Iranian government agencies suspect that a small number of Western journalists are collaborating with Western intelligence agencies, particularly American, since Washington has no real diplomatic representation in Iran. This would make operational sense, since, as one intelligence official told me, there are probably Western media correspondents in Iran who know far more about the situation on the ground than do most intelligence agents put together. Moreover, spying under journalistic cover is one of the oldest tricks in the espionage book, and is routinely employed by intelligence organizations. The general suspicion that this places on journalists has prompted Iranian authorities to rough up or expel from the country numerous Western reporters. Iranian security officials also claim to have arrested some British passport holders, as well as “five European spies”, including “two German, one British and two French spies”. But these Iranian allegations, which led to the recent tit-for-tat expulsions of two British and two Iranian diplomats from Tehran and London respectively, remain unsubstantiated.
Far more important are Iranian charges of covert CIA support to armed Iranian anti-government groups operating mostly outside Iran. These groups include the Jundullah, an armed Baluchi separatist group based in Pakistan, which, according to ABC News, “has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials since 2005”. They also include the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), also known as the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran. This group, which operates on a peculiar mix of Marxist, feminist and Islamic ideology, participated in the 1979 ousting of the Shāh, but later splintered off from the Iranian revolutionary mainstream and began an armed war against Tehran. Even though Washington has designated the MEK a terrorist organization, since America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq it has actively “protected” MEK’s armed wing, and has even allowed it to maintain military training camps in Iraq. According to CNN, Washington’s reason for clandestinely backing an armed group it officially describes as terrorist is that the group has been “a source of valuable intelligence on Iran [by] helping expose Iran’s secret nuclear program through spying on Tehran for decades”. Additionally, the group “has been secretly helping the CIA run operations against the Islamic regime” from its Iraq hideout. The support for the two groups may be part of an extensive covert CIA plan of sabotage and disinformation in Iran that, as The New York Times claimed last January, was authorized by President Bush in early 2008 and was “hand[ed] off to President-elect Barack Obama”.
In reality, however, militant groups of the MEK variety are thus far having minimal impact on the wider Iranian reform movement, which is mostly non-sectarian, nonviolent and unarmed. Moreover, the reformists, who are drawn mostly from Iran’s educated elite, are acutely aware of the CIA’s less-than-honorable history of meddling in their country’s affairs, and are therefore unwilling to make connections with American —or British, for that matter— clandestine networks operating in the country. The CIA is thus forced to go out of its way to channel its material support to the reformists through diplomatic or intelligence connections operating on behalf of third countries, such as France, Spain or the Netherlands.
In terms of planning, the CIA is hoping that the violent crackdown of the protestors by the Iranian regime will further disenchant the reformist camp, thus warming up some of its members to the idea of collaborating with US intelligence networks. The Agency is also testing the waters in several foreign capitals to see whether the rumored split among the Iranian leadership has spread to Iranian diplomatic representations around the world. The ultimate prize, as far as CIA officials are concerned, would be some defections of senior Iranian diplomats or intelligence operatives stationed abroad.
An Observer Status
Ultimately, the CIA finds itself as unprepared for the recent events in Iran as its blemished intelligence record in the Middle East would suggest. It is currently more of an observer than a manager of developments, a state of affairs that can be blamed on the Agency’s organizational and structural deficiencies, including poor management and limited funding. Most of all, the roots of the CIA’s present obstacles in Iran date back to its ill-conceived and ill-advised adventurism in the developing world during the Cold War. It was essentially this adventurism, including the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mossadeq, which justifiably distanced the CIA from genuine popular movements in the Middle East and beyond. Like most of these movements, Iran’s reformists seek limited democratic restructuring, but do not in any way equate this with relinquishing control over their people’s national aspirations, be they economic-, defense-, or energy-related. For as long as Washington’s policy agenda remains incompatible with these national aspirations, the CIA will continue to find itself disconnected from genuine democratic movements in Iran and beyond.
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