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The Tehran Initiative


Page 5 of 43


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But Bruner had never really imagined having to get the president of the United States to a secure, undisclosed location underneath Manhattan via the tracks leading to and from Grand Central Station. Now it was happening, and everything was moving so fast. People lay dead and dying above them. Friends of his. World leaders, perhaps.

Bruner realized his hands were covered in blood, and he could taste more blood in his mouth. Then he heard one of the doctors shouting for silence.

“The president’s blood pressure is dropping fast.”

6

Syracuse, New York

David Shirazi had been born for this moment.

With a photographic memory, a 3.9 GPA, and advanced degrees in computer science, the Syracuse native could have been recruited by the CIA’s Technical Services Division or the Agency’s information-management team and would have been exceptional working for either. Instead, fluent in Arabic, German, and Farsi—the language of his parents’ native Iran—David had been recruited and trained to serve in the Agency’s National Clandestine Service, formerly known as the directorate of operations.

For his first two and a half years in the field, he had served faithfully in a variety of posts inside Iraq, Egypt, and Bahrain. Each assignment had been fairly mundane, but they had proven good training grounds. They’d allowed him to make mistakes and learn from them, allowed him to learn from more-seasoned operatives in the region, and allowed him to understand the dynamics of Mideast politics and the rhythms of the “Arab street.”

That said, his last assignment had been his most effective and personally rewarding to date. On orders from Langley, he had infiltrated Munich Digital Systems (MDS), getting himself hired by the German computer company, which developed and installed state-of-the-art software for mobile phone and satellite phone companies, and establishing himself as a young gun—hardworking and willing to take risks. He’d then been assigned by MDS as a technical advisor working closely with Mobilink, the leading telecommunications provider in Pakistan.

Once on the Mobilink account, David had done whatever it took to get the information asked of him by Langley. He’d penetrated Mobilink’s databases, bought off key employees, hacked his way past advanced security protocols, and mined mountains of data until he began to track down the mobile phone numbers of suspected al Qaeda members operating on the Afghan-Pak borders or living in the shadows of Islamabad and Karachi. One by one, he began to funnel the numbers back to Langley. That allowed the National Security Agency to begin listening in on the calls made from those particular numbers and triangulating the locations from which they were being made. The goal, eventually, had been to track down and kill Osama bin Laden and his top associates, and they had gained real ground. In less than six months, David’s efforts helped his colleagues capture or kill nine high-value targets. In the process, he got himself noticed on the seventh floor, the inner sanctum of the Agency’s senior staff.

But during that time, the Agency’s priorities had shifted significantly. While neutralizing bin Laden had certainly been high on the list at that time, at the top of the list was neutralizing Iran’s ability to build, buy, or steal an arsenal of nuclear weapons. The Israelis were increasingly convinced that they were facing an existential threat from the mullahs in Tehran, that once Iran got the Bomb, they would launch it against Tel Aviv to make good on their repeated threats to “wipe Israel off the map.” The Jackson administration was publicly committed to preventing Iran from acquiring such lethal capabilities. But David knew the president was privately worried even more about an Israeli first strike against Iran.

In January, Jackson had quietly signed a highly classified national intelligence directive authorizing the CIA “to use all means necessary to disrupt and, if necessary, destroy Iranian nuclear weapons capabilities in order to prevent the eruption of another cataclysmic war in the Middle East.” The problem was that while the Agency had a half-dozen special operations teams on standby, ready at a moment’s notice to sabotage nuclear facilities, intercept shipments of nuclear-related machinery and parts, facilitate the defection of nuclear scientists, and so forth, what it didn’t have was someone inside giving them hard targets.

That was why David had been pulled out of Pakistan and sent inside Iran with orders that were as clear as they were nearly impossible to achieve: penetrate the highest levels of the Iranian regime, recruit assets, and deliver solid, actionable intelligence that could help sink or at least slow down Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The good news was that in just a few short weeks, he had already impressed his superiors back at Langley with actual, measurable, demonstrative results, working with Iran Telecom and distributing specially engineered satellite phones to several key government officials. The bad news, from David’s perspective, was that it was all too little, too late. The Iranians had just tested a nuclear warhead in a research facility in the mountains near the city of Hamadan, a facility previously unknown to the CIA. A figure claiming to be the Twelfth Imam, ostensibly resurrected from the ninth century, was convincing a rapidly growing force of Muslims throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia that he was, in fact, the Islamic messiah, yet few inside the CIA had thus far taken seriously the notion of the coming of the Mahdi, much less understood the implications of his arrival to the region or US interests there. The president’s wishes notwithstanding, Israeli leaders seemed poised to launch a preemptive strike at any moment, and David wasn’t sure Prime Minister Naphtali was wrong to be moving in that direction. He vastly preferred that the US take the lead in stopping Iran, but the truth was the president didn’t get it, and even the CIA—himself included—had been behind the curve for years. Now they were out of time.

David was seriously contemplating the possibility of resigning. But it wasn’t merely political weakness and organizational inertia that weighed on him. His personal world was imploding.

