- - Friday, November 30, 2012

By Wayne Simmons and Mark Graham
Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99, 304 pages

Ian Fleming gave us James Bond. Robert Ludlum gave us Jason Bourne. Now authors Wayne Simmons and Mark Graham give us a novel with an unapologetically pro-American master of espionage, Jake Conlan. Not since Tom Clancy created Jack Ryan has a U.S. audience had such a compelling spy to root for.

Conlan, a veteran clandestine operative, is called back to duty to take on one of America’s most sensitive missions: penetrating the Iranian nuclear program. Well over the hill, he finds himself a bit creakier, perhaps a step slower, but not a whit less sharp. He bounces around Europe, reconnecting with lapsed contacts, always with a flair for the dramatic entrance — whether transiting the Atlantic aboard an SR-71 spy plane or entering Iran through a risky high-altitude low-opening (HALO) jump.

Besides an NSA-modified iPhone, Conlan doesn’t have fancy gadgets. What the plot lacks in gee-whiz contraptions, it makes up for in the accuracy of portraying how U.S. spies operate. Here the book relies on Mr. Simmons’ three decades as a clandestine operative. The scenes depicting Conlan recruiting and meeting sources — some of whose motivations and allegiances are dubious at best — provide fascinating insights into CIA tradecraft.

The most controversial aspect of the novel may be that the authors decided to have the protagonist team up with the Mujahideen-e-Khalk (MEK), a controversial group recently removed from the U.S. terrorist list. Mr. Simmons and Mr. Graham portray the group’s members as earnest revolutionaries and reliable providers of intelligence. While some Western journalists and pro-regime apologists have smeared the MEK, the authors get the MEK more right than wrong. The MEK are the only organized Iranian opposition group — and with the right U.S. support, they could help topple the regime.

With a storyline that echoes the news on today’s front pages, the book takes us on a rip-roaring journey through the hash houses of Amsterdam and the bazaars of Tehran, with the attendant smells and sounds. Co-author Mark Graham’s deft hand at crafting prose shines through. He and Mr. Simmons have a knack for dialogue, the hardest part of fiction-writing. It is sharp and witty, without being too improbable.

If the book gets something wrong, it is the sad fact that Jake Conlan probably couldn’t exist in 2012. Mr. Simmons is a clandestine operative of the Richard Helms era, a time when the leadership at Langley believed in investing and empowering their agents and encouraging them to take risks. This was the high stakes of the Cold War. There weren’t lawyers looking over shoulders in every operation. The primary motivation for these men was keeping the country safe, not avoiding Justice Department prosecution.

When one considers the current leadership in the White House and its views toward Iran, the plot, regrettably, becomes even more improbable. President Obama came to office vowing to “extend a hand” if Iran unclenched its “fist.” Obama consigliere Valerie Jarrett, according to news sources, has volunteered to travel to Tehran as the president’s personal envoy and negotiate on the administration’s behalf. What these policies have in common is the conceit that the Iranian regime is a rational actor on the global stage, and even more improbably, that the leaders in Tehran would consider giving up their nuclear weapons program.

That is what is so valuable about “The Natanz Directive.” Written on its pages are some sobering truths about the nature of Iran’s government, and the bipartisan folly of the last 20 years. Successive administrations have sent envoys, held peace talks and tried to coax and cajole Iranian leaders to walk back their nuclear weapons program. All have been for naught.

The messianic ambitions of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are on full display in “The Natanz Directive.” Because of Conlan’s stunning findings in Iran, the U.S. administration is forced to take military action. The war plan Mr. Simmons calls “Big George” — an operation involving hundreds of sorties of stealth bombers and strike aircraft — is, in fact, a viable plan I developed for a presentation to the Intelligence Summit based on my experiences in a real-world strike on terrorists in the 1980s.

One can only hope a U.S. president never has to put Big George into operation. With the Obama administration, it may be as unlikely as ever. At least Iranian leaders think so, as evidenced by their recent efforts to redouble Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts. The irony is that conflict becomes more inevitable if one side is seen as avoiding it at all costs. Mr. Obama would do well to read “The Natanz Directive,” not only because it would be welcome, entertaining reading on his next trip to Hawaii, but also because he’d learn a thing or two from Jake Conlan on how to handle this very dangerous enemy of the Free World. Jake got it right. The book is a spellbinder throughout.

Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney is former assistant vice chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force, a former fighter pilot and currently a Fox News military analyst.

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