Election Season Wild Card: Covert Operations Against Iran, al Qaeda

War being waged in the shadows could end up in the spotlight.

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With 18 weeks to go before the presidential election, two news reports today serve as vivid reminders that a foreign crisis could still erupt before the election and sway the outcome.

What makes these two stories particularly notable is that the risks stem from risky covert initiatives being pursued by the Bush administration.

First, the New Yorker magazine reports that Congress has agreed to a Bush administration request for a $400 million covert action effort against Iran that would support dissident groups and target the country's nuclear weapons program. Some provocative operations may have already been carried out. The magazine claims that U.S. Special Forces based in Iraq have conducted cross-border operations in Iran, including missions to seize members of the troublesome Al Quds arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The report by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh also cites covert American funding for violent ethnic insurgent groups in Iran with the goal of regime change.

U.S. officials have denied these reports, but any covert U.S. operations inside Iran runs the risk that it could end up triggering a series of events that spins out of control into a broader conflict. The capture of any American operative in Iraq could become a new "hostage" crisis. Or Iran could retaliate by, for instance, fueling more violence by its surrogates in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories; by cutting oil exports to drive prices higher; or by trying to hit a U.S. warship or an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf.

There is little room for miscalculation. Tehran and Washington are already on a razor's edge. Tehran is troubled by the large U.S. presence in Iraq, while Washington claims Iran is supplying weapons and training to Iraqi insurgents. Then there's the battle over Iran's alleged nuclear program.

There have been persistent rumors that some in Israel and in the Bush administration—noting the lack of progress toward a negotiated outcome that halts Iran's uranium enrichment operations—may want to launch a military strike to disable Iran's nuclear effort in the coming months, although Bush publicly insists that military force would be a last resort. Both Israel and Iran have been publicly exchanging threats of attacks.

The second story was a New York Times report that top officials in the Bush administration have been pushing for stepped-up special operations missions into the troubled tribal region in Pakistan where al Qaeda and the Taliban have reconstituted a safe haven. Bush reportedly has yet to sign any orders, but U.S. officials are desperate to go after al Qaeda's leadership and fill a gap where Pakistani forces rarely operate.

But others fear a violent backlash if U.S. forces were discovered to be operating in Pakistan. Such revelations would embarrass the government of Pakistan, which would likely have to reduce its cooperation with Washington to placate an angry public. But it could also trigger a whole new level of tribal support for al Qaeda and the Taliban and spark a new set of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or beyond.

At this point, it is unclear whether presidential candidates John McCain or Barack Obama would benefit more from the outbreak of a new crisis, whether in Iran, Pakistan, or elsewhere. They are only beginning to debate foreign policy issues on the campaign trail.

McCain adviser Charlie Black ran into trouble recently for suggesting that a terrorist attack would benefit McCain because of his veteran national security credentials. In times of crisis, voters sometimes do find comfort in experience.

But some crises could benefit Obama as well. A sharp new spike in violence in Iraq, for example, could swing more support to the Illinois senator, who has pledged to begin a steady drawdown of U.S. troops soon after taking office. And if the crisis in Pakistan gets a lot worse, Obama could remind voters of his frequent message that Iraq has been a costly distraction from the main front in the effort against terrorism, which has been Afghanistan and Pakistan.