I am sure many have seen Iran’s loudly trumpeted proclamation regarding their breaking yet another U.S. spy ring in their country.
As usual with the Islamic Republic’s proclamations, there is less here than meets the eye. This press release seems to be a rehash of an earlier reported spy capture, and even echoes similar announcements by Iran almost a year ago. The President’s and Secretary of State’s assertions are almost certainly true.
It’s always important to look at international context when authoritarian regimes like Iran make “spy” announcements. Not coincidentally, the same weekend Iran made this announcement, there aired a “documentary” on Iranian State TV about the U.S. spy threat, including hidden camera footage of a reported U.S. Intel Officer in the Emirates. In a new wrinkle, Iran also put out screenshots from individual’s social media pages it claimed were U.S. Intelligence officers.
This illustrates some of the modern CI challenges that confront Western intel officers — although I did not maintain a social media presence in my ops career, this is virtually impossible in 2019. From a Operational Cover standpoint, it would even be considered suspicious now to not have a social media presence — and thus Intel Officers have some vulnerability here. This is further compounded by treacherous defectors like former USAF airman Monica Witt who turned over names of her former colleagues to the Iranians. See my article on this intel disaster here.
The Elephant in the room, however, during all of the talk of “Spy Wars” between Iran and the United States, is current U.S. Sanctions and the War of Nerves now occurring in the Arabian Gulf. Iran has breached its 300 kg Uranium stockpile agreed to under the JCPOA, launched further medium range missiles, to say nothing of the recent tanker attacks/seizures which have even put the Europeans, especially Great Britain, at the forefront of crisis.
The Iranian Mullah’s recent actions, as contradictory and unpredictable as they are, come from a position of weakness, not strength. They see in Trump a President who has not faltered, nor ignored too-casual "red lines" —and the Regime is becoming increasingly alarmed at this new steely U.S. resolve.
The President, true to his campaign promises of creating “strategic uncertainty,” is further confounding the mullahs due to his reluctance to use force. The cancelled airstrike deprived Iran of what it has traditionally relied upon: a western “pinprick” attack that could be exploited by a friendly world press and used as a rallying cry to draw reluctant Iranians around the despised Mullahs. For months, trying to enlist European aid to work around the SWIFT Banking System, the Iranians now seem to believe they can threaten Europe into action with tanker seizures. These are not the actions of a calculating Persian leadership, but instead the lashing out of a cur backed into a corner.
Which brings us back to the Spy Wars. Iran, as well as the Chinese, Russians, and North Koreans have always masterminded Counterintelligence and “Dangle” operations which they then put in their pocket to use at a future date for maximum political effect.
Communists are famous for “revealing” Spy Rings in the middle of International Negotiations or Crises — the better to play the “victim card” and to strengthen their negotiating position. The revelation of the Powers U-2 shootdown during the Khruschev-Eisenhower Summit is only the best known example.
Authoritarian Regimes will wait months to publicize their arrests of “Western Spies” to score this impact — to draw international sympathy, humiliate an opponent or at least to deflect attention from their own espionage operations or other international embarrassments. If the Mullahs or Kims of the world haven’t caught any legitimate spies, they can manufacture them — as members of the Great Leader’s family or witnesses at Stalin’s Spy Trials can attest. “Espionage” and “Counterrevolutionary Activities” are great charges to bring against potential rivals…. A Regime that can blame its failures on western spies never has to say it’s sorry!
Brutal Authoritarian regimes are genetically obsessed with spies. In a paranoid culture where most everything is classified — almost anyone sharing information can be regarded as a potential spy.
Although Iranian Counterintelligence is concerned about sensitive political, military, and economic Secrets leaking to the West, the Mullahs are more concerned that an act of spying indicates disobedience and defiance of the Regime. This is their Prime Concern — espionage as a symptom of disobedience — less important is the actual damage to national security (if any). A sentence of death is often meted out — as in this case — and often regardless of the intel provided the West (again — if any).
Much as authoritarian intelligence agencies are primarily concerned with Regime Protection and Suppression of Internal Dissent (NOT true “National Security”) — so their Counterintelligence is all about Control of the Population. China’s new “Dangerous Love” CI campaign against foreign personal relationships is just another tool to control its population — and wouldn’t be out of place in either Tehran or Moscow.
Iran Hopes that its “Spy Wars” press releases and TV “documentaries" will help discourage Civil disobedience and espionage, by showing that the state is omnipresent and that justice is swift. Looking at this from the opposite viewpoint, should Iran overplay its espionage paranoia, it might lead the Iranian people to believe the Regime is tottering — inadvertently encouraging espionage as a way of ensuring one has a chair when the music has stopped. Too many documentaries and “news bulletins” might impress Iranians that “Everybody’s Doing It.” I can only hope for such a spectacular backfire!
Donald Trump is a boon to CIA recruitment of Iranians. The President's firm Iran policy, and the Mullahs' panicked, flailing actions, emboldens freedom loving Iranians (and there are many of them!) to come forward and work for the CIA — as they realize the Regime is going down. Many Iranians employed in the intel, military and nuclear spheres don't want to be left on the SS Titanic — and so will seek to cooperate against the hated Regime.
President and Pompeo are right. This spy roundup is almost certainly exaggerated.
Iranians claimed that they had broken a "cyber espionage network" — actually internet based common systems used by CIA to communicate with their agents in Iran. All CIA recruitment of Iranians to spy is done outside of Iran — the UAE, Europe... and even neighboring countries like Azerbaijan — where I was CIA Deputy.
Iranian rehash of this "incident" is from the Russia/China authoritarian handbook. Iran wants to make an example of these unfortunates — or create them from whole cloth — in an attempt to intimidate their own people. They also are trying to strike up international sympathy by playing the "U.S. is warring against poor Iran" card.
Scott Uehlinger is a retired CIA Station Chief and Naval Officer. A Russian speaker, he spent 12 years of his career abroad in the former Soviet Union. In addition to teaching at NYU, he is a frequent Newsmax TV and Fox Business TV commentator. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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