Iran delivers major blow to the CIA
By Mahan Abedin
Iran's claim last week to have arrested 12 spies working for the United States
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is potentially a major blow to American
intelligence-gathering efforts in Iran and to American intelligence generally.
The arrests come on the heels of the arrest of 30 alleged CIA spies in late May
and are indicative of steadily improving counter-intelligence capabilities.
The recent success is reinforced by the unraveling of a CIA spy ring in Lebanon
operating within the Hezbollah organization. These reports have been grudgingly
confirmed by current and former US intelligence officials, which is suggestive
of a major American intelligence defeat, if not a full-blown disaster.
Recent Hezbollah counter-intelligence successes against Israel and the US (in
June, Hezbollah arrested two CIA spies operating inside the organization) are
at least in part due to increased
counter-intelligence assistance from Iran.
Asia Times Online sources in Tehran claim that Iran's Ministry of Intelligence
and Security (MOIS) has been more willing in recent years to transfer sensitive
counter-espionage know-how and techniques to both Hezbollah and the official
Lebanese intelligence services.
Regarding the arrest of 12 alleged CIA spies by Iran, aside from the clear
indication of escalating American intelligence operations, there are two
outstanding observations. First, the CIA is operating a lower threshold of
quality control in terms of agent recruitment and management. Second, there are
signs that the MOIS is moving steadily in the direction of making Iran a
forbidding space for hostile foreign intelligence services.
Information from a wide range of Iranian media - and corroborated by ATol
sources in Tehran - is suggestive of a scatter-gun approach by the CIA inasmuch
as the agency is targeting virtually any Iranian citizen it believes could
potentially provide useful information on the CIA's target set.
While there were media reports that some government "managers" were amongst the
suspected CIA spies arrested in May, this time around Iran's intelligence
minister, Heydar Moslehi, told local journalists on Sunday that there were no
government officials amongst the 12 suspected spies.
Speaking on the fringes of the government's weekly cabinet meeting, Moslehi
gave strong indications that most, if not all, of the latest arrested suspected
spies were either junior Iranian scientists or students who frequently
travelled overseas as part of their studies or official scientific work.
Information gleaned from a wide range of Iranian media over the past six months
- and confirmed by ATol sources in Tehran - appears to indicate that besides
the high-value targets such as the nuclear program and the country's defense
establishment, the CIA's target set includes Iran's banking and financial
sector; logistics and transportation networks (particularly air
transportation); town planning; the oil and gas sector; and the software
industry, particularly private companies that design and operate specialist
software for the Iranian government.
More specifically, the CIA appears to be focussed on how Iran is defeating
international and unilateral US and European sanctions; how and to what extent
Iran is using the international financial system to advance its critical
projects as well as its ordinary day-to-day business; the vulnerabilities of
Iran's transportation and logistics network; the level of preparedness by
Iranian emergency and humanitarian relief organizations; and more generally the
resilience of critical Iranian infrastructure in the face of a major disaster
or a prolonged period of national stress, such as a military conflict.
To achieve its objectives, the CIA's National Clandestine Service (NCS) has set
up a dedicated team of operatives and analysts who operate primarily from
countries bordering Iran, but also further afield, particularly in countries
with sizeable numbers of Iranian students, such as Malaysia.
This dedicated network is exceptionally well-trained, for example all the
operatives and analysts possess a masterful command of the Persian language and
display high levels of inter-cultural competence.
Early indications appear to suggest that the CIA started to develop this
dedicated network in 2003 and that most of the elements were in place by the
middle of 2008. This makes the MOIS' recent counter-intelligence success an
even more remarkable achievement, in so far as Iranian counter-intelligence may
have doomed the CIA's vast investment almost from the outset.
In the course of its investigations and specialized counter-espionage work, the
MOIS claims to have identified 42 officers of the CIA's NCS operating in
several countries and collected detailed information on the scope and nature of
The dedicated NCS team appears to be embedded within numerous official and
unofficial American organizations, including US embassies, multinational
corporations, medium-sized commercial organizations, recruitment consultancies,
immigration and wider legal services, academic and quasi-academic institutions
and reputable (ie longstanding) as well as newly set up thinktanks.
If accounts on online Iranian media are to be believed the focus on Iranian
scientists and students may have been this dedicated team's downfall. It has
been suggested that the 30-person network(s) unraveled earlier this year (and
announced in late May) was initially brought to the attention of the MOIS by a
patriotic Iranian student who had been approached by a quasi-academic
institution (offering grants and scholarships as a means of entrapment) in
The MOIS subsequently investigated the Malaysia-based institution and was able
to establish a clear CIA link, which in turn widened the scope of the
investigation and eventually netted 30 suspected spies.
It has been reported that 75% of the suspected spies detained this year had
higher education qualifications. At one level, this is suggestive of an
innovative CIA approach to entrap and recruit gifted Iranian scientists and
students with a view to collecting information on the target set in a short to
medium time frame.
However, the relative dearth of government officials - or in fact anyone with
access to classified or sensitive information - indicates a degree of CIA
desperation and an acceptance by the agency that it has to make do with lower
quality recruits and manage them to a shorter life span, in view of the agents'
lack of ready access to classified materials and the expectation that the MOIS
would catch up with them sooner rather than later.
It is also an indication that the most sensitive Iranian organizations (or at
least the higher reaches of these organizations) including the Islamic
Revolutionary Guards Corps and the wider defense establishment, are now either
free of American spies or at least more secure than before in the face of
determined American espionage efforts.
Furthermore, it can be argued that as the CIA widens and intensifies its agent
recruitment efforts it runs the long-term risk of making it more and more
difficult to operate inside Iran, in view of the MOIS' proven prowess at
penetrating American intelligence networks and learning the key secrets at the
heart of these conspiracies at a relatively early stage.
In summary, there appears to be a disparity between escalating CIA espionage
and the MOIS' growing counter-espionage resilience, with the latter steadily
gaining the upper hand.
But despite clear improvements in counter-espionage capabilities and protective
security measures, Iran is still some way away from making it prohibitively
costly for Western agencies to operate inside the country. Indeed, all the
major West European, North American and Israeli intelligence services are
either active inside Iran or work closely with some elements of the Iranian
Nevertheless, there are clear signs that in the pure intelligence war (as
opposed to sabotage) Iran is beginning to turn the tide.
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.
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