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NEWT PUSHES CIA TO LAUNCH COVERT OPERATION AGAINST IRAN

In an unusual operation conceived by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the CIA will mount a new $18 million covert action to change the nature of the government of Iran. The operation has not started, but the counteroffensive has.

The directive became public, here and in Iran, three months ago - long before it became law. Now the CIA finds itself required, against its better judgment, to plan a "secret" mission, with its cover already blown, in a region where U.S. policy has in recent years suffered failures and fiascos.The money for the mission was included in a secret bill passed on Dec. 31 that authorizes intelligence spending for this year. Iran reacted to its passage almost immediately: On Jan. 6, it proclaimed that three of its citizens jailed on charges of spying for the United States would be sentenced to death.

Tuesday, Iran's Parliament announced a $20 million operation "to counter the Great Satan" and combat the U.S. initiative.

The history of the CIA in Iran includes sponsoring the 1953 coup that reinstalled Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi; the 1979 revolution, in which fundamentalists toppled the shah, seized the U.S. embassy and the CIA station for 444 days and painstakingly pieced together the agency's shredded files; and the Reagan administration's secret arms deals of a decade ago, in which the CIA helped ship missiles to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Revolutionary Guards.

Since the 1986 arms affair was exposed, few in the government have offered many ideas about how to bring about change in Iran.

But Gingrich - an ex-officio member of the House Intelligence Committee who appoints its Republican members and wields great influence over government spending - has since last February been calling for a strategy "designed to force the replacement of the current regime in Iran."

He made his feelings known so strongly that his desire for a covert operation became public in late October - first in a short article in an elite Washington newsletter, CQ's Congressional Monitor, then in a six-paragraph article in The Wall Street Journal, then on the news wires around the world.

Members of Iran's Parliament immediately launched verbal counterattacks. One called Gingrich "not a balanced person;" another condemned the United States as "a renegade government whose logic was no different from Genghis Khan or Hitler."

Gingrich, the Clinton administration and the CIA feel much the same way about Iran and its leaders, and have said so. But the administration and the agency argued against the U.S. operation - in part because Iran knew of Gingrich's idea. After the planned initiative became public in October, the speaker refused to comment on it.

In November and December, CIA officers argued that since the proposed covert action against Iran was no secret, its chances for success, already slim, were now nil.

The CIA's analysts and operators saw little hope of helping create a new generation of leaders for Iran, or of coercing the current leaders to change their anti-American thinking.