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U.S. intelligence activities in Iran

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The United States intelligence community has had extensive involvement with Iran, as a target and partner. General U.S. policy toward Iran needs to be evaluated through several filters:

  • As a buffer to Russia
    • As a base for technical intelligence collection on the Soviet Union
  • After 1979, relations about the Islamic Revolution from the U.S. side, remembering that the Iranians still are angry about the US and UK-sponsored 1953 coup, Operation Ajax, against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh
  • In more recent times, the reality about nuclear programs and involvement in post-invasion Iraq, and the domestic political vs. the objective threat assessment of the complex relations between Iran and transnational groups. Given Iran has a very complex power structure, both the positions of those groups and of assorted government spokesmen with Israel have nuances to be understood before predicting.

Background

Iran (then called Persia) was heavily affected by the Great Game played out between British and Russian intelligence in the 19th Century. Persia itself was never taken over, but it was heavily influenced by both sides and parts of the old Persian Empire did come under control of foreign powers; the British were heavily involved in Afghanistan and Russia took control of much of Central Asia. At one point there was a small Anglo-Persian War, the British blocking Persian attempts to expand into Afghanistan. During the First World War, Britain and Russia jointly took over the country.

In the 1920s, an army officer engineered a coup against the weak Qazar Dynatsy and took the name Reza Shah, founding a new Pahlavi Dynasty. His rule was quite nationalistic; he changed the country's name from "Persia" to "Iran" (from the same root as "aryan") and built a strong military. It was also quite authoritarian; he built a powerful secret police and a propaganda apparatus, and did not hesitate to crush dissent. He also made considerable efforts toward modernisation, and came into conflict with conservatives over some of it.

When the Second World War came, Reza Shah refused Allied demands for guarantees that Iran would resist if German forces got that far. Iran was then invaded by Anglo-Indian forces from the South and Russians from the North, and a railway built (originally by the British, later taken over and upgraded by US army engineers) to bring supplies from the Gulf across Iran to beleaguered Russia. Reza Shah went off to exile in South Africa, abdicating on the steps of the airplane in favour of his son.

The son, Mohammad Shah, continued his father's nationalistic, authoritarian and modernising tendencies. However, coming to power in 1941, he had a problem; he needed powerful friends, but who? Given the history, no sane Iranian ruler would choose Britain or Russia. Being pro-German had not worked out well for dad and, in 1941, France did not count for much. That left the Americans.

Mohammad Shah became one of America's most important allies in the region, seen as a "bulwark against Communism", a constitutional monarch, in some ways a progressive ruler — modernising, sometimes comparing himself to Kemal Ataturk who led Turkey's modernisation — and a protector of US and other Western interests. He was one of very few Middle Eastern rulers to extend diplomatic recognition to Israel and helped prevent Iranian nationalisation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. On the other hand, he was quite capable of putting Iranian interests before Western ones, as when he was one of the key players in creating OPEC.

While in some ways progressive, the Shah was also very much the oriental despot. Throughout his reign, his Savak secret police stomped hard on any opposition. His regime was also massively corrupt, with his relatives and various others getting hugely rich while much of the country was very poor. On the other hand, he did build infrastructure and start various projects to benefit the poor, including a program that sent new university graduates into the countryside as teachers.

Azerbaijan 1946

When the Soviets left Northwestern Iran after the war, they left behind something that claimed to be an independent government in the Iranian province of Azerbaijan, of course communist. The first major conflict of the Cold War came as the Shah, advised by the CIA, brought in troops (mainly Baluchis from the other side of the country) who thoroughly crushed that government and the communist party (Tudeh in Persian).

Iran 1952

Britain, resentful of the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry, came up with the idea for the coup in 1952 and pressed the U.S. to mount a joint operation to remove the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh[1] and install the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to rule Iran in a way more responsive to Western influence. Partially due to fear of a Communist overthrow due to increasing influence of the Communist Tudeh party, and partly to gain control of a larger share of Iranian oil supplies, the US agreed. Brigadier General Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr. and CIA operations officer Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. were ordered to begin a covert operation to overthrow Mossadegh. A complex plot, codenamed Operation Ajax, was conceived and executed from the US Embassy in Tehran. Full details of the operation were released fifty years later, in 2003. Britain, who previously had controlled all of the Iranian oil industry, lost its monopoly and allowed U.S. oil companies to compete in Iran.

