U.S. intelligence agencies are monitoring a political dispute between Iran's foreign minister, who is a key player in nuclear talks, and the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the hard-line shock troops behind the Islamist regime in Tehran.
The dispute could impact the outcome of nuclear talks between Iran and the six nations that are expected to resume Thursday in Geneva.
The internal battle began after Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quoted Dec. 3 as saying that the West is "not afraid of our few tanks and missiles; they're afraid of Iran's people."
"Do you think the America, which can take out all our defensive systems with one bomb, is afraid of our defensive system? Is America really not taking [military] action due [Iran's] military might?" Mr. Zarif said in response to a question at Tehran University.
His comments prompted a harsh reaction from several Iranian officials and state-controlled media. But the most significant criticism came a week later from IRGC commander Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, who challenged the minister's comments as "incorrect" and said Iran's military could withstand any attack.
Gen. Jafari said Mr. Zarif lacks expertise in defense and security affairs, and insisted the IRGC maintains "remarkable" arms capabilities.
"If the enemy attacks and drops thousands of bombs, it will only succeed in destroying 10 to 20 percent of our missiles," he said.
The general asserted that what forced "enemies" to negotiate lifting sanctions was "our security and defense capabilities." And he claimed that Iran's missiles are hidden throughout the country and cannot be knocked out with thousands of bombs.
The Pentagon in a recent report to Congress on Iran's military supports the Zarif position, noting that Iran's military "would be relatively ineffective against a direct assault by well-trained, sophisticated military such as that of the United States or its allies."
Gen. Jafari's unusual public attack on Mr. Zarif appeared to be a political effort to undo the damage the remarks caused to a major propaganda offensive. For the past several years, propaganda organs have sought to portray Tehran's military as more powerful than it is. Almost weekly reports in state media have sought to highlight new and more powerful weapons developments, from high-speed torpedoes to armed drones to advanced missiles.
U.S. military officials have voiced skepticism about Iran's reported military advances and said frequent reports of new weapons and capabilities are exaggerations.
What concerns U.S. diplomatic and intelligence analysts is Gen. Jafari's criticism of the nuclear deal reached last month that calls for Iran to curb its uranium enrichment.
"We have given the maximum in this six-month interim agreement, and we have received the minimum," Gen. Jafari said.
He also said the talks must be limited to the nuclear issue alone, and insisted that no more concessions be made.
Western critics of the talks have said they should include discussion of Iran ending its support for international terrorism, such as the weapons it supplies Lebanon's Hezbollah and other terrorists.
Mr. Zarif later sought to quell the controversy caused by his comments but did not back down. He said his remarks had been "distorted" by critics and said what he meant was that the Iranian nation remains the main deterrent to a U.S. attack, not Iran's weaponry.
BENGHAZI'S TERRORIST SUMMIT
Terrorists from North Africa converged recently for a summit meeting of jihadist groups in Benghazi, Libya, according to a German press report.
The meeting was described as a "Maghreb-wide jihadist summit" that included representatives of al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, and the Syrian al Qaeda group Nusrah Front, according to the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag.
The meeting took place in September at a base operated by Ansar al-Shariah, the al Qaeda-linked group behind the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound and CIA annex in Benghazi, the Dec. 15 report stated.
Speakers at the conference included Abu Iyadh, leader of the Tunisian terrorist group Ansar al-Shariah, a different group that uses the same name.
Abu Iyadh appealed to fellow terrorists for support for his group in anticipation of conflict with the Tunisian government. He asked the groups not to dispatch Tunisian jihadists to Syria and instead send them to Tunisia in efforts to take over the country.
Nusrah Front officials at the meeting disagreed with Abu Iyadh: The Front has relied on training and dispatching thousands of jihadists, including those at bases in Libya, to the Syrian conflict.
As part of a compromise worked out at the summit, Tunisian terrorists would be sent home in exchange for assurances that all other fighters dispatched to Syria would be under the command of the Nusrah Front and not the rival Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
A U.S. counterterrorism official had no comment.
NSA'S 'KEYS TO KINGDOM'
The National Security Agency undermined its reputation as America's most secret intelligence agency by opening its doors to CBS News' "60 Minutes" Sunday. It was the first time the supersecret electronic eavesdropping agency had allowed news cameras inside its sprawling compound at Fort George G. Meade, Md.
During the program, NSA official Rick Ledgett revealed new details about the case of former contractor Edward Snowden. Mr. Ledgett confirmed that the total number documents stolen by Mr. Snowden is about 1.7 million and includes some of the agency's most sensitive secrets.
Mr. Snowden, working at the NSA's Kunia facility in Hawaii, was able to steal the documents by using his position as a low-level computer system administrator. He copied the documents despite arousing suspicions from other NSA keepers of secrets.
"He did something that we call 'scraping,' where he went out and used tools to scrape information from [classified] websites, and put it into a place where he could download it," Mr. Ledgett said.
Mr. Ledgett said the most damaging leaks by Mr. Snowden were related to "an exhaustive list of the requirements" for NSA that include "what topics we're interested in, where our gaps are." About 31,000 requirements related to numerous nations and topics, including such targets as China, Iran and Russia.
Asked how U.S. adversaries would benefit from the documents, Mr. Ledgett said: "It would give them a road map of what we know, what we don't know, and give them, implicitly, a way to protect their information from the U.S. intelligence community's view."
"For an adversary in the intelligence game, that's a gold mine?" said correspondent John Miller, a former intelligence official.
"It is the keys to the kingdom," Mr. Ledgett said.
Concerned that Mr. Snowden may have left software that would allow future access to NSA systems, the agency removed all classified and unclassified machines used by the contractor, including cables used to connect machines. It cost "tens of millions" of dollars, Mr. Ledgett said.
NSA went so far as to allow the first photographs of its ultrasecret section labeled "The Black Chamber," where code-breakers work.
CBS at one point inadvertently videotaped a partial view of one of the code-breakers and was immediately forced to stop filming so that the video could be reviewed.
Bin Laden with the fishes
A transcript of June 24, 2011, speech by then-CIA Director Leon E. Panetta praising intelligence and military personnel involved in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden reveals the Italian-American's use of a memorable film line to describe the death of the al Qaeda leader.
Mr. Panetta said in the declassified "Top Secret" speech obtained by Judicial Watch that "getting rid of bin Laden has made the nation and our world a safer place for our children."
"It has made clear to the world that nobody nobody attacks our people and gets away with it," he said.
Mr. Panetta then told the assembled guests that the raid had made him proud: "And you have made me proud to know, as an Italian, that bin Laden sleeps with the fishes."
The line was taken from 1972's "The Godfather," announcing the death of a feared mob criminal: "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes."
• Contact Bill Gertz at @BillGertz.
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