For the past six and a half hours, David hadn’t been briefing his superiors in the Bubble, the secure conference room on the seventh floor of CIA headquarters in northern Virginia. Nor had he been preparing his presentation for the White House Situation Room the following day. He hadn’t been reviewing transcripts and recordings of the latest intercepts of phone calls, the fruit of his work in Iran.

He had, instead, been sitting at his mother’s bedside at Upstate University Hospital in his hometown of Syracuse, New York, not far from the house he had grown up in. He was watching the woman who bore him, the woman he loved so dearly, steadily and rapidly deteriorate. She’d been battling stage 3 stomach cancer for months. In recent days, however, things had taken a turn for the worst. David was doing everything he knew to comfort her. He’d held her hand. He’d brought her ice chips. He’d filled the sterile hospital room with the yellow roses she so loved and read Persian poetry to her from a slim volume of verses that was the only personal possession his mother still had from her youth in Iran.

At the same time, David was trying—in vain, it seemed—to comfort his grieving father. He brought him fresh coffee every few hours with a splash of half-and-half and four cubes of sugar, just as he liked it. He returned all of his father’s phone calls, working with his office to reschedule his many appointments for the next few days, and told his father again and again that somehow everything would be okay when he knew very well that wasn’t true.

All the while, David silently cursed his two older brothers, who weren’t here at all, despite his messages imploring them to come quickly. Azad was the serious one. A successful cardiologist like their father, Azad was a busy man, to be sure. But it wasn’t as if he lived on the other side of the country, much less the planet. Azad lived in the suburbs of Philadelphia, for crying out loud. David had MapQuested it. He knew Azad’s house was a mere 257 miles away, door to door. He had spoken to Nora, his brother’s wife, just last night, with the only result being his further frustration.

“David, you know we’d be there if we could. We are grieving at this situation, but it’s just impossible. Your brother is in back-to-back surgeries until late tomorrow afternoon. And I’m scheduled to be induced in two days. Once I’m settled in with the baby, Azad will come right away. He just wants to meet our child. Can’t you understand, David? I know Pedar understands. Maamaan knows we love her.”

How could it be that his mother’s greatest dream—grandchildren—was preventing her from having her firstborn son by her side as she suffered?

Saeed, on the other hand, was the playboy of the family. He probably made more money than the rest of them combined, but he seemed to spend it as fast as it came in. He owned a lavish apartment in Manhattan, was always dating someone new and wasting his money by jetting off on extravagant vacations. Saeed hadn’t been home in ages and only kept in touch if you counted the occasional text message. David didn’t have the slightest idea why Saeed chose this frantic, rootless lifestyle. But he had given up trying to figure it out a long time ago.

All he knew was that as the youngest of the three boys, he had done almost an equally lousy job of being a loving, devoted son. None of them knew the life he was really living. None of them knew he worked for the CIA or that he was spending most of his time inside Iran. They all thought he was a computer programmer based in Munich, working sixteen to eighteen hours a day, traveling constantly, never having a girlfriend, with few serious prospects for getting married and having kids. Not that it mattered much to his brothers, but to his parents it mattered a great deal.

At least he felt guilty about it, David told himself. At least he had actually been home for the past few days, trying desperately to make up for lost time.

Yet he was palpably aware that he was not in control of events. Over the course of the past fifteen minutes or so, he had witnessed his mother slipping into a coma from which, the doctors explained, she would likely never recover. If that weren’t painful enough, it was becoming increasingly clear that he was simultaneously watching his father slip into a deep depression.

“Excuse me, Mr. Shirazi?”

David was startled by the voice of a nurse at the door.

“Me or my father?” he asked.

“Are you David?” asked the older woman running the late afternoon shift.

“I am.”

“You have a phone call at the nurses’ station.”

In all the sadness unfolding around him, David had completely forgotten that he’d turned his phone off when he had entered the hospital just before noon. Cell phones weren’t permitted in the ICU. He thanked the head nurse, patted his father on the back, and whispered that he would be right back. His father, sitting in a chair beside his wife, face buried in his hands, barely responded.<b
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David stepped into the hallway and around the corner. It felt good to stretch his legs, he thought as he reached for the phone, and good too to take his mind off his parents’ troubles, if only for a moment. He hoped it was Azad, telling him he was on the road, that he’d rescheduled the surgeries and was heading north up 81 toward Syracuse, coming to give his younger brother some relief. Even more, he hoped it was Marseille, saying she’d gotten back to Portland safe and sound and wanted to catch up or just check in on his mom. Hers was the voice he needed to hear just then.

It wasn’t to be.

7

“David, it’s Jack—we need to talk.”

Hearing the voice of his mentor and handler caught David off guard.

“Jack? What’s the matter? You sound terrible.”

“Not on this open line. Call me back secure. You know the number. And get somewhere private.”

“Will do—I’ll get right back to you.”

David handed the phone to the nurse and headed quickly for the stairwell, powering up his Agency-issued phone on his way. Never had he heard Jack Zalinsky sound as rattled. Angry, frustrated, ticked off? More times than David cared to remember. But rattled? Not in all the years since Zalinsky first recruited him. You didn’t spend four decades in the Central Intelligence Agency, much less climb the ladder from lowly field operative fresh out of training at the Farm to become clandestine operations manager of the Near East Division, without a cool head and ice in your veins.

