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But would it be enough? Despite his optimistic can-do visage, Jackson feared he wasn’t ready for what was coming. He wasn’t sure anyone was.
He had graduated first in his class at MIT. He held a master’s in international relations from Oxford and read voraciously, mostly history and classic literature. He was fluent in French and conversational in Arabic, having studied for a year at the American University in Cairo as an undergraduate. He had traveled the globe extensively, particularly in the Muslim world. He certainly understood Islam better than any American president in living memory, perhaps in the nation’s history. But this was not why he had run. The tasks already on his plate were daunting enough. He had an economy to fix, millions of jobs to create, an out-of-control budget to balance, an approval rating to boost, a hostile opposition party to silence, and his own party to placate and rebuild. This was no time for another war. The people hadn’t sent him to Washington to accept—much less launch—another trillion-dollar Mideast adventure. The nation wouldn’t stand for it. Nor would he.
At the same time, Jackson was palpably aware that he was no longer in control of events. The situation in the Middle East was teetering on the edge of disaster and was beginning to consume the White House’s already-limited bandwidth. He couldn’t ignore it. He couldn’t wish it away. Just that morning, he had spent more than five hours with his National Security Council when he should have been meeting with his Council of Economic Advisors or the Fed chair. Jackson was increasingly aware of the broad range of grave threats now forming against the United States and her allies. One thing he knew for certain was that his entire agenda—his entire reason for running for president in the first place—was in peril unless he could navigate a way out of this latest Middle East disaster, and fast.
* * *
Firouz answered his cell phone on the first ring.
“They just touched down,” a voice at the other end said.
Firouz thanked the caller, hung up, then turned to his men. “Rahim, Jamshad, come with me. Navid, you know what to do.”
“Six o’clock,” Navid said.
“Not a minute later.”
“Don’t worry, Firouz. I’ll be there.”
Firouz grabbed his gear from the back of the rented SUV and motioned for the other two to follow him out of the parking garage to the bank of elevators. It felt good to be out, good to be moving after waiting in that parking garage for nearly six hours.
A moment later, they were out on street level, crossing East Fiftieth Street to the alley behind the Colgate-Palmolive Building. The streets around them, blocked off for half a mile in every direction, were empty. From their vantage point, there was not a soul to be seen. It was eerily quiet, save for the sound of an NYPD helicopter making another sweep overhead. And it was unseasonably warm. The snow was all gone now. The temperature topped sixty. Firouz couldn’t stop sweating.
Using a passkey they had pickpocketed off a janitor the night before—he wouldn’t miss it until the next morning at the earliest—they slipped into the Colgate building through a service entrance. They proceeded directly to the stairwell and double-timed it to the corner office on the fourth floor.
“Stay away from the windows,” Firouz reminded them in a whisper, “and don’t turn on the lights.”
* * *
The gleaming blue-and-white 747 taxied for a few moments.
When the front wheels came to a halt on the white X taped on the tarmac by the White House advance team, Secret Service agents and a contingent of New York’s finest moved in to secure the perimeter. The stairs were lowered. A greeting party stepped out of a nearby terminal and took up their positions. Marine One began powering up, just a hundred yards away.
“Renegade is moving,” Agent Bruner said, surveying the scene and coming down the ramp behind Jackson.
“It’s good to see you again, Mr. President.” New York mayor Roberto Diaz shook Jackson’s hand vigorously and shouted to be heard over the roar of the green-and-white VH-3D Sea King. There was bad blood between the two. Diaz hadn’t endorsed Jackson in the primaries even after privately promising that he would. But Diaz’s approval rating in the Big Apple was in the sixties. Jackson’s was in the forties. If Jackson was going to run again, he needed New York, which meant he needed Diaz. Which meant he needed to make amends.
“You, too, my friend—thanks for all you did on this thing.”
“It is my honor, Mr. President. Anwar Sadat is one of my personal heroes. Anything my good offices can do to spread his legacy of peace and reconciliation, especially at this time, well, I’m in.”
