Authors’ Note: This third part of the “2026: Operation Iranian Freedom” fiction series takes place simultaneously with the first installment and second installment but from a different perspective. This piece of fiction was written along with Diane Maye and Nate Finney. It was originally published on The Strategy Bridge on June 10, 2016. This piece was also republished with permission on Real Clear Defense on June 13, 2016.
We all knew this would happen. When the U.S. and Iran signed the nuclear deal in 2015, some thought it was just delaying the inevitable. I remember one of my professors at MIT comparing the deal to the Peace of Nicias during the Peloponnesian Wars. I guess he was right, just as with Athens and Sparta, the U.S.- Iran nuclear deal was a false peace.
As a staffer at the National Security Council (NSC), my life is busy. I spend much of my time preparing for Principals Committees, Deputies Committees, and Interagency Policy Committees; our NSC runs like a well-oiled machine. In fact, there are only 50 people on the entire staff. This is possible because we leave the heavy lifting to the departments and agencies and coordinate their courses of action so they can be presented to President Drexel for approval. My only complaint working on the NSC is that I have a hard time dealing with the military. If I had to guess, I suspect they would say the same of me.
When I go to the Pentagon, I feel like I am on another planet. The more I talk to military members, the more I realize I’m nothing like them. Despite multiple tours in foreign countries, most of the officers I deal with speak only one language. Whenever I brief them, I try to explain very simple cultural and technological concepts, but the officers tell me they “don’t want to hear long stories.” They say, “BLUF-A.” This means, “bottom line up front Arash.” After one briefing with the J-3, that’s the operational section of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, two of the colonels nodded off, and at the end a third raised his hand in frustration. “I have an idea Arash,” he said, “Hiroshima/Nagasaki 2.0, let’s just nuke the whole place and salt the earth.” Everyone started laughing. I know he was being hyperbolic, but this constant joking that can detract from having from a serious conversation about the consequences of a nuclear Iran. I wanted to reply, “Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant,” but I’m sure that would have gone over his head. On second thought, maybe it’s not that I’m nothing like them, maybe they’re nothing like me.
Despite all this, there is one person I get along with, Colonel Richard Vargas. Colonel Vargas is the current operations officer at Joint Task Force Iranian Freedom (JTF-IF), the military element that will conduct a substantive punitive raid into Iran to destroy their nuclear weapons capability. I sometimes laugh; I would never have suspected the military officer I get along with best would be a Marine. Colonel Vargas puts up with me as I technically “violate the chain-of-command” and call him to chat instead of going through the Office of the Secretary of Defense to the Joint Staff to United States Central Command and then to JTF-IF then to him. Were I to use the chain of command, I would likely get an answer that doesn’t meet my suspense filled with broad, nonspecific language useless to the NSC. While Colonel Vargas is busy “doing what must be done when diplomacy fails” as he says, I always give-to-get during our phone calls. That is, I let him know the NSC perspective on issues that interest him in exchange for him telling me what JTF-IF is up to.
The U.S. relationship with Iran has undergone massive ups and downs since the 1970s, as has the U.S. approach to the Middle East. While Presidents Bush, Obama, or Clinton may have looked at foreign policy from a holistic perspective, our current President, Lawrence Drexel, views other countries based on his experience in business and sees the U.S. relationship with them as transactional. President Drexel, like the corporate banker he once was, only allows the U.S. to undertake action overseas if the gain is clearly worth the investment. While campaigning, then-candidate Drexel said of the 9/11 attacks that the most fiscally responsible course of action would have been a massive nuclear strike on Afghanistan the same day followed by rebuilding the Twin Towers on 9/12. Unfortunately, it seems like the U.S. political system vacillates between extreme views. A friend of my father’s, a Democrat and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Obama Administration, said President Drexel is the U.S. voter’s natural reaction to sixteen years of Democrats in the White House. He said if a Republican, almost any Republican, had won in 2016, the Republican constituency could have had a chance to blow off some steam following President Obama. This didn’t happen, so President Drexel it is.
Drexel’s views are the main reason why JTF-IF is conducting a “substantive punitive raid”—it achieves U.S. goals with the least investment. This substantive punitive raid (SPR), or “spear” as it is known, stems from President Drexel’s efforts with the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). While previous QDRs identified up to 12 missions for the Department of Defense, President Drexel’s QDR speaks to only three: Deter attacks on the U.S., its Allies, Partners, and interests; Destroy enemies of the U.S.; Train, supply, and advise Allies and Partners to destroy enemies they share with the U.S.