Iran 1953

Operation Ajax was executed, a tactical success but strategically questioned, and removed Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh The United States and the West backed the Shah's regime. Although it did much to develop the country economically, the Shah's government also repressed political dissent.

Iran 1957

The CIA and Mossad helped form and train SAVAK, the internal security apparatus of the Shah. The CIA provided SAVAK with lists of Communists who the Savak either imprisoned or executed. [2][3]

Iran 1975

The CIA worked with the Mossad and SAVAK to covertly support uprisings of Iraqi Kurds in 1975 to destabilize Pre-Saddam Iraq.[3][4]

Iran 1979

According to Tim Weiner, the CIA was surprised by the flight of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, for the U.S. on 16 January 1979[5] Because the Shah had neutralized or assassinated all of his moderate political opposition, when the Shah was finally overthrown in 1979, it was by extreme Islamic fundamentalists. Former CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner had poor intelligence of the Islamist revolution of 1979 in Iran as "It was a big gap in CIA coverage." Consequently the CIA engaged in numerous covert operations in an attempt to maintain control.[3][2]

A significant number of classified documents were captured when Iranians seized the U.S. Embassy. That seizure also put the CIA station out of operation. Six U.S. diplomats, at the time of the seizure, had taken refuge in the Canadian Embassy. Under Ambassador Ken Taylor, Canada kept its own intelligence interests, but it was reported, in 2010, that it supported U.S. operations and made information available to the U.S. According to the Globe and Mail Prime Minister of Canada Joe Clark accepted a request from President Jimmy Carter on 30 November 1979, to which Taylor agreed, saying “I saw this [the hostage-taking] as something that wasn't right. Anything in a modest way that I could contribute … looking for some sort of solution to this, I was quite prepared to do. I felt strongly about it. And I felt we could get away with it. They weren't going to catch us.”[6] The U.S. sent agents who helped collect information for the abortive Operation EAGLE CLAW hostage rescue attempt.

Iran 1984

Beginning in August 1984, a small group within the US government, in the Iran-Contra affair, arranged for the indirect transfer of arms to Iran, as a means of circumventing the Boland Amendments that were intended, in part, to prevent the expenditure of US funds to support the Nicaraguan Contras. Since the arms-for-hostages deal struck by the Reagan Administration channeled money for to the Contras, the legal interpretation of the time was that the CIA, as an organization, could not participate in Iran-Contra.

The relationships, first to avoid the Boland Amendment restriction, but also for operational security, did not directly give or sell U.S. weapons to Iran. Instead, the Reagan Administration authorized Israel to sell munitions to Iran, using contracted Iranian arms broker Manucher Ghorbanifar.[7] The proceeds from the sales, less the 41% markup charged by Ghorbanifar and originally at a price not acceptable to Iran, went directly to the Contras. Those proceeds were not interpreted as U.S. funds. The Administration resupplied Israel, which was not illegal, with munitions that replaced those transferred to Iran.

While Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) William Casey was deeply involved in Iran-Contra, Casey, a World War II Office of Strategic Services (OSS) clandestine operations officer, ran the Iran operation with people outside the CIA, such as White House/National Security Council employees such as John Poindexter and Oliver North, as well as retired special operations personnel such as John K. Singlaub and Richard Secord

Iran 2000

In a speech on 17 March 2000 before the American Iranian Council on the relaxation of U.S. sanctions against Iran, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said: "In 1953, the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran's popular prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons, but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs."[8]

Iran 2005

Intelligence analysis

Iran was described as a problem area in Porter Goss' early 2005 report to the Senate Intelligence Committee.[9] "In early February, the spokesman of Iran's Supreme Council for National Security publicly announced that Iran would never scrap its nuclear program. This came in the midst of negotiations with EU-3 members (Britain, Germany and France) seeking objective guarantees from Tehran that it will not use nuclear technology for nuclear weapons.

