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“Were you part of the plot to kill him? Why were you out of the country when someone tried to kill him?”
“I would never betray him,” David replied, willing now to say almost anything he thought they wanted to hear. “I’d follow him anywhere. I’d pledge my life to serve him!”
Brooklyn, New York
Firouz Nouri could not wait any longer.
He had been given a number to call if all else failed. He had waited several days, but time was running out.
“Code in,” the voice at the other end said.
Firouz recited two lines from a famous Persian poem and then waited.
“Cousin, is that really you?”
“It’s me, Javad,” Firouz said.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, yes, thanks to Allah, I’m safe—for now, at least.”
“Are you alone?”
“No, Jamshad is with me.”
“What about Rahim and Navid? Are they safe too?”
“No. I’m afraid I have bad news for you.”
“Rahim was martyred in the operation,” Firouz said. “We think Navid was captured.”
“They’re not saying anything about that on the news.”
“I know, but I saw Rahim die. Navid I’m not so sure about.”
“I never trusted him.”
“I know. You were right.”
“He was too young, too green.”
“We should have listened.”
“Where are you now?”
“In the flat.”
“Why so long? We need you. You must get moving.”
“We cannot, Javad. The police have set up roadblocks and checkpoints on all routes in and out of the city. It is safer just to lie low until things calm down a bit.”
“Very well. Do what you must.”
“May I speak to Shirin?”
“I’m not at home right now. I’m with the Mahdi.”
“Really? Is he okay?”
“Of course. I have so many stories to tell you. Miraculous stories. Allah’s favor on him is palpable, little one.”
“I cannot wait to meet him.”
“I cannot wait to introduce you. So get back safely. And watch your back.”
“I will, Javad. And please send Uncle my love and let Shireen know I miss her.”
“You don’t think she will miss Navid too much, do you?”
Javad erupted in laughter. “I don’t think she will miss him at all.”
* * *
“Get Shimon over here quickly and discreetly.”
“Yes, sir,” the prime minister’s personal secretary said. “Right away, sir.”
Naphtali didn’t have many men in his government he trusted implicitly. But Levi Shimon, his defense minister, was one. Naphtali didn’t dare explain the American ultimatum with his entire Cabinet, or even his Security Cabinet. They would all be livid. Even the doves among them wouldn’t take kindly to such pressure from Washington. Someone would leak the story to the Israeli media within the hour. He couldn’t take that risk. He, too, was furious, but Shimon had a cool head and a strategic mind. He would not let his emotions overwhelm him, which was why Naphtali valued his counsel.
Less than an hour later, the defense minister arrived alone in an unmarked car, with a single bodyguard and no aides. He was immediately ushered into the prime minister’s office, where Naphtali briefed him on the situation.
“Unacceptable,” Shimon said. “Absolutely unacceptable.”
“Of course it’s unacceptable,” the PM replied. “The question is, what do we do about it?”
“Jackson is weak. He’s going to get us all killed. We need to strike quickly, before the Americans can find a way to stop us.”
“You may be right. But how?”
“You must call him back immediately,” Shimon said.
“No, Allen. You must call Roger Allen right now.”
“And say what?”
“Tell him that you’ve spoken with me—they’ve got to be watching; they know I’m here—tell him you’ve spoken with me and that the president may be right.”
“What?” Naphtali asked. “He’s not right.”
“Of course he’s not right. But the president needs to think you believe he may be right.”
“Tell him we need twenty-four hours to discuss amongst ourselves. Tell him if it’s going to work, we need two things. First, we need an iron-clad alliance with the United States. Any attack on Israel by the State of Iran or any other state or entity in the Middle East must be regarded as an attack on the American people, and the US must immediately respond with us in a joint military operation. We’ll need lots of language explaining how that would work, a workable mechanism to trigger very specific American assistance in case of terror attacks or war.”
“And the second thing?”
“Second, we need absolute silence about any of this prior to a formal announcement. Tell him that any leak would destroy the deal. We need time to fully develop the language with his team in private—at least a week—and time to discuss individually with members of the Cabinet to get their input and approval. Tell him we will need to move quickly, or all of Israel will be demanding we attack. But we also need things to be quiet so we can gain internal support before it leaks. Oh, and one more thing.”
“We need the president to visit Jerusalem and address the Knesset within a week, or there is no deal.”
“Why is that?” Naphtali asked.
“Tell Allen we need a show of American support. We need Iran to know we are joined at the hip. We need the region to know America will never let us down. And tell Allen that as long as the president of the United States is on Israeli soil, we won’t be able to launch an attack. See if the president can get here by next Monday.”
“You think we can launch the attack before then?”
“All I need is your word, Mr. Prime Minister, and forty-eight hours.”
Naphtali thought about that for a moment, then dismissed the idea entirely. “No, we can’t do that.”
“What do you mean?” Shimon asked. “We have to.”
“We’re not going to deceive the president,” Naphtali said. “We’re Israelis. That’s not how it’s done.”