“Very good. So, full house tonight?” Jackson asked, now shaking hands with several city councilmen and their wives, who had joined the mayor.
“Standing room only, sir.”
“And we’re going to get the $8 million you promised?”
“No, sir, I’m afraid we’re not.”
Jackson finished shaking hands and turned back to the mayor, trying to mask his displeasure. “Why not? I don’t understand.”
“Looks like we’ll hit $10 million instead.”
Jackson broke into his trademark smile, then began to laugh. “Good work, Roberto,” he said, slapping the mayor on the back. “Very good. Come on, my friend, ride with me.”
The two men made their way to the helicopter and climbed aboard. A moment later, they were airborne.
* * *
Any idiot could use them, which was what made them so deadly.
The unclassified version of the US Army’s training manual on them was even on the Internet, for crying out loud. But that wasn’t where Firouz and Rahim had learned to use rocket-propelled grenades. They had been specially trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Dasht-e Kavir, the great salt desert of south-central Iran. In fact, they had become so proficient in inflicting severe damage and large numbers of casualties in various IRGC operations that they had been sent into Iraq to train members of the Mahdi Army to use RPGs against Iraqi forces and Americans. Neither man had ever imagined the honor of being sent to the heart of the Great Satan to apply their craft against the president of the United States. But they were ready.
On the floor before them lay two Russian-designed RPG-7V2 launchers, along with six 105mm TBG-7V thermobaric warheads. Specially designed for antipersonnel and urban warfare operations, thermobaric weapons were essentially fuel-air bombs, built to dramatically expand and intensify the blast wave of a standard RPG. The goal was not so much to destroy a car, truck, or tank with one of these—though that was likely too—but to kill as many people as possible. Firouz thought they’d be lucky to get off three shots before someone stopped them, but he had ordered that six be smuggled across the Mexican and Canadian borders through various channels, hoping that at least three would make it into the US. He’d been stunned when he had arrived the night before to learn that all six had arrived without a scratch on them.
Firouz and Rahim went to work checking every detail. Soon they were loading the weapons and checking their watches. Jamshad, meanwhile, patrolled the hallways with a silencer-equipped pistol, making certain no one stumbled in. It was Sunday. No one was working. But they weren’t taking any chances. The stakes were too high.
“Nighthawk is inbound. Hold all radio traffic.”
Three identical choppers flew low and fast over the East River. Any of them could have been Marine One; only a handful of senior government officials knew which one actually carried the president at that moment. And that was precisely how Mike Bruner wanted it. No surprises. Just one evening event, a late-night return flight to DC, and he’d be having breakfast in the morning with his young wife.
As he sat directly behind his commander in chief, Bruner stared out the window and went through his mental checklist of all that would happen on the ground in just a few moments. In a city of eight million people, he knew it was impossible to safeguard against the possibility, however remote, of terrorists acquiring shoulder-mounted ground-to-air missiles and trying to shoot down the president’s chopper. Even though each of the Marine helicopters was equipped with state-of-the-art countermeasures, the safest bet—and it was a bet, though so far it had always paid off—was to create uncertainty. Bruner and his colleagues believed it would be difficult for al Qaeda or other terrorist groups to obtain and smuggle into the continental United States even one Stinger or its equivalent. Obtaining two was exponentially more difficult. Obtaining three or more, they believed, was virtually impossible. So even though each chopper cost about $150 million, and it cost about $27,000 an hour to operate all three, this was how it was done.
The heliport on East Thirty-Fourth Street had been closed down for the past three months for renovations, and the one at West Thirtieth Street had been the scene of a giant traffic accident a few hours earlier. So one by one, the Marine choppers made their way to the Wall Street heliport and landed at the tip of the Financial District. A moment later, Nighthawk’s side door opened, and Jackson and his entourage disembarked and headed to their assigned vehicles in the presidential motorcade lined up along Pier 6. Mayor Diaz and the councilmen were shown to a black SUV behind the lead vehicles. Jackson’s chief of staff and press secretary joined a group of White House advance men in Halfback, the follow-up limousine. The president, meanwhile, stepped into Stagecoach, and Bruner quickly closed the door behind him.