"Previous comments by Iranian officials, including Iran's Supreme Leader and its Foreign Minister, indicated that Iran would not give up its ability to enrich uranium. Certainly they can use it to produce fuel for power reactors. We are more concerned about the dual-use nature of the technology that could also be used to achieve a nuclear weapon.

"In parallel, Iran continues its pursuit of long-range ballistic missiles, such as an improved version of its 1,300 km range Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), to add to the hundreds of short-range SCUD missiles it already has.

"Even since 9/11, Tehran continues to support terrorist groups in the region, such as Hizballah, and could encourage increased attacks in Israel and the Palestinian Territories to derail progress toward peace. Iran reportedly is supporting some anti-Coalition activities in Iraq and seeking to influence the future character of the Iraqi state. Iran continues to retain in secret important members of Al-Qai'ida-the Management Council--causing further uncertainty about Iran's commitment to bring them to justice.

"Conservatives are likely to consolidate their power in Iran's June 2005 presidential elections, further marginalizing the reform movement last year."

Iran 2006

Seymour Hersh reported that Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PEJAK) was a US proxy. Hersh said he was told, in November 2006, by a government consultant with close ties to the Pentagon civilian leadership of secret US support for PEJAK for operations inside Iran, stating that the group had been given “a list of targets inside Iran of interest to the U.S.”.[10]

Iran 2007

In a nonbinding resolution of the Iranian parliament, the United States Army and the CIA has been labeled a terrorist organization by the Iranian parliament, partly for its activities in the "war on terror" such as its treatment of suspected Muslim militants in prisons. The resolution appeared to be in response to the U.S. designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Artesh regular military as terrorist organizations.[11]

There are probable American contacts with ethnic separatists in Iran, for a number of reasons, including counterterrorism, pressuring the Iranian government through covert action, and clandestine human-source intelligence collection.

Iranian ethnic minorities against the government

."The operations are controversial because they involve dealing with movements that resort to terrorist methods in pursuit of their grievances against the Iranian regime. Such incidents have been carried out by the Kurds in the west, the Azeris in the north-west, the Ahwazi Arabs in the south-west, and the Baluchis in the south-east. Non-Persians make up nearly 40 per cent of Iran's 69 million population, with around 16 million Azeris, seven million Kurds, five million Ahwazis and one million Baluchis. Most Baluchis live over the border in Pakistan.

"Tehran has long claimed to detect the hand of both America and Britain in attacks by guerrilla groups on its internal security forces. Last Monday, Iran publicly hanged a man, Nasrollah Shanbe Zehi, for his involvement in a bomb attack that killed 11 Revolutionary Guards in the city of Zahedan in Sistan-Baluchistan. [12]

...Iranian forces also claimed to have killed 17 rebels described as "mercenary elements" in clashes near the Turkish border, which is a stronghold of the Pejak, a Kurdish militant party linked to Turkey's outlawed PKK Kurdistan Workers' Party.

"John Pike, the head of the Global Security think tank in Washington, said: "The activities of the ethnic groups have hotted up over the last two years and it would be a scandal if that was not at least in part the result of CIA activity."

"Such a policy is fraught with risk, however. Many of the groups share little common cause with Washington other than their opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose regime they accuse of stepping up repression of minority rights and culture. The Baluchistan-based Jundallah (Brigade of God)(TYYT group, which last year kidnapped and killed eight Iranian soldiers, is a volatile Sunni organization that many fear could easily turn against Washington after taking its money.