The days of the DoD conducting stability and counterinsurgency operations, providing support to civil authorities, and conducting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are over. As an attempt to re-brand history, President Drexel adopted the “Iranian Freedom” part from President Bush but changed it to mean the world being free of the Iranian nuclear threat vice regime change or nation building in Iran. President Drexel, and most Americans, don’t care what happens in other countries as long as it doesn’t affect U.S. interests. The U.S. doesn’t even advocate universal rights globally anymore. Instead, Drexel proclaims,“If man reaches his fullest potential under freedom and democracy, and I want the U.S. to be on top, then I don’t want freedom and democracy for the rest of the world. That creates more competition for the U.S. The countries of the world know that freedom and democracy are the best form of government. If they choose otherwise, that’s bad for them and good for us!”
My family fled Iran in 2003 and was resettled in the U.S. with the help of the Iranian B’Nei Torah Movement. When we arrived, war had been declared on Iraq. I was only six years old, and I could hardly speak a word of English. I learned quickly, though. Soon, I added English to the Farsi and Dari I brought from Iran.
It was hard to make friends until I was accepted into Thomas Jefferson Magnet School in Alexandria, Virginia. It was then that I finally realized there were other children in America like me. One of my best friends at TJ, Max Graham, went to the Air Force Academy but then pursued a commission in the Army so he could fly the A-10D-Thunderbolt X. Since the original A-10 was such a success in the battle against the so-called “Islamic State” a few years ago, Congress pressured the DoD into retaining it indefinitely. The platform was given to the Army and then cross-bred with drone technology. One of the most innovative parts of the new A-10 drone is called “YTYD” or “You tweet you die.” This enhanced targeting capability enables the pilot to attack potential targets when they post to social media.
I wanted to go into the military like Max and my grandpa, but I knew the physical requirements would be a challenge. I never was an athlete like Max. I was born prematurely. Madar says I could have died at any moment. A few years later, when we still lived in Tehran, I came down with polio. Now, one of my legs is smaller than the other. In school, my small frame and lack of coordination were always a problem in gym class. Grandpa would have reveled in the idea of me flying the A-10 drone though…
During these times I think back to how my freshman year at MIT was the hardest, but ultimately the most rewarding, year of my life. I was only sixteen years old when I enrolled. I decided to major in nuclear physics like Padar and minor in Russian like Baba Berzerk. Despite the long and grueling hours in the classroom and the library, it is also where I met my darling wife Farah. We married soon after graduation; it was her father who convinced me to work in Washington, D.C., doing policy and research at a conservative think-tank while also attending my graduate program at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Farah’s father is well-known in D.C.’s conservative circles. For years he has attended the Committee to Contain Iran (CCI) working group. He was the one who forwarded my resume to the National Security Advisor back in 2024. Working on the NSC is hard. Farah chides me for the long hours. She wants a baby, but there is no time for that now. At the NSC, I’ve been a valuable asset, using my language and cultural skills as well as my knowledge of nuclear physics to help the military understand the implications of a nuclear Iran.
When we lived in Tehran, we weren’t supposed to talk about it. For years after we came to America I still never told anyone I was Jewish. Now I am much more comfortable. America is the only place I’ve known where I can be openly proud of my Jewish heritage. I am Jewish and my wife is a Shi’ia Muslim. One NSC staffer from the Department of Energy stared at me strangely when he heard me talk about my wife. I guess he thought it strange that an Iranian-American Jew married an Iranian-American Muslim. Farah may not be an Iranian Empress, but she is definitely my princess. Grandpa would be proud to see his Jewish offspring living free from oppression and thriving in America. He died in 2006, and we couldn’t even go back for his funeral. I wish he could see me now.
There is a Principals Committee tomorrow where President Drexel will be briefed on the current status of JTF-IF. Before that, I have slides to coordinate and phone calls to make. I hope Colonel Vargas is still awake. His ground truth via a ten minute phone call today will be more valuable to me than the PowerPoint slides we are likely to receive from the Pentagon tomorrow. While Farah wishes I were home tonight, she knows that I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders.
This story segment was written by Phil Walter, Diane Maye, and Nathan Finney. Phil Walter has served in the military, the intelligence community, and the inter-agency. He blogs at www.philwalter1058.com. Dr. Diane Maye is a Featured Contributor on The Bridge and a Visiting Professor at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. She tweets at @DianeLeighMaye. Nathan Finney is an officer in the United States Army. He tweets @nkfinney. This article does not contain information of an official nature, nor do the views expressed in this article reflect the policy or position of any official organization.
 “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.” Tacitus, The Germany and the Agricola of Tacitus, The Oxford Translation Revised, retrieved from Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/7524/7524-h/7524-h.htm.