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* * *
Off the Southern Coast of Iran
Two other Israeli submarines now surfaced, if only for a moment.
The first was positioned near the strategic Strait of Hormuz. The second was positioned about two hundred kilometers to the south in the Gulf of Oman.
One by one, they fired their cruise missiles as well and then slipped beneath the waves with barely a ripple.
* * *
Ramat David Air Base
Avi’s twin brother, Yossi, throttled up his F-16.
Quickly taxiing out of the hangar at the Ramat David Air Base, not far from Har Megiddo, the mountain of Armageddon, he put the pedal to the metal, climbing to fifty-seven thousand feet in less than two minutes. Behind him, eleven more F-16s—all armed to the teeth with Python-5, Sparrow, and AMRAAM missiles and two GBU-28 bunker-buster bombs—lifted off in succession and raced to catch up with him.
As leader of Beta Team, Captain Yossi Yaron led the way through the northern route. Beta Team would arc out into the Mediterranean, bypassing Lebanon, then slice back through Syria, careful not to cross into Turkish airspace at any time. They would eventually cut across the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq and then into Iran, where they would target the regime’s nuclear facilities in Qom.
The first order of business, however, was to not get caught.
Yossi had been the strike force leader in the Israeli attack against a nuclear facility under construction in Syria in the fall of 2007. At the time, he had successfully penetrated Syrian air defenses, hit his target, and slipped back out before the Syrians had even known they were there. He’d been tempted to take a victory loop over Damascus but knew if he ever wanted to fly that route again, he must maintain the strictest discipline. And there was no doubt he’d wanted to fly that route again. But the game was not quite the same this time. Since then, the Syrians had bought and installed advanced air defense systems from both the Russians and the Iranians. Israeli technicians were confident they could penetrate and confuse those systems too, and they were about to find out.
With the glistening blue Med below him, he punched a series of controls on his dashboard. This allowed him to begin invading Syrian communications and radar networks. Soon he was hopping through their signals, unscrambling and decoding and digitally analyzing them until he found and locked onto the Syrian air force’s command-and-control frequency. Now he could see what Damascus could see. A few more buttons, and Yossi was taking over the enemy’s sensors. Soon he was transmitting false images to them, causing them to see clear skies in every direction rather than the Israeli onslaught that was overtaking them.
A hundred kilometers to the east, Yossi knew, an Israeli Gulfstream 550 electronics plane was simultaneously scanning Turkish and Lebanese frequencies and jamming those as well. What’s more, they were monitoring his success—or lack thereof. If they detected a problem, they would alert him. But they hadn’t—not yet, at least. So Yossi rocked his wings, alerting his teammates that they were a go, and shot into Syria, just above the town of Al Haffah.
David and his team finally reached the Qom International Hotel.
The modern, three-story, steel-and-glass building was far more impressive than the Delvar in Khorramabad, but they had no time right now to enjoy it or any of its business-class amenities. While Captain Torres and his men stayed out in the parking lot, David sprinted for the lobby, checked in, asked if a package had arrived for him, and waited for the clerk to find it.
His phone rang. It was Birjandi.
“Reza, is that you?”
“Yes, it’s me,” David said. “Is everything okay?”
“No, something has happened,” Birjandi said. “I can feel it in my spirit.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know exactly. I’ve been praying and fasting for you, for Najjar, for the country. And something just happened, about an hour ago. I wish I could say I’d had a dream or a vision, but I haven’t. It’s just an instinct.”
“What do you think it is?”
There was a long pause. Then Birjandi said, “I think the war just started.”
* * *
Tel Aviv, Israel
Naphtali took a deep breath.
He glanced at the various digital clocks mounted on the conference room wall, noting the times in key capitals around the world. It was 3:34 a.m. in Washington, 10:34 a.m. in Jerusalem, and just after noon in Tehran. Naphtali had stalled long enough. It had been nearly an hour since he’d given the go order. The first Israeli planes were now in Iranian airspace. They would soon be hitting their targets. If he didn’t call now, the president was going to hear the news from the CIA or the Pentagon, not from him directly. US–Israeli relations were going to be difficult enough from this point forward. He couldn’t make them worse by not giving Israel’s closest ally a heads-up of what was coming.
He picked up the secure phone in the conference room and asked the Defense Ministry operator to put him through to the White House.
* * *
A military helicopter landed in the parking lot.
Flanked by six heavily armed Revolutionary Guards, Jalal Zandi was rushed outside wearing a flak jacket and a helmet and carrying his laptop. There he presented his identification and answered several questions to convince the pilot and security crew on the chopper that he was who he said he was. Then he was loaded into the chopper, the door closed, the parking lot was cleared, and they lifted off and headed north.
* * *
“I’ve heard nothing like that,” David said.