“So what, you’re just going to tell the president that we’re attacking this weekend? You’re going to put the lives of all our pilots in danger, not to mention the lives of six million Jews whom you’ve sworn an oath to protect?”
“Of course not, Levi,” Naphtali responded, fighting hard to keep his emotions in check. “But we have to keep two goals in mind. We are going to employ all means necessary to stop the Twelfth Imam and the Iranian regime from annihilating us or having the capacity to do so in the future; that I assure you. But at the same time, we have to do everything we can to maintain a strong strategic alliance with the United States. We certainly can’t start by lying to them.”
“And if the two objectives are incompatible?” the defense minister asked.
Naphtali turned and looked out his office window at the skyline of Jerusalem. “Let’s hope to God they’re not.”
* * *
Oil prices were skyrocketing.
The president scanned the latest briefing from his secretary of energy as he limped around the Oval Office, still in severe pain, still wrapped in gauze soaked in various medicinal creams and ointments. Brent Crude was now trading at $143.74 a barrel, up from $69.41 before the attacks in New York. That was a 107 percent increase in just two days. If the Israelis launched a first strike against Iran, there was no telling how high oil prices would soar. And then gas prices. And airline fuel prices. And home heating oil prices. And then inflation, as the shock waves from spiking energy costs spread through the already-weak economy.
The campaign was only a year away. He had enough challenges to getting reelected. He didn’t need the Israelis making more. The American economy had stalled. Growth in the last quarter was barely over one percent. Stock markets were tanking worldwide. One out of ten Americans were out of work. Union workers out of work. Hispanics out of work. African Americans out of work. Women out of work. His base was screaming at him to do something, but what was he supposed to do? His OMB director was projecting another trillion-and-a-half-dollar budget deficit. If he couldn’t turn things around and get the economy moving again, the country’s debt would top $25 trillion by the end of the decade. But how was he supposed to get the economy moving again if it was dragged down by exploding fuel costs?
“Mr. President, I have CIA director Allen on line three for you.”
Jackson thanked his secretary and reached for the phone behind the desk. He wasn’t supposed to be in the office at all. He was supposed to be upstairs, resting in the residence. The White House physician was going to have a fit when he found out. But the world was on the brink of war, and he had no desire for sleep. He picked up line three, crossing his fingers for some good news.
“Roger, how did it go?”
“Hard to say, Mr. President.”
“Let’s just say Naphtali was noncommittal.”
“You gave him my offer?”
“Including the Los Angeles–class submarines?”
“Every detail, sir.”
“And what did he say?”
“Honestly, sir, the first question he asked was what you will do if he respectfully declines and feels he has no choice but to deal with Iran directly.”
“You told him I’d sign a formal alliance?”
“Of course, and to be honest, Mr. President, I think if we had offered him this package six months ago, he might very well have accepted it.”
“But he turned us down?”
“No, sir, I wouldn’t say that. I’d say he’s still weighing the offer very seriously.”
“Absolutely,” Allen said. “I’ve known Asher Naphtali for a long time, Mr. President. He’s a smart guy and a shrewd operator. Believe me, he doesn’t want to hit Iran alone if he doesn’t have to. He now knows for certain—without any doubt—that you are 100 percent opposed to an Israeli first strike. He surely had to know that before. You had made it pretty clear in Manhattan on the drive to the Waldorf, as you said. But now he knows the cost
s. He knows that he risks fundamentally rupturing the special relationship between the US and Israel. So I don’t think he’s eager to go to war.”
“But . . . ?”
“But obviously the last few days have dramatically changed the calculus for him and his government.”
Allen took a few moments to brief the president on just how seriously Naphtali had been wounded in the attacks. Jackson was stunned by the news. He was distressed because of the personal, physical toll on Naphtali but also because of the rising potential political cost to forcing an ally not to defend herself when her leader had nearly been assassinated on American soil.
“I feel terrible for Asher, and I don’t want it to look like I’m turning against the Israelis,” the president said after a long pause, “but we simply cannot have a war. It will dominate the international agenda and domestic agenda for the rest of my presidency, and that’s unacceptable.”
There was another long pause. Allen apparently wasn’t sure how to respond.
“Is there anything else I can do to stop Naphtali from going to war, without making him look like a martyr to his own people and triggering congressional backlash here in Washington?” Jackson asked.
Allen thought about that for a moment. “You have a lot of tools in your toolbox, Mr. President,” he finally replied. “But let’s let the PM chew on your proposal overnight and see what he says in the morning. In the meantime, I’ll make sure my team is watching the Israelis closely to see if they detect any signs they are moving toward a preemptive strike.”
* * *
David was blindfolded, and a rag was stuffed down his throat.
Then he was dragged down several hallways and up some steps before being thrown into the trunk of a car. He could hear voices but couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Still bound, he could hardly move. And he could still barely breathe. He was obviously being taken away from the airport, but he had no idea where. Then he felt a needle shoved into his arm. The last thing he heard was the trunk slam shut.
