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Zandi cursed himself. He should never have agreed to such an accelerated timetable. He and his men were barely eating or sleeping. They never saw their families and hadn’t had a day off in months. They were being driven too hard. They were about to break. In many ways, he had broken long before, and the news about Khan weighed heavy on his soul. He walked up the metal stairs to his temporary office overlooking the production floor and stared at the phone. What exactly was he supposed to tell Jazini?
* * *
Tel Aviv, Israel
Naphtali made another critical decision.
He had to start calling up the IDF’s Reserves. At the same time, he needed to confuse the enemy and cause them to think they had more time than they really did. To ensure this, he ordered the foreign minister to issue an immediate statement to the press that “the prime minister is pleased to accept the gracious invitation of the UN secretary-general to come to New York for a series of high-level meetings with other world leaders on how to achieve regional peace.” The statement would further say that “the prime minister will depart on Friday morning for the US, where he will appear on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday morning and address the AIPAC policy conference at their gala banquet on Monday night.”
At the same time, he instructed the foreign minister to leave immediately for Ben Gurion airport and fly to Washington and simultaneously sent the deputy foreign minister to Brussels. “On the way, tell any journalist who will listen that you and I believe there is one last chance for peace, but after this week there can be no guarantees.”
* * *
Lashkardar Protected Area, Iran
David’s phone rang.
It was Zalinsky. He was livid. He tore into David for the foolish risks he was taking and for having the temerity to request that the Predator over the missile base in Khorramabad be moved to save him. Who did he think he was? Zalinsky fumed. Was he more important than the national security of 300 million American people? Hadn’t Zalinsky taught him better than that?
David was caught off guard by his mentor’s rant—and infuriated as well. He was risking his life every day. A little gratitude might be in order. But he held his tongue. There was no point arguing with the man when he was like this. All he could do was ride it out.
“You finished?” David asked when the tirade began winding down.
“Are you being sarcastic?” Zalinsky shot back.
“I have something for you, but I don’t want to interrupt.”
“That’s not funny.”
“I’m not trying to be.”
David took a deep breath and forced himself to stay focused. He was excited about what he’d accomplished, proud even, and he wasn’t going to let Zalinsky ruin it all now.
“Got a pad and a pen?” he asked calmly.
“Why?” Zalinsky countered.
“Do you have a pad and pen?” David repeated.
“Hold on. Okay. What is it?”
“Take this down; it’s a list. Ready?”
“Good. Natanz—two. Arak—two. Khorramabad—two. Med—two. Plus the one already tested.”
Zalinsky didn’t respond.
“Jack, you still there?”
It was quiet for another few moments.
“Yes, I’m here,” Zalinsky finally replied. “Is this for real?”
“As real as it gets,” David said.
“I’m just telling you what Khan told me. But I’m still pointing a pistol at his good knee. If you don’t believe him, just say the word.”
David wasn’t smiling. Khan’s eyes went wide. David put his finger over his mouth and made it clear Khan should remain silent.
“Give me more,” Zalinsky demanded. “What else did he say?”
“He confirms that he and Zandi and Saddaji and their team built nine nuclear warheads using the designs from his uncle. He confirms that one of the warheads, as we thought, was tested in Hamadan.”
“When you say ‘confirms,’ do you mean you’re telling him what we know and he’s confirming that, or what?”
“No,” David said. “I haven’t told him anything. I just told him I was going to blow off a second kneecap and expose him to his friends as a Mossad agent, and he started spilling his guts. But those first pieces are consistent with what we were learning from our other sources.”
“This is incredible. Keep going.”
“He says that he and Zandi worked closely with the IRGC’s missile engineers to attach two of the warheads to an Iranian variant of the Russian KH-55 cruise missile. Obviously the 55 is typically air launched, but he says last year the Iranians adapted some 55s they originally bought from Ukraine in 2006 to be fired off Iranian missile boats. He says as far as he knows, the two they worked on are currently on either the Jamaran missile frigate or the Sabalan frigate, both of which he says are part of the Iranian naval presence in the Med.”
“Those are the two lead ships that passed through Suez yesterday,” Zalinsky said. “We’re hoping to confirm in a few hours whether they’re carrying nuclear warheads, but the circumstantial evidence is certainly adding up.”
“It is,” David said. “He says the adapted cruise missiles have a speed of Mach 0.75, are GPS guided, and are accurate to between twenty and thirty feet of their target. He says he doesn’t know precisely what target package was loaded into them—that wasn’t under his purview—but Tel Aviv and Haifa were the cities that kept getting mentioned most. And there’s more.”
“He says he was overseeing two nuclear warheads being attached to Shahab-3 missiles at the facility in Khorramabad. He said they were initially having some technical problems with part of the trigger, but that he got that resolved even before they left Hamadan. He said the warheads are being attached to the missiles now and are supposed to be finished by Saturday morning, or lunchtime at the latest.”
“And the others?”