David burst out an exit door to the roof and headed toward one of the large air-conditioning units, where he would be unlikely to be seen by anyone on the ground. He punched in a ten-digit clearance code to make his call secure, then speed-dialed Zalinsky’s office number on the sixth floor at Langley.

“Jack, what’s going on?”

“Are you alone?”

“I am.”

“Are you watching the news?”

“No, I’ve been with my mom. Why? What’s happening?”

“You need to get back to Washington immediately.”

“I’m on the first flight out in the morning.”

“No, tonight; something’s happened.”

“What?”

“There’s been an attack.”

“Where?”

“Manhattan.”

David knew immediately it was the fund-raiser.

“The president—is he okay?”

“I don’t know,” Zalinsky said. “Not yet. But President Ramzy is dead.”

David could feel his anger rising. “How? What happened?”

“We’re still piecing it together,” Zalinsky said. He explained the attack and the sequence of events leading up to it as best he understood it at the moment.

“What about Naphtali?” David asked. “Did he survive?”

“Miraculously, the prime minister escaped relatively unharmed—minor burns but nothing serious,” Zalinsky replied.

“Thank God.”

“I know. It’s strange, actually. The president got out of the limo first and was followed by Ramzy. But as it happened, the terrorists fired the RPGs before Naphtali ever got out of the car. One of his Shin Bet guys was standing in front of the open door to the limo. When the first RPG hit, the agent was immediately engulfed in flames, but his body blocked most of the blast and he somehow managed to get the door closed, probably saving Naphtali’s life. The driver immediately pulled away and got out of the kill zone.”

“Where’s the PM now?”

“On a flight back to Tel Aviv.”

“And the Shin Bet agent?”

“Pronounced dead at the scene—one of forty-six, with another twenty-two wounded, most of them severely burned and unlikely to make it through the night.”

David could barely comprehend what Zalinsky was telling him. The casualty count was horrifying enough, but so was the fact that the CIA had just failed the nation again. Another terrorist attack had just been unleashed on American soil—in the heart of New York City, no less—and the Agency not only hadn’t done anything to stop it but hadn’t even known it was coming. What else was coming? Who else was in the country, ready to strike?

These were the first thoughts running through his head, but more followed. David shuddered at the implications of Egypt’s aging, ailing, authoritarian leader assassinated. The government of the world’s largest and historically most stable Arab country had suddenly been decapitated. Who would take over? Would it be a peaceful transition of power? Having spent nearly a year working in Cairo, reporting first to the economic attaché and later directly to the CIA station chief in the Egyptian capital, he knew full well that President Ramzy had never developed a clear or orderly or legal transition plan. The old man had always wanted one of his sons to assume power when he was gone. But few others in the country wanted that—not the majority of the legislature, not the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and certainly not most of the rank-and-file Egyptians. This raised the chilling prospect of a chaotic, even violent transition that risked igniting into a full-blown revolution in a country of eighty million, 90 percent of whom were Muslims, the vast majority of whom were deeply discontent. Such a revolution could be massively destabilizing. It could unravel the three-decade-plus-long peace treaty with the Israelis. It could theoretically bring leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, or others sympathetic to the Radicals, to power. Such forces would almost certainly be willing, even eager, to build stronger alliances with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran to confront Israel. What’s more, a takeover by the Radicals could provide an opening for the Twelfth Imam to try to lure the country—or even force it—to join his emerging new Islamic Caliphate.

The implosion of Egypt after the sudden death of the man they called the Pharaoh on the Nile had long been one of the Agency’s greatest fears. Now they were about to discover how it would all play out, and the timing could not have been worse.

“Any suspects at this point?” David asked, forcing himself to concentrate on gathering the facts rather than letting his mind run away with what-if scenarios.

Zalinsky said that Roger Allen, the Agency’s director, was privately speculating that the attack was most likely payback from al Qaeda after the killing of so many high-level figures in recent months. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, for years the number two man in the al Qaeda organization, was Egyptian and had long vowed to topple the Ramzy regime and replace it with an Islamic Republic. However, Zalinsky noted, his immediate boss, Tom Murray, deputy director for operations, suspected the Muslim Brotherhood, the radical Islamic group founded in Egypt in 1928. The Brotherhood, which operated in the shadows because it was legally banned in Egypt, had hated Ramzy for years, in part because he kept imprisoning their top operatives and in part because he understood their true mission—the establishment of Egypt as the epicenter of a revived Islamic kingdom, the imposition of Sharia law, and the exporting of their Sunni brand of jihad throughout the region and eventually the world. Their motto: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” Al-Zawahiri, David knew, was not only Egyptian born but had been a member of the Brotherhood before he’d formed the even more radical group Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which had then merged with al Qaeda. “Murray thinks it’s possible that this was a joint operation between the Brotherhood and al Qaeda and could even have a Hezbollah angle, although you’d think we would have picked up on the plot if there was that much coordination between groups.”


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