When he came to, David found himself dressed in a fresh suit.
One of his own.
He was shaven. His hair was wet and combed. He was sitting across a large conference table from Abdol Esfahani. Smart, he thought, trying to regain his bearings. The table was too far for David to easily lunge across, and even if he tried, there were two armed guards standing behind Esfahani.
David tried to shake off the sedatives. He could hear Esfahani talking, but the first few sentences made little sense. It had to be the drugs, but two things were clear: Esfahani was responsible for this whole fiasco, and he was not apologizing.
“The entire planet is about to change.”
It was the first sentence that made any sense to David. His head was beginning to clear. But he did not like what he was hearing.
“We are about to live in a world without America and without Zionism,” Esfahani continued. “Our holy hatred is about to strike like a wave against the infidels. We don’t trust anyone. We can’t trust anyone. The enemy is moving. He is among us. We must be careful.”
“That’s it?” David asked, a burst of anger and adrenaline now helping to give more clarity.
“What do you mean?” Esfahani asked.
“That’s all you’re going to say?”
“You had me tortured. You had me waterboarded.”
“We could not take a risk that you worked for the CIA or the Mossad. Now that we’re convinced you don’t, we can get back to work.”
“Back to work?” David shot back. “Are you out of your mind? Why would I want to do anything for you at this point? What happened today is completely unacceptable.”
“Mr. Tabrizi, you’re not leaving this country until we get all the phones.”
“How am I supposed to get the phones if you won’t let me go get them?”
“We don’t think you’ll ever come back.”
“Really? Whatever would give you that idea?”
“You said you wanted to work with us, Mr. Tabrizi. You said you wanted to serve Imam al-Mahdi. Were you lying?”
“Of course not. I’ve been doing everything you asked.”
“Not fast enough.”
“As fast as possible.”
“That’s where we disagree.”
“So your idea of how best to motivate me is to torture me?”
“You were being vetted.”
“You wanted to be part of the Group of 313, did you not?”
David was stunned. Was he hearing this correctly? “Yes, of course,” he said cautiously. “But I—”
“How were we supposed to know if we could really trust you? We had to know for certain. Now we do.”
“So what are you saying?” David asked.
“It is simple, Reza—you get us the rest of the phones in the next seventy-two hours, and you’re on the team.”
David didn’t really know what that meant, but he knew better than to ask too many questions for now. “I’ll do my best.”
“I’m sure you will.”
“Now, you have to understand, it’s not going to be easy to get these phones shipped in. It may cost more money.”
“Then that will come out of your wallet. Not ours. We’ve already paid you handsomely.”
“I know, but I am taking great risks here, Mr. Esfahani. I mean, I don’t have to remind you that these satellite phones can’t be legally purchased by Iran under the UN sanctions.”
“Technically, we’re not buying them. You are.”
“Which just further proves my point. I’m taking enormous risks.”
“We’re all taking great risks,” Esfahani countered. “But the fact is this: we cannot build the Caliphate if the Promised One cannot communicate with his top commanders. And this cannot happen until we have all of the phones. That is the end of the matter.”
With that, Esfahani got up and left the room. His bodyguards followed him after sliding a small box across the table, leaving David in the room by himself.
Curious, he opened the box. It was one of the satphones he had just brought with him. It was clear what he had to do—and clear what the consequences were if he did not.
* * *
Najjar Malik’s heart was beating wildly.
He had never driven in the US before. He had never even been to the States before. He had no idea where he was or where he was going. He just knew that he had to get as far away from the safe house as rapidly as possible without getting caught.
He glanced at the gas gauge. There was half a tank. In a Corolla, he figured that would keep him going for quite some time. What he needed was money and a map. At a stoplight, he checked the glove compartment but found only a stack of manuals, the car’s registration, a wad of napkins, and some toy cars. He glanced in the backseat—nothing but fast-food wrappers, two car seats, and some loose change on the floor. In the compartment between the front seats, though, he found a GPS unit. It wasn’t exactly like the one he had back in Hamadan, but it was close. He quickly powered it up, scrolled through various points of interest, and chose the nearest public library, only a few miles away.
Once there, he was greeted by a helpful young librarian who happily guided him to a bank of computer terminals and even showed him how to log on to the Internet. He thanked her, waited for her to go off to help someone else, then pulled up Google and typed in “Farsi language TV stations in Washington, DC.” That didn’t work. He typed in several other variations and soon came up with three possible options for getting his message into the Middle East. The first was BBC Persian. Launched on January 14, 2009, BBC Persian struck Najjar as the best option. It wasn’t run by Muslims. It was accessible from Washington. It had a large Farsi-speaking audience, and it had strong credibility inside Iran. He had never watched the network himself for fear of being branded a traitor by his father-in-law or his colleagues in the nuclear program. But he figured he was a unique case. He knew that the Hosseini regime was constantly denouncing BBC Persian, which meant it was watched and paid attention to by not only the elites in Iran but the masses, who often loved to do the exact opposite of what their leaders told them to do.