“Two are at the Iranians’ main nuclear research facility in Natanz. They’re supposed to be attached to their missiles by Friday night at the latest. Two more were under Zandi’s supervision in Arak. As far as Khan knows, one was to be fully operational by nightfall and loaded onto one of the mobile launchers. He wasn’t sure where they were going to take it. Another is supposed to be ready by Saturday morning. He’s given me all kinds of technical details on the warheads and the missiles and a quick rundown on their schedule to produce more warheads within the next month. I don’t know how much you want right now. You tell me.”
“Do you have a laptop handy?”
“I need you to write up everything you have—especially the precise facilities, buildings, and sections of buildings where Khan says the six warheads and missiles are located, the ones not out at sea—and get that all to me ASAP.”
“Jack, I’m in the middle of nowhere. I need to give it to you over the phone.”
“Not right now. I need to get the basics of this to Murray and Allen and then to the president.”
“Fine,” David said. “Put Eva on. I’ll dictate the rest to her.”
“That’s not possible. She can’t. She’s doing something else for me right now. I’ll get someone else—hold on.”
Doing something else? This was everything they had trained and prepared for. What could Eva possibly be doing that was more important than this? But just then, he heard two vehicles pulling up the dirt road.
“Jack, I’ll call you back in five minutes. I need to go.”
David hung up the phone and crouched low. He made it clear to Khan that he needed to keep his mouth shut. Then, keeping the pistol close to his chest, he moved to one of the windows and peeked out.
They had company. Lots of it.
The Qaleh, Iran
The Twelfth Imam did the live broadcast from the Qaleh.
No one knew where the program was originating from. The Mahdi hadn’t wanted to go all the way back to Tehran just to use the Supreme Leader’s personal television studio, so Javad brought in a bare-bones crew, a helicopter full of cameras, lights, and sound equipment, and put together a makeshift studio in the dining room. The Mahdi refused to wear makeup, so he was ready when the crew was.
“We interrupt our regular programming to bring you this live special report,” an announcer said back at the main control room in Tehran. “And now, His Excellency, Imam al-Mahdi.”
The red light on the lead camera turned on, and they were under way.
“I praise the merciful, all-knowing, and almighty God for blessing me with another opportunity to address my people all across the globe on behalf of the great Caliphate that is rising and to bring a number of issues to the attention of the international community. I also praise the Almighty for the increasing vigilance of peoples throughout the world, their courageous presence in different international settings, and the brave expression of their views and aspirations regarding global issues. Today, humanity passionately craves acknowledgment of the truth, devotion to God, commitment to justice, and respect for the dignity of human beings. Rejection of domination and aggression, defense of the oppressed, and longing for peace constitute the legitimate demands of the peoples of the world, particularly the new generation of spirited youth, who aspire to a world free from decadence, aggression, and injustice and replete with love and compassion. The youth have a right to seek justice and truth, and they have a right to build their own future on the foundations of tranquility. And I praise the Almighty for this immense blessing.”
Javad stood off to the side, behind the lights and the crew, marveling at the Mahdi’s eloquence, all without notes, without a teleprompter, without a speechwriter or assistance of any kind.
“I address you today because a serious threat to world peace is growing, and growing rapidly. As you know, as I have repeatedly stated, and as I have repeatedly demonstrated in all of my public actions, I have come to bring peace and justice and tolerance for all peoples and all religions and all persuasions everywhere, even while calling every man, woman, and child to submit themselves to the will of Allah and to become good and faithful Muslims before the Day of Judgment. I am reaching out to all of the leaders of this region and visiting them personally when I can. I have even reached out to the American president and offered a hand of unity, if he will but accept it. Despite the enormous gulf between our two peoples, I believe that making peace means that we must discuss our differences and that one must be willing to lay aside one’s doubts and submit to a greater good.
“Yet today I have received disturbing reports that the
Zionist forces are preparing for war. They are mobilizing their military. They are calling up their reserve soldiers. They are sending their air force on one so-called preplanned exercise after another. And all the while, their leaders speak lies to the world. They accuse me of preparing for war. But nothing could be further from the truth. I have come to seek peace. How many ways must I say it? Yes, I have control of weapons to defend the Muslim people from aggression and humiliation, but these are for defensive purposes only. Yet the Zionists are hungry for blood—our blood, Muslim blood. We have not reciprocated, but we will not be intimidated.
“That said, I am encouraged by a call I received last night from the United Nations secretary-general. He has asked me to come and address the General Assembly in a special session next Wednesday. I will tell you what I told him. If it can advance the cause of peace, then I would be delighted to go to New York and meet him and address that august body. We Muslims have nothing to fear from frank and open dialogue among the peoples of the earth. For the Caliphate is rising. The Zionists cannot stop us. No one can stop us. This is the will of Allah. The day of Islam has come. Let those who seek peace take note.”
The Mahdi finished the broadcast, removed his microphone, and summoned Javad to him.
“Yes, my Lord?”
