Monday, July 23, 2007
IRAN'S CLERICAL SPYMASTERS
Iran’s clerical spymasters By Mahan Abedin The recent detentions of four Iranian-Americans in Iran on chargesrelatingto national security have touched off a flurry of speculation about therealmotives behind the arrests. Much of the speculation is centered on political motives. Anoft-repeatedargument is that Dr Haleh Esfandiari (head of the Middle East Programat theWoodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars), Parnaz Azima (ajournalist for Radio Farda, the Persian-language service of Voice of America/Radio Free Europe), DrKianTajbaksh (an urban-planning expert and a consultant to the World Bankondevelopment projects), and Ali Shakeri (a founder and board member oftheCenter for Citizen Peace building at the University of California,Irvine)have fallen victim to a hostage-taking game by the Iranian and USgovernments. The detentions of the Iranian-Americans - it is argued - are inresponse tothe detentions of Iranian diplomats and intelligence officers in Iraq.Morebroadly, it is often argued that the detentions must be understood inthecontext of worsening tensions between Iran and the United States. These arguments not only assume the complete innocence of the accusedbutmoreover dabble in amateurish analysis. The idea that the Iraniangovernment- as cruel and incompetent as it may sometimes be - would detain itsowncitizens to settle scores with the US over Iraq-related issues isdownrightsilly. This article looks at this sensitive and emotive issue from a purelysecurity/intelligence perspective. The arguments made here should in nowaybe interpreted as support for the Iranian government’s position. Fromthestandpoint of the author, we simply do not know the precisecircumstancessurrounding these detentions. But to assume the innocence of theaccusedsimply on account of their being well-known and respected academics,journalists and consultants is just as dangerous as assuming theirguilt. To grasp the different dimensions of this issue, it is important toform abasic understanding of the Islamic Republic’s intelligence community.Rigorous academic research on Iran’s post-revolutionary intelligencecommunity is almost non-existent. And much of the existing researchtends tofocus on the wrong things. For instance, researchers tend to obsessover theextent of continuity and discontinuity between the pre-revolutionaryandpost-revolutionary intelligence communities. While this can be a worthwhile- albeit esoteric - exercise, it runs the risk of blinding theresearcher to the most important aspects of the subject. More than 28 years after the revolution, the Islamic Republic hascreated an intelligence community that is markedly different - in terms of personnel,constitutional arrangement, ideology and methodology - to thepre-revolutionary intelligence community. The country’s leadingintelligenceagency, the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, is worldsapartfrom the shah’s notorious SAVAK (Sazeman-e Ettelaat va Amniyat-eKeshvar, orOrganization for Intelligence and National Security). Since itsformation in1984, the Ministry of Intelligence has deliberately cultivated a lowprofile(as opposed to the effusive and sometimes flamboyant SAVAK) and goneout ofits way to convince political masters and citizens alike that it is anintelligence organization as opposed to a secret-police force. Another mistake of Western researchers has been to overestimate thestrengthand efficiency of the post-revolutionary intelligence community. Thisispartly due to relentless disinformation on the breadth and depth ofactivities of organizations such as the Ministry of Intelligence andtheIslamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force. But more important, genuine researchers and spies alike are oftenfooled byfirst impressions. Indeed, Iranian intelligence officers often seemmarkedlydifferent from other officials and servants of the Islamic Republic.Unlikethose of other important bodies - in particular the Foreign Ministryand thestate broadcaster - the Intelligence Ministry’s personnel reflect thediversity of Iranian society. Moreover, the ministry’s personnel areoftenof a much higher quality - better educated, well travelled andbroad-minded. But this first impression can be profoundly deceptive. For all its sophistication, the Intelligence Ministry is ultimatelysubordinate to strict clerical control. It is instructive that everyminister of intelligence from 1984 onward has been a cleric. Aside fromafew clerical-dominated organizations such as the Assembly of Expertsand theCouncil of Guardians, no other organization or institution inpost-revolutionary Iran (not even the presidency) has been subject tothislevel of clerical subordination. This arrangement reflects two realities: first, it underscores theuniqueimportance of the Intelligence Ministry to the clerics who control thecommanding heights of the Iranian government; second, it reflectswidespreadfears inside the inner sanctums of the Islamic regime that the ministry- onaccount of its diverse personnel and higher levels of professionalism -cannot be fully trusted. While the Islamic Republic’s intelligence agencies are the mostprofessionaland capable in the Middle East (with the possible exception of Israel),theyhave found it very difficult to operate effectively in the West. Sincetheearly 1980s, Iranian intelligence has been able to develop formidableintelligence networks throughout the Middle East, Central Asia andSoutheastAsia. But the Iranians have found it almost impossible to achieve even modest gains in Western Europe and North America. A combination offactors,including lack of language skills, unfamiliarity with Western cultures,andvery limited liaison relationships with Western intelligence services,is atthe heart of this failure. The Intelligence Ministry in particular is notorious for spectacularfailures in the West. Its core operations in the West (which mostlyrevolvearound the penetration of dissident Iranian organizations and themanagementof covert arms-procurement rings) have often been easily disrupted byWestern intelligence services. Moreover, the ministry has often failedtoprovide adequate care of its agents. The Intelligence Ministry tends to arrange meetings with its agents inIstanbul, Athens, Larnaka and