian agents -- including the opportunistic "man for all factions" Ahmad Chalabi, a suspicion eventually confirmed when I was later told he had encouraged the pro-Iranian Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to "dig in" against the U.S. Marines in Najaf.
I was not, however, very brave. I did not confront either my boss in the Office of Special Plans, Douglas Feith, or his boss, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, about my overriding fears that Iran could spoil our plans in Iraq -- and wreak havoc in the region. In the fevered atmosphere of the time, I didn't think they would take my concerns seriously, and I was convinced Feith was too ideologically committed to overthrowing Hussein and too enamored of Chalabi in particular to hear any doubts. So, in a foolish, spur-of-the-moment decision, I asked Steven Rosen, foreign-policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to approach the National Security Council's Elliott Abrams with my concerns. This action ultimately led to my indictment, in 2005, for espionage after Rosen relayed my comments to an Israeli diplomat. But my intention was never to leak secrets to a foreign government. I wanted to halt the rush to war in Iraq -- at least long enough to adopt a realistic policy toward an Iran bent on doing us ill.
Today, still serving my 10-month sentence, I take little solace in the knowledge that my concerns were justified. As early as 2004, the editor of Kayhan newspaper, the mouthpiece of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, boasted that "the American invaders are our hostage in Iraq."