“Renegade secure,” the lead agent said, getting in the front passenger seat.
“Status check on Architect and Sphinx?” the command post director asked.
“They’re inside with Renegade.”
“So we’re good to go?”
“We’re good. Let’s roll.”
“Roger that. All posts, be advised. Freight Train moving. ETA to Roadhouse, fifteen minutes.”
The motorcade began to move, and Bruner relaxed, if only imperceptibly. Moving the president by air worried him most, particularly over a city this size. But on the ground, in an eighteen-vehicle motorcade, riding inside a brand-new Cadillac specially built to exacting Secret Service specifications, Bruner felt safe. He always preferred to have the president buttoned up in the White House or Camp David. Home-field advantage was without question his ideal. But the limousine they were now in was impenetrable by small-arms fire, machine-gun fire, or even an antitank missile.
Sphinx was quiet. That was Bruner’s code name for Egyptian president Abdel Ramzy. Architect was his designation for Israeli prime minister Asher Naphtali. Both leaders had arrived on earlier flights. Both were glad to be riding to the event with the president. But even while keeping his eyes on the police cars and motorcycles taking them up FDR Drive on the Lo
wer East Side, Bruner couldn’t help but notice that neither foreign leader wanted to talk about the fund-raiser to which they were heading.
* * *
“You need to hit the Iranians hard, fast, and now.”
Jackson was taken aback. He had fully expected to hear the sentence on this trip, but he had expected Naphtali to be doing the requesting. To his surprise, however, the words came from Ramzy.
“Abdel,” the president replied, “we must be patient.”
“The time for patience is over, Mr. President,” the octogenarian Egyptian leader insisted, his portable oxygen tank at his side. “The mullahs now have the Bomb. The Twelfth Imam has come. It means only one thing: they’re going to use it, and they’re going to use it soon. And when they do, millions of people are going to die. Mr. President, we have a moral obligation to prevent this catastrophe from happening. You have that obligation.”
“You’re getting ahead of yourself, Abdel. Our job is to make sure no one or nothing destabilizes the region.”
“Mr. President, with all due respect, the Iranians have just tested an atomic bomb—illegally, I might add, as they signed the NPT.”
“Yes, they tested,” Jackson confirmed. “But we don’t even know if the test was successful or not. We don’t know how many bombs they have. There’s a lot we don’t know, which is why we need to keep our heads, try to ratchet down tensions in the region, and certainly not do anything provocative. That’s why tonight is so important.”
“Provocative?” President Ramzy asked. “Did you not see the television coverage out of Mecca? King Jeddawi was bowing to the Mahdi. Bowing. The Sunni leader of the House of Saud was lying prostrate before the Shias’ so-called messiah. A nuclear-armed Iran and the oil-rich Saudis have formed a single country. Kuwait has just joined the party. And my intelligence chief says Prime Minister Azziz of the UAE will announce tomorrow that he has joined as well.”
Jackson hadn’t heard this about the Kuwaitis yet. “What about Bahrain?” he asked.
“I spoke to the king less than an hour ago,” Ramzy said. “He’s still with us. I was close to his father. The family trusts me. They will stick with us, but only if you come out strong and make it clear you’re going to take action.”
“What kind of action?” Jackson asked.
“You must take out the nuclear facilities from the air, Mr. President. You must hit the regime in Tehran as well. How else can you neutralize the threat?”
“You want me to raise $10 million tonight to finish building the Sadat Institute for Peace by announcing that I’m going to launch a first strike against Iran?”
“I’m not asking you to give up the element of surprise,” Ramzy said, “but you have to lay the groundwork, and quickly. You have to make it clear just how dangerous a moment this is. And, Mr. President, I must tell you this—and, Asher, I’m sorry if this offends you, but it must be said—tomorrow Egypt will begin a nuclear weapons development program.”
“We have no other choice,” Ramzy pressed. “Egypt cannot be dictated to by the Twelfth Imam or whoever this charlatan is. We must be strong. We must be able to defend ourselves. It may be too late. But Egypt will not be a slave to anyone, least of all the Persians, least of all the Shias.”