"A row has also broken out in Washington over whether to "unleash" the military wing of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), an Iraq-based Iranian opposition group with a long and bloody history of armed opposition to the Iranian regime. The group is currently listed by the US state department as a terrorist organization, but Mr Pike said: "A faction in the Defence Department wants to unleash them. They could never overthrow the current Iranian regime but they might cause a lot of damage."[12]

An Asia Times report states the U.S. has military units operating inside Iran.[13]

Baluchi guerrillas in Iran

According to ABC news, citing U.S. and Pakistani intelligence sources, U.S. officials have been encouraging and advising a Pakistani Baluchi militant group named Jundullah that is responsible for a series of deadly guerrilla raids inside Iran, reported ABC News online. The Jundullah militants "stage attacks across the border into Iran on Iranian military officers, Iranian intelligence officers, kidnapping them, executing them on camera," This militant group is led by a leader, Abd el Malik Regi, sometimes known as "Regi." The U.S. provides no direct funding to the group, which would require an official presidential order or "presidential finding" as well as congressional oversight. A CIA spokesperson said "the account of alleged CIA action is false".[14]

According to the Christian Science Monitor, Jundallah, or "God's Brigade," composed of predominantly Sunni Muslim Baluchis which inhabits Pakistan's gas-rich province of Baluchestan, as well as neighboring regions in Iran and Afghanistan.[15]

Regi was also claimed by Iran to be associated with al-Qaeda which the group denies. Hossein Ali Shahriari, the representative from Zahedan in Parliament, said the attack had been carried out by “insurgents and smugglers who are led by the world imperialism,” a common reference to the United States and Britain.[16]

MEK support

The PBS documentary series "Frontline," reported, in October 2007, CIA supports Anti-Iranian organizations such as the People's Mujahedin of Iran (also known as the MEK or MKO) which has been involved in terrorist activities within Iran. Iran has demanded that the US stop supporting the MEK in exchange for stopping it's support of Shiite's in Iraq.[17] The show quoted Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival as saying the Iranians had hoped that the fall of Saddam would destroy the MEK, which is generally unpopular in Iraq...the MEK operated in Iraq as an arm of Iraqi intelligence against Iranian operatives in Iraq, against Shi'ites and against the Kurds. And, in fact, one of the major pressures on the United States to round up the MEK and put them in a camp did not come from Iran; it came from [Iraqi President] Jalal Talabani.... And I think at a third level the Iranians look at the MEK issue as a test of U.S. goodwill...."

Richard Armitage disagreed that MEK was being supported. "Richard Armitage, U.S. deputy secretary of state, 2001-05, said... "I've heard through some interviews that in some of the discussions leading up to the invasion that Ryan Crocker had said to the Iranians that the MEK would be treated as part of Saddam's army, the implication being [it would be] on a target list, which wasn't exactly what happened after the war.

"I don't know about that specifically, but we had discussed the MEK more pointedly after the invasion. And there were some in the administration who wanted to use the Mujahideen-e Khalq as a pressure point against Iran, and I can remember the national security adviser, Dr. [Condoleezza] Rice, being very specific about it, saying no, a terrorist group is a terrorist group.

"That was exactly the point of view of the State Department as well. We wanted the U.S. military to disarm the MEK and contain them. ... And eventually we did disarm the major weapons [from] the MEK. Then we ... engaged in a broad effort to try to resettle these people, but we were very unsuccessful in getting them settled in foreign lands...."

Iran 2008

Covert action

There have been continuing, but unconfirmed, reports that the U.S. has been indirectly funding the Jundallah group through subsidies to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), possibly driven by Vice President Dick Cheney. ISI, however, is not of one mind about anti-Iranian activities. It has been suggested, by Seymour Hirsh among others, that these subsidies, if they exist, may be going through the Joint Special Operations Command of the United States Special Operations Command, Department of Defense. Some interpretations of the covert action oversight rules with Congress suggest that while a Presidential Finding and notification of the key 8 members of Congress may be necessary for CIA activities, such a Finding and notification is not necessary for military special operations forces, especially if the activity is termed "preparing the battlefield."