“What are these reports of Naphtali going to New York as well?” the Mahdi asked.
“I’m just hearing this myself, Your Excellency,” Javad said. “Reuters is reporting that Naphtali is leaving for New York in the morning. And Al Jazeera is reporting that the foreign minister is heading to Washington as we speak. They say there’s just ‘one last chance for peace.’”
“Our call for peace and the surprise engagement with the Americans are putting the Zionists on the defensive,” the Mahdi said with a faint smile on his lips. “They are having to react to us. This is good. Perhaps our plans are working.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Javad said. “I’m sure they are.”
Javad felt his phone vibrating. He excused himself and stepped aside for a moment. A text message was coming in from Defense Minister Faridzadeh. It was marked URGENT and contained just three ominous words: Khan is missing.
* * *
Tel Aviv, Israel
“How ready are we for the retaliation from our neighbors?” the justice minister asked.
Others could have addressed this, but Naphtali answered the question himself. “As ready as we can be,” he replied. “Obviously, we have the Patriot missile batteries in place. We have the Arrow system on full alert as well as our Iron Dome system. The Arrow and the Patriot systems will be focused primarily on taking out Iranian missiles, since they are more powerful, more precise, have relatively sophisticated guidance systems, and could have chemical or biological warheads, or even nuclear warheads we don’t know about. The Iron Dome system will be deployed in the north near the border with Lebanon and in the south along the border with Gaza. We will do what we can, but I think you all know by now that we’re not going to be able to stop every missile, much less every rocket or mortar. We’ll stop what we think are the most serious threats. The rest we’ll have to let through, which means people may have to live in shelters for several weeks. I don’t have to remind you that the Second Lebanon War lasted for thirty-four days, and a million Israelis fled from the north or lived in bomb shelters. That said, the shelters are all stocked with several weeks’ supply of food, water, and basic necessities—even diapers. Every Israeli has a personalized, fitted gas mask now. We’ve been running scores of homeland-defense drills. We’re stocked up on blood supplies and medicines. All the hospitals are on full alert. But that’s all defensive. I want Shimon here to talk about our offensive plans.”
The defense minister stood and prepared to walk the Security Cabinet through a new IDF plan, Operation Black Viper. “Our air force—as good as they are—can only do so much,” Shimon said. “What we learned from the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza is that we cannot rely on air power to stop the rockets and missiles. Ultimately, we will have to launch massive ground campaigns, and we have been planning, training, and preparing for just this. Upon the prime minister’s orders, we will launch lightning-fast ground incursions into Gaza and into southern Lebanon, up to—but probably not going past—the Litani River. Our objectives will be clear: to destroy Hamas and Hezbollah rocket and missile launchers and to capture or kill Hamas and Hezbollah forces. If the rockets and missiles stop, it means we’re succeeding. If not, we must keep going. We’re not going to get a second shot at this. We need to clear and hold these territories and stop the missile barrages at their source.”
“What about Syria?” the vice prime minister asked. “What about Jordan?”
“We have contingencies for both,” Shimon said. “At the moment, I’m not worried about Jordan. We are in close contact with the king and his officials. They don’t want a war with us. If they’re toppled, that’s a whole other story. But that’s not my immediate concern.”
“Damascus. If the Syrians choose to join in, we are going to have a real problem. Their missiles are much more powerful and precise than anything Hezbollah and Hamas have. We’ll use air power, but I must warn you—we may have to move the IDF into Syrian territory as well if the missiles keep coming.”
“You’re talking about an invasion of Syria?”
“I’m talking about stopping Syria’s rockets and missiles if they fire. I don’t want to do it. We are privately sending messages to the Syrians not to get involved if a war does start. I just don’t want any of you caught off guard. It is a real possibility. We have planned for it. Let us pray it doesn’t come to that.”
Now the minister of internal security had a question. “Any danger from Egypt now that they have joined the Caliphate?”
Shimon looked at Naphtali.
“Egypt is the wild card,” the prime minister said. “The last forty-eight hours have been very troubling. They don’t have a significant rocket or missile force. But they do have a decent air force. They’ve got 240 advanced American F-16 fighter jets, after all. So we’ll have to keep a close eye on our southern skies. It’s another reason we’re not launching four hundred planes at Iran. We need enough in reserve to stop an Egyptian air assault.”
Then Naphtali had a question of his own. “Any word from Mordecai?”
The head of the Mossad simply shook his head.
* * *
Cape May, New Jersey
The waves of the Atlantic lapped rhythmically upon the shore.
But Najjar Malik paid them no attention. He was riveted to the Twelfth Imam’s speech, and he burned with anger. He needed to write. He needed to send a new message to his Twitter followers—more than 647,000 of them, nearly all Farsi speakers—in Iran and around the world. But first he had to calm down, get his mind focused back on the Lord, and ask the Lord what He wanted him to say. For if it were up to Najjar, he would have unleashed a thousand bitter rants against the Mahdi, 140 characters at a time.