“Well, perhaps I am wrong,” Birjandi said.
“Is this it?” asked the young clerk, carrying a large DHL box.
“Look, I’ll see what I can find out and let you know,” David told Birjandi. “But right now I have to go.”
“I understand, my friend. May the Lord be with you.”
“He is,” David said. “He finally is.”
“What do you mean?” Birjandi asked, a sudden air of hope in his voice.
“I can’t really talk right now,” David replied, “but I want you to know that your prayers and your counsel have meant a great deal to me. I am with you, on all of it. I believe now. And I’m so grateful.”
He hung up, wishing he could tell Birjandi more about how he’d given his life to Christ—and wishing even more that he could ask the man his many and growing questions. For now, however, he turned his attention to the clerk and the box. It was severely beat up, dented in places and actually ripped in others. The whole thing looked like it had been run over by the delivery truck. But it was definitely addressed to Reza Tabrizi and was marked as being shipped from Munich, though David knew full well it had just come from Langley. He had no idea how Eva had pulled that off, nor did he have the luxury to care.
“Yeah, this looks like mine, but what happened to it?” he asked, feigning annoyance.
“I don’t know,” the clerk said. “That’s just how it came.”
“What if I want to file a complaint?”
“I don’t know, sir. You’ll need to take that up with DHL. Just sign here to say you received it.”
David protested slightly, then signed, took his package and his room key, and headed back to the van. There he handed the box to Torres, pulled out his phone, and dialed Javad, who picked up on the first ring.
“I’m at the hotel,” he said. “The box arrived.”
“You have it?” Javad asked.
“It’s in my hands,” David said. “Where should I meet you?”
“What better place?” Javad said. “I’ll meet you in front of the Jamkaran Mosque in ten minutes.”
It was not ideal; it was public, and it would be crowded. But they didn’t have any other choice. David hung up the phone and quickly told the others his plan. First he told them he was going to take a cab to the world-famous mosque. Torres and his team should follow close behind. It was midday on a Thursday; there shouldn’t be much traffic.
But what he told the paramilitary team next caught all of them off guard. It was a high-stakes gamble. It could get him killed. It could get them all killed. But if it worked . . .
* * *
Four F-15s lifted off from the Tel Nof Air Base near Rehovot.
They blazed west over the Med, then banked sharply to the south. Within seconds, they had the Iranian-flagged Jamaran missile frigate and her sister ship, the Sabalan frigate, on radar. Both were now 450 kilometers from the Tel Aviv shoreline, flanked by three Iranian destroyers.
* * *
David handed his pistol to Torres and cleaned out his pockets.
Then, carrying the package, he left the van, hailed a cab, and directed it to the Jamkaran Mosque. On the way, he put on his Bluetooth headset and called Zalinsky. “Is something happening?”
“What do you mean?” Zalinsky asked.
“I’m getting a weird feeling,” David said, “like something has started.”
“No, it’s all pretty quiet right now,” Zalinsky said.
“Is the boss going to move?” David asked cryptically so as not to draw the attention of the cab driver.
“Murray went to the White House. The president isn’t satisfied. He wants another source.”
“There’s no more time. We got him what he asked for.”
“He wants more.”
“He wants Jalal Zandi.”
David laughed. “Is he kidding?”
“No, he’s dead serious.”
“How are we going to do that in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours?”
“I don’t know. What about Khan? He and Zandi worked closely. He has to know where he is.”
That was true, David thought, but he hadn’t asked Khan much about Zandi and couldn’t now. Then he remembered Khan’s SIM card in his jacket lining. “Wait,” he told Zalinsky. “I’m uploading something to you.”
He opened the back of his Nokia phone, inserted the SIM card, and did a search. There it was, all of Zandi’s contact information. He was angry with himself for not thinking of it sooner, but he quickly uploaded everything to Langley and got Zalinsky back on the line.
“Got it?” he asked.
“Got it,” Zalinsky replied. “Great work. We’ll get right on this. Where are you now?”
“I’m in a cab on the way to the Jamkaran Mosque.”
“Not sure this is the best time for sightseeing.”
eting a friend.”
David couldn’t say openly without attracting the attention of his driver. “I’m delivering the package he asked for.”
“You’re going to meet Javad Nouri?” Zalinsky said. “I thought that was later tonight.”
“He moved it up.”
“Why is he in Qom?”
“He’s coming just to see me.”
“What if you grab him?”
“No, seriously, David, the special ops team is following you, right?”
“Then take Nouri down,” Zalinsky pressed. “Can you imagine what a coup that would be? Almost as good as getting Zandi, and maybe we can get him, too.”
“Wouldn’t that unravel everything?” David pushed back. “I mean, if he’s gone, then wouldn’t the whole project, you know, be compromised?”