* * *
The cell phone rang again.
“Where are they?” Firouz asked.
“They’re about to turn on East Forty-Second Street,” said the young woman, another member of his team.
Firouz hung up. “Four minutes,” he whispered to Rahim.
They checked their weapons one last time. This was it.
* * *
The president looked at Naphtali. “Did you two plan this little ambush together?” he asked, only half in jest.
The Israeli premier didn’t smile. “There’s no conspiracy; it wasn’t necessary,” Naphtali replied. “Abdel and I have been telling you for two years this was coming. We have both wanted you to hit Iran. We wanted your predecessor to hit Iran. Abdel’s actually pushed for it harder than I have. You haven’t been listening.”
“I have been listening,” Jackson insisted. “I just haven’t liked what I’ve heard. The Indians have nukes. The Paks have nukes. Pyongyang has nukes. It happens. We can’t always stop it. But nobody’s crazy enough to use them. They’re purely defensive. We can’t go starting a war every time another country joins the nuclear club.”
“Look, Bill, you and I have known each other for a long time,” Naphtali countered. “I’ve always been honest and direct with you. Now listen to me. First of all, you’ve promised publicly and countless times that the United States would never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Well, now they have. Second, Muhammad Ibn Hasan Ibn Ali—this ‘Twelfth Imam’—just might be crazy enough to use these weapons. He’s not a Communist. He’s not an atheist. He’s not part of the Soviet politburo or some corrupt bureaucrat in Beijing. He thinks he’s the messiah. He might even think he’s a god. He just said he’s trying to build a unified Islamic government. If he’s successful, the Caliphate could stretch from Morocco to Indonesia. Who’s going to stop him if you don’t? Nobody. And remember: the Shias think the Twelfth Imam is supposed to use nukes. They believe that’s why he’s here—to bring an end to Judeo-Christian civilization, to end the era of the infidels, to bring about the end of days. He’s already got millions of Muslims following him, and he’s just emerged. Most of them think he’s doing miracles, healings, and he’s uniting Shias and Sunnis faster than any Muslim leader we’ve ever seen.”
Jackson looked out the window, unconvinced but trying to stay calm.
Agent Bruner turned and looked back at him. “Two minutes, Mr. President.”
Jackson nodded. They were almost at Roadhouse, the Waldorf-Astoria. But this was not the conversation he wanted to be having. He had scheduled a meeting for noon the following day with the director of central intelligence and his top Iran experts, including Zephyr, whom they had temporarily pulled out of Iran. They were going to review the latest intel and evaluate their options. But Jackson didn’t enjoy being pushed into a corner. He didn’t like to have his course of action dictated to him. He had come to New York to give a major address laying out a game plan for peace in the Middle East, not a new road map to war.
He turned back to Ramzy. “You’re a good Muslim, Abdel,” he said, looking the Egyptian Sunni in the eye. “You really think this guy wants to bring about the end of days?”
“There’s no question in my mind,” Ramzy replied. “Anyone who has studied Shia End Times theology—and I have in recent years because Hosseini and Darazi are so obsessed with it in Tehran; they seem to talk about it all the time—knows that the Twelfth Imam is going to hit Israel, the ‘Little Satan,’ first. Then he’s going to hit you, America, because you’re the ‘Great Satan’ in their view. He’s going to hit you when and where you least expect it, and he’s going to hit you in such a way that you’ll never recover, in such a way that you’ll be unable to ever hit back—which is why you need to hit Iran first. You have a very narrow window, Mr. President. History will not forgive us if we don’t act right now. This is a rare convergence. Think of it. Arab leaders, starting with me, are willing right now to unite with America, even with Israel, against the Shias of Persia for one brief moment. It’s never happened before in all of recorded history. But it’s happening now. And if this moment slips away, if we squander it, if we miss our chance to stop Iran from unleashing a genocidal apocalypse, then I fear we are about to plunge into a thousand years of darkness.”