Kevin Drum, of the Washington Monthly, wrote that Jundallah is actually a "franchise" of al-Qaeda, and the U.S. is funding it because of greater concern with Iran than al-Qaeda. [18]

Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper, said that Pakistan is handing over Jundallah members to Iran, as part of a Iran-Pakistan security agreement. [19] On 1 July 2008, Iran's Prosecutor General warned Pakistan not to support Jundallah, according to Iranian Television Press, suggesting Pakistan may be less than unanimous about Jundallah. [20]

Hirsh wrote that the Iranian media report an increase in violence in Iran, probably by ethnic minorities, although there is no real way to tell if these minorities (e.g., the Baluchi Jundallah) are directly or indirectly being funded by the U.S., and, if so, via CIA or JSOC. [21] Hirsh cited retired Air Force colonel and National War College lecturer Sam Gardiner as saying the controlled Iranian press “is very open in describing the killings going on inside the country, ...Hardly a day goes by now we don’t see a clash somewhere. There were three or four incidents over a recent weekend, and the Iranians are even naming the Revolutionary Guard officers who have been killed.” Hirsh indicated that U.S. personnel may not be doing this directly, but that funded dissidents may be less controllable than U.S. covert operators.

He quoted Vali Nasr, a faculty member at Tufts University and is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Just because Lebanon, Iraq, and Pakistan have ethnic problems, it does not mean that Iran is suffering from the same issue,; Iran is an old country—like France and Germany—and its citizens are just as nationalistic. The U.S. is overestimating ethnic tension in Iran.” The minority groups that the U.S. is reaching out to are either well integrated or small and marginal, without much influence on the government or much ability to present a political challenge, Nasr said. “You can always find some activist groups that will go and kill a policeman, but working with the minorities will backfire, and alienate the majority of the population.”

Hirsh also said Robert Baer, a former Clandestine Services officer in the region, and vocal CIA critic, who worked for nearly two decades in South Asia and the Middle East, told me. “The Baluchis are Sunni fundamentalists who hate the regime in Tehran, but you can also describe them as Al Qaeda...These are guys who cut off the heads of non-believers—in this case, it’s Shiite Iranians. The irony is that we’re once again working with Sunni fundamentalists, just as we did in Afghanistan in the nineteen-eighties.” Hirsh pointed out that both Ramzi Yousef, convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused of being a key planner of the 9-11 Attack, are Baluchi Sunni fundamentalists.

References

  1. (16 April 2000) Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran. The New York Times. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ostrovsky, Victor (1990). By Way of Deception: The Making and Unmaking of a MOSSAD officer. St. Martin's Press. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Dreyfuss, Robert (2006). Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. Holt. 
  4. Morris, Benny (1994). Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services. Grove Press. 
  5. Weiner, Tim (2007). Legacy of Ashes. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-51445-3. 
  6. Michael Valpy (25 March 2010), "Canada's man in Tehran was a CIA spy", Globe and Mail
  7. Walsh, Lawrence (04 August 1993). Vol. I: Investigations and prosecutions. Final report of the independent counsel for Iran/Contra matters. Independent Counsel appointed by the United States Department of Justice.
  8. Alexander's Gas and Oil Connection: Speeches
  9. Goss, Porter (16 February 2005), Global Intelligence Challenges 2005
  10. Hersh, Seymour M. (November 20, 2006), "The Next Act", The New Yorker
  11. Associated Press (29 September 2007), "Iran: CIA, U.S. Army ‘terrorist organizations’: Lawmakers in Tehran take a diplomatic offensive against Washington", MSNBC
  12. 12.0 12.1 "US funds terror groups to sow chaos in Iran", Telegraph, 25 February 2007
  13. Bhadrakumar, M K (February 24, 2007), "Foreign devils in the Iranian mountains", Asia Times
  14. ABC News Exclusive: The Secret War Against Iran, April 3, 2007
  15. O'Carroll, (April 05, 2007), "US backing 'secret war' against Iran? The CIA disputes a report linking Washington and a Pakistani guerrilla campaign against Tehran.", Christian Science Monitor
  16. "Car bomb in Iran destroys a bus carrying Revolutionary Guards", The New York Times, 15 February 2005
  17. "Showdown with Iran: the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK)", PBS Frontline, October 23, 2007
  18. Drum, Kevin (April 2008), "Strange Bedfellows", Washington Monthly
  19. "Four Jundallah men handed over to Iran", Dawn, June 15, 2008
  20. "Iran cautions Pakistan over Jundallah", Iranian Press TV, 01 Jul 2008
  21. Hersh, Seymour M. (29 June,2008), "Preparing The Battlefield", The New Yorker