David suddenly heard a commotion in the background.
“Something’s happening,” Zalinsky said. “I’ll call you right back.”
Frustrated, David checked his watch. They would be at the mosque in less than three minutes. He didn’t have time to wait around.
* * *
“Mr. President, I have Prime Minister Naphtali on line one.”
Jackson forced his eyes open, grabbed his glasses off the nightstand, and stared at the clock. He turned on the lamp beside his bed.
“Put him through,” he told the White House switchboard operator. “Asher, please tell me you have very good news.”
“I’m afraid not, Mr. President.”
“Of course not,” Jackson said. “Good news can always wait until daybreak.”
“Mr. President, I am calling to inform you that we have credible, actionable intelligence from inside Iran on where their warheads are. Two are on Iranian naval vessels off our coast. The rest are being attached to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. We have evidence that the Twelfth Imam intends to launch these missiles at us within the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours, and we cannot take the risk of being hit first. Therefore, just moments ago, I ordered the IDF to commence Operation Xerxes to destroy those weapons and neutralize the Iranian threat. I wanted you to be the first to know.”
* * *
International Waters, Mediterranean Sea
“Fox three, Fox three!”
The Gamma Team leader fired two AGM-84 Harpoon antiship missiles at the Jamaran, while simultaneously jamming the ships’ radar and communications. A split second later, his wingman fired two more Harpoons at the Sabalan. On cue, their colleagues fired upon the three destroyers.
Meanwhile, as the Harpoons were hurtling toward their targets at the speed of sound, an Israeli Dolphin-class submarine trailing the flotilla fired ten torpedoes in rapid succession.
* * *
“I have to say I’m very disappointed, Asher,” Jackson said.
“I understand your position, Mr. President,” Naphtali replied. “But please understand mine. There was no more time. We were facing annihilation and are exercising our God-given—and UN–recognized—right to self-defense. We can do this operation alone, if we must. But I am calling not just to inform you but to ask for your country’s assistance. The Mahdi and his nuclear force are not just a threat to us. They are a threat to you and to the entire free world.”
* * *
International Waters, Mediterranean Sea
“Captain, Captain, we’re being fired upon!” the Iranian XO cried.
“Deploy countermeasures,” the captain of the Jamaran shouted back, racing for the bridge.
The sirens on the ship immediately sounded.
“Man your battle stations! Man your battle stations!”
But the attack came too fast. The men had no time to react. The first Harpoon hit the bridge. The second pierced the top of the deck at almost the exact same moment. Both erupted with enormous explosions that incinerated most of the crew within seconds, while below the water, two torpedoes tore massive holes in the underbelly of the ship. Thousands of gallons of icy seawater flooded the lower quarters, and the frigate began to sink almost instantly.
* * *
The officers and crew of the Sabalan had a few seconds more.
And that made all the difference. The captain and XO knew instantly that they were going to die. They weren’t going to be able to stop the inbound missiles or torpedoes. But just before the first impact, they were able to reach the fire control panel and launch all of their missiles.
“I don’t like being put in a corner,” the president said.
“Neither do we,” the prime minister replied.
“What kind of help do you expect, now that you’ve launched a war without US consent?”
* * *
One by one, the sub-launched cruise missiles hit their marks.
Three smashed into the fully staffed Defense Ministry headquarters in Tehran just after lunch, nearly bringing the building down and killing most of those inside.
Minutes later, three other missiles hit the top, middle, and ground floors of the Intelligence Ministry headquarters in Tehran, decimating the building and setting it ablaze.
Another high-priority target for a salvo of Israeli cruise missiles was Facility 311, the nuclear-enrichment facility in the town of Abyek, about sixty miles northwest of Tehran. One minute the complex and its 163 scientists and support staff were there; the next minute they were not.
In the south, no fewer than five cruise missiles obliterated the research and support facilities surrounding the light-water nuclear reactor in Bushehr, while leaving the reactor itself untouched. Without question, this had been the most controversial target for Israeli military planners and senior government officials. Should they hit a nearly active reactor site, particularly one built and partially operated by the Russians? The risks of striking Bushehr were high. So were the risks of leaving the site alone. A Mossad analysis noted that in the first full year of operation, the reactor could generate enough weapons-grade uranium to produce more than fifty bombs the size of the one dropped on Nagasaki. Naphtali had personally made the decision that it had to be neutralized.
* * *
Tel Aviv, Israel
“Missiles in the air!” the war room’s watch commander shouted.
Defense Minister Shimon and the IDF chief of staff immediately rushed out of the conference room into the war room and to the commander’s side. Live images were streaming in from the four F-15s out over the Med. Other data were pouring in from the Israeli subs and other naval vessels stationed off the coast.
“Sound the alarms,” the commander ordered.