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No, the CIA isn't about to blow up Iran

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CIA Director Mike Pompeo, center, would need to seek President Trump's approval if the new appointee who will head up the CIA's Iran operations wanted to do something very risky. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The New York Times reports that the CIA has appointed an aggressively minded officer to head up its Iran operations.

Michael D'Andrea is a longtime operations officer at "the Agency." A former chief of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center, D'Andrea made his name identifying and hunting down terrorists.

That legacy has some concerned. They worry that if D'Andrea applies the same approach to Iran-related operations, he might implode the nuclear agreement — or even spark a conflict.

These fears are misplaced.

First, D'Andrea won't have carte blanche to do whatever he wants. A great myth about the CIA is that it is a freewheeling entity, a forested kingdom hiding shadowy omnipotents with licenses to kill. Sadly, like almost every U.S. government agency, the CIA is first and foremost a bureacracy. And that structure restrains the ability of one individual or a group of individuals to do risky things quickly.

Put simply, if D'Andrea wanted to take a particularly aggressive action, he would require approval from Langley's seventh floor leadership. And if he wanted to do something very risky, CIA Director Mike Pompeo would need Trump's signoff.

Regardless, D'Andrea isn't going to start droning Tehran anytime soon. Even if he could, he wouldn't. It would be nonsensical.

After all, the mission of CIA's Iran desk is to collect intelligence on Iranian interests, intentions, and actions. That work is focused on recruiting and maintaining the CIA's network of Iranian agents (or spies) inside and outside of the country.

And that's a tough challenge. The Iranian intelligence service, MOIS, and ideological organs of the revolution such as the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), are very skilled in catching spies (what's called counter-intelligence). To keep its spies in operation effectively, the CIA must balance high-risks with immense caution.

For one, the CIA must do everything possible not to attract hostile attention to those spies. Normally that means recruiting Iranian officials when they are traveling abroad and thus less vulnerable to monitoring by MOIS. But regardless of whether the CIA is running agents inside or outside of Iran, its operations are ill-served by big bangs.

As a talented operations officer (responsible for recruiting and running agents), D'Andrea is well-placed to lead these efforts. He has the knowledge and the gut instinct to make the hard choices: whether to recruit or not to recruit. Whether to keep an agent in place or pull them out. Whether, for example, information from a sensitive Iranian facility is worth the risk of getting caught.

The key here is that the CIA's mission in Iran is very different from its missions in Pakistan or Yemen. In the latter nations, intelligence is largely collected toward enabling strikes against nonstate terrorists. In Iran, intelligence is collected toward understanding what various elements in Iran are doing and what they might do next.

That said, there will be times where the CIA needs to use intimidation or violence against certain Iranian organizations and officials. And that's where D'Andrea's focused aggression will be useful. The IRGC Quds (Jerusalem) force, led by Qasem Soleimani, will be one such target. That's because the Quds force and aligned regime elements are determined to expand Iran's Khomeinist ideology across the region. And in that sectarian agenda they help fuel the undercurrents that sustain groups like ISIS.

Unfortunately, another favored Quds force pastime is trying to kill Americans. Sometimes it's American soldiers and diplomats; sometimes it's diners in Cafe Milano, Georgetown.

Regardless, the Quds intimidate or kill all who stand in their way. And their brutal efficiency in action and purpose means that intimidation and death are sometimes the only solutions that restrain them. The Obama administration neglected this truth and in doing so allowed Iranian hardliners to push against our interests.

Still, CIA covert action is more likely to take place outside Iran than inside. Although its tentacles reach to Europe and South America, the Quds force poses its greatest threat in Middle Eastern states like Iraq and Lebanon.

Ultimately, successful intelligence operations against Iran require a very finely tuned balance. We must counter the Iranians or see them burn the world into chaos (that spills into the west: think the Manchester bombing, the Paris attacks, and the refugee crisis). But we must do so while avoiding the isolation of more-moderate elements (such as the Rouhani-bloc). At the same time, the hardliners must know we hold the ability to dominate the escalatory curve. As I say, it's complicated.

Fortunately, D'Andrea knows the game better than most. He's lived it for a long time. Unless you're in the Quds force, you should sleep soundly.