Iran ends 2011 with a blaze of intelligence
By Mahan Abedin
The appearance on Iranian state TV on Sunday of alleged Central Intelligence
Agency spy Amir Hekmati is yet another twist in a string of apparent Iranian
counter-intelligence successes at the expense of US espionage.
The 28-year old Arizona-born man of Iranian origin has been accused by Iran's
Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) of trying to feed disinformation
to the ministry with a view to gaining a foothold on the outer reaches of the
A former member of the United States Marines Corps, Hekmati was apparently
detained in September. News of his detention was released just days ago.
This apparent counter-intelligence success comes on the heels of the capture of
the ultra-secret US RQ-170 Sentinel drone in early
December. Iran claims that the country's electronic and cyber-warfare units
managed to gain control of the drone and forced it to land. Video footage shown
on Iranian TV - which appears to show the drone in immaculate condition -
support Iranian claims that the unmanned aerial vehicle was manipulated by
Iranian electronic and cyber-warfare specialists and directed to land safely.
These stunning achievements in the intelligence, electronic and cyber-warfare
fields are taking place against a backdrop of steadily deteriorating relations
between Iran and Western powers.
At the end of November, Iranian protestors attacked the UK embassy in Tehran,
setting off tit-for-tat embassy closures by the two countries. The attack on
the embassy may also be considered as an extension of the intelligence war
between Iran and the West in so far as the British mission in Tehran was a
major hub for the collection of an assortment of open source and classified
It appears that the Iranian government is determined to minimize the scope for
Western interference in parliamentary elections scheduled for early March 2012.
More broadly, the Islamic Republic appears to be mobilizing all of its
intelligence assets to withstand and ultimately defeat a widely anticipated
CIA in retreat
Information from a wide range of Iranian media and Asia Times Online sources in
Tehran suggest a complex operation by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
to introduce Amir Hekmati as a trusted source to the MOIS.
With previous combat experience in Afghanistan, Hekmati worked for a number of
contractors with suspected CIA connections following his departure from the
It is believed that he contacted the MOIS before he flew to Iran in late summer
ostensibly to visit his extended family. While Hekmati's approach was
unoriginal, his information was sufficiently strong to attract the attention of
Iranian intelligence. Nevertheless, it appears that he was suspected of being
an American intelligence asset from the outset.
It seems that the information supplied by Hekmati to the MOIS is a clever mix
of genuine intelligence, half-truths and bogus intelligence. Most of this
information centers on US military, intelligence and political operations in
While Iranian media, quoting intelligence sources, have identified Hekmati's
core mission as one centered on gaining the trust of the MOIS with a view to
setting up a penetration operation, the truth is likely much more complex.
For a start, "penetrating" the MOIS or even its most peripheral parts is
virtually an impossible task in view of the ministry's multiple layers of
robust defenses designed to defeat the most resourceful and deceptive of
unfriendly operatives, let alone an American citizen and a former marine.
From a purely conjectural point of view, it is more likely that the CIA was
attempting to identify - and subsequently manipulate - Iranian intelligence
collection priorities in Afghanistan. Hekmati's clever mix of genuine and bogus
intelligence, with the probable promise of a pipeline delivering the same type
of material over a prolonged period, points to that conjectural conclusion.
Hekmati's arrest follows a string of MOIS counter-intelligence successes at the
expense of the CIA and the wider American intelligence community. The
ministry's ability to repeatedly defeat the CIA's ever-innovative methods is
indicative of steadily improving counter-intelligence capabilities and
reinforces the MOIS's reputation as one of the major intelligence organizations
on the world stage.
The capture of the RQ-170 Sentinel, operated by the US Air Force on behalf of
the CIA, significantly adds to US woes by painting a credible picture of Iran
as a major counter-espionage, electronic and cyber-warfare hub.
The dramatic blow to US prestige was underscored by US President Barack Obama's
humiliating request for the return of the drone. In view of the circumstances
surrounding the drone's capture, this was a truly extraordinary request and one
that was gleefully dismissed by the Iranians.
The dramatic spike in CIA activity inside Iran in 2011 has reinforced the
Iranian leadership's conviction that the Western powers are set on a
confrontation and a possible military showdown with the Islamic Republic.
By the same token, the Iranian leadership is likely to use the recent
counter-intelligence victories to achieve three short- to medium-term
objectives. First and foremost, the political leadership in Tehran will direct
the MOIS to confront the CIA and other Western agencies with a view to
withstanding and ultimately defeating the strict sanctions regime imposed on
The dominant view in Tehran is that the sanctions regime will become even
harsher in 2012, possibly to the point of developing into an economic siege by
the end of the year. This scenario becomes likelier if the West decides to
boycott Iranian oil and gas exports.
Second, the Iranian leadership is keen to deny Western intelligence services
the opportunity to meddle in the March parliamentary elections. There is a fear
in Tehran that Western agencies - working directly and indirectly with radical
opposition elements - will try to incite riots and disorder, similar in style
if not scope to the ones that rocked the Iranian capital in June 2009 following
the disputed presidential elections.
The attack on the British embassy was likely partly motivated by this concern.
The British mission in Tehran has long been recognized as the most active hub
of Western intelligence-gathering inside Iran. Its closure denies the UK and
the US governments of a wide range of material, including street-level
Third, the Islamic Republic is likely to use the MOIS's stunning intelligence
and counter-intelligence successes to escalate the security environment that
was imposed following the disputed presidential elections of June 2009 and the
riots and disorders that followed.
While widely acknowledged as only a temporary solution, it is also felt across
every level of the Islamic Republic that the security climate is needed to
prepare the country for what increasingly looks like an inevitable
confrontation with the West.
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)