Unlike popular American media pundits who often thrive on one-sided descriptions of current events, simple “yes” or “no” explanations are rarely uttered at the Central Intelligence Agency’s analytical desk. Opinions on world affairs at the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence (DI) tend to rely less on clear-cut absolutes and more on the fuzziness of frequency and statistical probability.

The recent developments in Iran are no exception. Virtually no one at the Agency is certain about who won the June 2009 presidential election. Several Iran monitors at the DI’s Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Analysis point to significant statistical irregularities[1] in official election results and argue that fraud was practiced on an enormous scale. Others cite independent pre-election surveys[2] as satisfactory evidence that the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad probably won, despite what some at the Agency describe as “overcompensating electoral deceit” by hardline elements in the Guardian Council.

If there is, however, a view that unites the vast majority of CIA Middle East analysts, it is that the ongoing upheaval in Iran is only loosely connected to the disputed election outcome. Most of the discontent expresses cultural, generational and class tensions that characterize Iranian society. Moreover, the CIA views the potential destabilization of Iranian political order as an opportunity to re-establish its shattered intelligence networks in a country that has repeatedly proven “nearly impervious to Western intelligence”[3].

More Like 1979 Than 1953

The CIA’s failure to foresee the massive demonstrations that shook Tehran in June falls well within the Agency’s shoddy Middle East intelligence record, which began with the 1948 Arab–Israeli War[4] and continued all the way to the 2003 Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” fiasco. The shock that CIA experts experienced last June upon hearing demonstrators cry “death to the dictator” in north Tehran, resembled the reaction of their colleagues 30 years ago, when Iranian anti-government groups ousted the CIA-backed regime of Mohammad Rezā Shāh. Just months before the American-installed Shāh escaped hurriedly to Egypt, the CIA’s assessment was that “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even pre-revolutionary situation”[5].

As late as June 29, 2009, Washington-based National Public Radio (NPR) was quoting US diplomats as saying that they “are getting plenty of reports but […] have no idea what’s going on” in Iran. On the same date, NPR quoted an embarrassed senior Obama administration official who admitted that government observers were “busily trying to understand how the opposition is generated and where it came from”, let alone attempting to steer it[6].

Admittedly, a major factor behind this most recent of the CIA’s intelligence shortcomings is Iran’s size and complexity. It is a multi-ethnic nation of over 70 million people living in the world’s 18th largest country, nearly seven times the size of the United Kingdom. Yet the failure lies mostly with the CIA’s inability to maintain its human intelligence networks in post-revolutionary Iran. Consequently, this is not 1953, when the CIA and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) were able to easily topple Iran’s nationalist Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammed Mossadeq. At that time, Western coup planners had three vital operational advantages in Iran: first, they had an extensive network of native agents, which they had maintained since at least World War II. Second, they had key operatives and ideological allies within Iran’s military establishment. Perhaps most important of all, they had a convenient and compliant replacement figurehead in the form of the Shāh.

Today, after more than thirty years of Islamist rule, Western allies in Iran’s military establishment have mostly evaporated, while the mass post-1979 exodus of the country’s Western-oriented elite has virtually shattered the CIA’s and MI6’s indigenous intelligence infrastructure. Furthermore, the tiny group of US intelligence agents operating on the ground in Iran is almost exclusively concerned with the Iranian nuclear program, which has near-monopolized Washington’s relations with Tehran for nearly a decade[6]. In contrast, few at the CIA have paid serious attention to the pro-democracy movement in Iran, which is traditionally viewed as weak, unreliable, and as suspicious and critical of US policies as the government in Tehran.

The Replacement Dilemma

Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is seen by many in the West as personifying the Iranian reform movement, perfectly illustrates the CIA’s replacement dilemma. The Agency maintains a voluminous intelligence file on this architect-turned-politician, who was Iran’s Prime Minister from 1981 to 1989. Mousavi is generally considered one of the most committed ideological supporters of the 1979 revolution[7]. Shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Mousavi personally appointed his right-hand aide, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi-Pur, Iran’s ambassador to Syria. It was Mohtashemi-Pur who, according to the US National Security Agency, oversaw the founding of Lebanese Hezbollah, and who helped orchestrate some of the group’s most spectacular military operations[8]. Former CIA agent Robert Baer, who operated for several years in Lebanon, believes that “Mousavi […] almost certainly had a hand in the planning of the Iranian-backed truck-bombing attacks on the US embassy in April 1983 and the Marine barracks in October of that same year”[7]. Later in the 1980s, it was Mousavi, along with another Iranian reformist, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who mediated between the US and Hezbollah during the guns-for-hostages stage of the Iran-Contra scandal[6].

Mousavi’s less-than-ideal background goes to show that, in Baer’s words, he “is far from the liberal democrat that many in the West would like to believe he is”. A more accurate description of Mousavi’s current dispute with the Iranian leadership is that of a “family feud”, as Israeli professor David Menashri has put it[9]. Mousavi is one of several feuding children of the Iranian revolution who are “now challenging its authority”, but are not opposed to the leadership of Iran’s clerical elite, nor do they propose radical shifts in the country’s strategic objectives, including its nuclear agenda[10].

Considering the above, it should hardly be surprising if many in the CIA prefer preserving the stability of Iran’s existing regime, rather than subverting it in favor of a new leadership that would maintain Iran’s nuclear ambitions while enjoying far broader popular support among Iranians. Representatives of Israel’s intelligence establishment, which has been somewhat more successful than the CIA in penetrating Iran’s security infrastructure, have actually argued publicly in favor of Ahmadinejad’s electoral success. Speaking on June 18 before the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Israeli Knesset, the director of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, said that “[i]f Mousavi had won [the elections], Israel would have a more serious problem because it would need to explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat. Mousavi is perceived internationally as a moderate element [compared to President Ahmadinejad]”[11].

What the CIA is Doing

The above does not mean that the CIA has remained inactive in the recent events in Tehran. Its connections with the reform movement inside the country remain minimal, but it has established significant ties with dissident Iranian individuals and groups in Europe and the US. It uses these ties to systematically feed news items of its choice to Iranian media abroad, many of which have a dedicated following inside Iran[11]. There are also limited CIA funds that find their way to Iranian opposition groups inside the country, or are offered as “anonymous” donations to Iranian political groups abroad, which maintain some grass roots support within Iran[6].