Beirut. Very often these agents areeitherinterdicted at Western European airports (on their way to theirdestination), which provides a suitable psychological environment forWestern intelligence to “turn” them into double agents, or they arepickedup by Greek or Turkish intelligence at the point of arrival, whichexposesthe agents to even graver exploitation by hostile and friendlyintelligenceservices alike. Its operational successes and failures notwithstanding, another keyfeatureof the Iranian intelligence community is its relative lack ofpoliticization. This is often overlooked by specialists on Iranianintelligence and Iran analysts in general. There is a tendency topositiondifferent components of the intelligence community into the dizzyinglycomplex factional politics of the Islamic Republic. Thus theIntelligenceMinistry is often projected as pro-reformist whereas the intelligenceorganizations connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps areseenas naturalallies of the so-called “hardliners”. The reality is very different. Despite the diversity of its personnel,theIslamic Republic’s intelligence community - as opposed to its politicalsociety - is remarkably cohesive. The designers and watchdogs of thepost-revolutionary intelligence community have expended tremendouseffortsto ensure that the intelligence community remains free from politicalmanipulation. This is a reflection of the revolutionaries’ desire to avoid themistakesand abuses of the pre-revolutionary era when the SAVAK was far tooclose tothe political elites and hence prone to manipulation and corruption.This isone of the greatest enduring strengths of Iranian intelligence and thesingle most important factor that distinguishes it from other MiddleEasternintelligence communities. Nevertheless, since the early 1990s, the Intelligence Ministry hascommittednumerous abuses. The most notorious were the so-called “chain murders”ofthe late 1990s when allegedly “rogue” agents inside the ministrymurderedseveral dissident political activists, writers and artists. AlthoughtheIntelligence Ministry owned up to the crimes, its contention that“rogue”agents controlled by Saeed Emami (a US-educated head of internalsecurity atthe ministry) had planned and perpetrated these murders has never beenseriously tested by competent investigative bodies. Conflicting conspiracy theories notwithstanding, the tension betweentheministry’s professional core and the absolute determination of a groupoftightly knit “spy-clerics” to oversee and direct the most sensitiveintelligence issues is the likely cause of these abuses. While it is nosurprise that the Islamic Republic of Iran has, from the very outset,been amajor target for US intelligence-gathering and sabotage operations, thesheer breadth and depth of US intelligence activities in Islamic Iran are rarely acknowledged. The Americans have purposefully cultivated the myth that the IslamicRepublic is a “denied area” to Western intelligence, whereas in realitythecountry - on account of its open borders, divided political society,Westernized middle classes and large diaspora community - can beregarded asthe very opposite. US intelligence activities in Iran in the 1980s were focused onrecruitingagents from inside the civil service, the military and private sector.Thesenetworks revolved around conventional “agency-agent” relationships andweredirectly controlled by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stations inTurkey,Greece and the former West Germany. But despite their best efforts, US intelligence operations camecrashingdown in spectacular fashion in early 1989 when the IntelligenceMinistrybegan releasing detailed information on the detection and destructionof USspy networks inside the air force, army, civil service and privatesector.After each carefully controlled leak to the national and internationalpress, the scale of the disaster became more apparent. This author has spoken to several Iranians and Americans who were closely involved withtheaffair, and all are adamant that virtually the entire US intelligenceapparatus in Iran had been detected and successfully disrupted by theIranians. The then minister of intelligence, Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri (who isregarded as the vanguard of a special class of clerical spymasters),brokecover in April 1989 with a series of interviews to the national andinternational press alleging that his ministry had dealt the mostseriousblow to CIA operations and prestige in the agency’s history. This may be exaggerated, but there was little denying the scale of theCIA’shumiliation. This was exacerbated by details that some of the Americanspieshad been “turned” into double agents barely a few months after theirinitialrecruitment. Some had been feeding their American controllers misinformation as early as the beginning of 1985. While Western intelligence was no doubt impressed and surprised (inequalmeasure) by the Iranians’ capabilities, a careful review of this affairsuggests that US incompetence - as opposed to Iranian prowess - was thechief factor in the unraveling of these networks. Many of the agentsthathad been recruited were simply fundamentally unsuited to intelligencework. Some had even discussed their ties to the Americans with close familymembers. Moreover, the Americans had failed to give even basic trainingtotheir agents. None of the agents displayed a satisfactory knowledge ofcounter-surveillance, counter- interrogation, basic communicationsecurity,and deception techniques. In one instance, an Iranian RF-4 pilot and colonel in the air force hadbeentaken to a safe house in West Germany and given a two-day crash course.Colonel Bahram Ikani was identified as an American spy by a jointoperationinvolving military intelligence (G2) and the Ministry of Intelligence,barely five months into his assignment. But instead of arresting andcharging Ikani, the Intelligence Ministry “turned” him into a doubleagentand designed and implemented a carefully controlled misinformationpipelinethat had the Americans fooled for two years. After exhausting his usefulness, armed agents of military intelligenceburstinto Ikani’s office in late 1988 and arrested him on charges of treasonandespionage. Apparently the Intelligence Ministry had failed to honor itspledge either to pardon Ikani or substantially reduce his sentence intheevent of his full cooperation. Bahram Ikani was executed on November 4,1989, the 10th anniversary of the seizure of the US Embassy (dubbed the“denof spies”) in Tehran. Badly bruised by its catastrophic failure, the CIA embarked on adifferenttrack, focusing far less on recruiting “agents” than developing as wideabase of contacts and informants as possible. Aside from reflecting theresults of a “trial and error” process, this change of approach wasmoreconversant with shifting political and strategic priorities. By 1990 the US government had given up all hope that the IslamicRepubliccould be significantly weakened (let alone overthrown) throughintelligence-led subversion. The priority now was to develop along-termintelligence profile on Iran by using more subtle and less conventionalmeans. To recruit Iranians in western Europe (who have easier access to theirhomeland than fellow expatriates in North America), innocuous-sounding“consultancies” were set up in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Thework ofthese “consultancies” has been massively boosted by the spread of theInternet andelectronic-mail communication from the mid-1990s onward. The “consultancies” in question would not just deal with political,economicand military matters, but often they would request information on theIranian education and health systems and even such unlikely spheres ofactivity as town planning, architecture and the construction industry.Thekey point is matching the requested information to the profession,skillsand social network of the target. In many instances, the informationitselfis of little or no value; what is important is to cultivate the target-make him or her develop the habit of volunteering information - andultimately task him or her to facilitate access to important centers ofknowledge and power inside Iran. The trick is to make the target feel like a “consultant” rather than an“informant” or “agent”. Very often the CIA has minimal contact with thetarget. The relationships are handled by subcontractors, and the CIAonlyassumes direct control when the target is either beginning to produceintelligence-quality information (or breaching the “CX” threshold, asit isknown in British intelligence) or has managed to secure access to people who can. At this stage, it is difficult to assess the extent of this approach’ssuccesses and failures. What is beyond doubt is that hundreds (possiblythousands) of Iranian expatriates in western Europe, North America andtheMiddle East have been effectively recruited by the CIA (and other USintelligence agencies) without their knowledge. Broadly speaking, thesepeople are highly educated and often come from the very top of theirprofessions; which ranges from medicine, engineering and the law tomorepolitically oriented careers such as journalism and political andmilitaryanalysis. The great majority of these people are apolitical, and they certainlydo notfit the profile of Iranians who have any axes to grind against theIslamicRepublic. Moreover, these activities are not directly tied to the moreovertly political programs that the US government has promoted inrecentyears, such as allocating tens of millions of dollars to promoting“democracy” in Iran and organizing workshops for Iranian journalistsandnon-governmental activists in western Europe and Dubai. This “consultancy”-led approach is certainly the gravest intelligencethreatto Iran. It presents a danger to the Islamic Republic because in itsindividual constituent parts it appears innocuous and sometimes evencompatible with Iranian interests. But in reality it is an insidiousthreatthat has the potential to outsmart and overwhelm Iraniancounterintelligence. The central challenge facing Iranian authorities is how to manage theblurring of legitimate academic research and consulting activities fromthose that are controlled by US and other Western intelligence servicesandwhich - at the very least - do not have the best interests of the country at heart. It is a formidable challenge and - aside from strengthening traditionalcounterintelligence assets - it requires innovative solutions. In thefirstinstance, the Iranian authorities ought to consider a “Freedom ofInformation Act” or something similar. At the moment no suchlegislationexists, and this works to the detriment of genuine academic researchersandjournalists. Not knowing what information is classified and what isn’t (and,equally important, on what grounds) is terribly confusing and promotesaculture of abuse by the intelligence services and the judicialauthorities. By creating a more open information society, the Iranian governmentwouldlessen the incentive for Western intelligence services to recruitindividualIranians (with all the exploitation and dangers that entails) to accessinformation that they cannot obtain through other means. Some of theinformation that the Americans seek on Iran is publicly available inmostWestern and some Eastern countries. This approach would have the addedadvantage of freeing up counterintelligence assets to detect anddisruptmore serious US and other Western espionage activities in Iran. Moreover, the country’s media and academic laws (both at constitutionalandprofessional levels) are now seriously out of step with the developmentofIran’s vibrant information society, composed of independentjournalists,intrepid academics, private consultancies, private investigators andfreelance industrial spies, bloggers, and no fewer than 10,000non-governmental organizations. The state no longer has any firmcontrol onquality information, and it is about time it recognized this fact. In recent years there has even been a proliferation of privatedetectiveagencies in Iran, investigating anything from extramarital affairs tofraudby company employees. And this is despite the fact that the nationalparliament (Majlis) refuses to pass a law that would legalize theactivitiesof such organizations. Proper recognition for the country’s expanding private informationsocietywould constitute the first step in revising a set of entrenchedattitudestoward what does and doesn’t constitute intelligence. While this wouldlikely lessen political tensions with the West, it is unlikely todecreasemore conventional and sensitive Western intelligence operations inIran.