360° Analysis

Iran’s Spy Scandal Exposes the Regime’s Insecurity

A witch-hunt against real or imaginary spies is a sign of desperation in Iran’s ruling circles.
Iran news, Iran spy scandal, Iran CIA spies, Iran oil tanker attacks, US news, US-Iran relations, Donald Trump Iran policy, Iran nuclear program, Iran nuclear deal, Iran regime news

Statue of Ayatollah Khomeini, Tehran, Iran, 06/10/2018 © Rainer_81 / Shutterstock

July 25, 2019 13:23 EDT

On Monday, July 22, Iranian media reported the arrest of 17 alleged CIA assets, captured around facilities associated with the country’s nuclear program. Some of these individuals, although unnamed, have already been sentenced to death. It is not clear whether this group is connected to an alleged CIA spy ring broken up in June. The announcement comes in the midst of rising tensions between Iran and the United States, exacerbated by a series of steps by the Islamic Republic seen as aggressive and provocative by both Western and Gulf states.

After the US designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization in April, Iran threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow strategic international waterway essential for the passage of oil tankers from a number of Gulf countries that would have few and, in some cases, no other options for trade. In May, waivers on oil trade that the US had issues to eight countries, including Japan, South Korea, India and China, which had all been dependent on Iran for their supply, expired. With Iran remaining China’s primary oil supplier, after the expiration of waivers, Beijing defiantly refused to comply with the ban and engaged in smuggling activities. On July 23, the US sanctioned a Chinese company, Zhuhai Zhenrong Co., and its chief executive, Youmin Li, over the violations, but some officials have debated not enforcing the ban on China or issuing a new waiver.

In May, Norwegian, Emirati and Saudi oil tankers were attacked off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. While no one claimed responsibility, the United States and the UAE alleged that a “state actor” was behind those attacks. The incident was followed by a series of attacks by the Yemeni Iran-backed Houthi separatists and Iran-backed Iraqi militias against Saudi oil rigs, as well as civilian and military sites. While the war of words between Iran and the US escalated, more ships were attacked in June, including a Japanese tanker that was damaged by two “flying objects” as Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting Iran to mediate between Washington and Tehran.

This time, the United States, Saudi Arabia and others directly blamed Iran for the attacks, and the US produced evidence allegedly pointing to Iran’s participation in the operation that damaged the ships. The war of words between Tehran and Washington escalated, as did cyberattacks. By July, Iran claimed credit for a downed US drone, struck down in international airspace, as footage of its flight path released by the Pentagon shows. The US responded with a cyberstrike on the IRGC unit responsible for the operation, disabling its rockets. It also sanctioned Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s personal assets, and the Basij militia and other government-affiliated groups. The US also reported that it downed not one, but possibly two “provocative” Iranian drones involved in aggressive maneuvers, which Iran denied.


Undeterred by escalating sanctions, or even the increasing difficulties in exporting its oil, Iran resumed bellicose activity in the Gulf of Oman, diverting a number of tankers into its own waters, and encouraged Chinese boats to disable surveillance to facilitate smuggling. These and other episodes caused the US to up security in the region, bringing two destroyers, the Patriot system and B-52 bombers to the nearby Al Udeid base in Qatar, as well as pledging 1,000 troops to keep peace in the vicinity — 500 of which have been approved for relocation to Saudi Arabia.

The US has also attempted to expedite emergency arms deliveries to its Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but for now this measure has been blocked by US Congress. Those in foreign policy circles who support the Iran nuclear deal interpreted this chain of events as a push toward war either by Iran or by the White House, which would engulf the region and mean high costs in terms of both military equipment and personnel for the US side. This self-serving narrative was crafted by the unregistered pro-regime Iranian lobby in Washington, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), since the signing of the nuclear deal, presenting a false dichotomy between actions by the US that would serve in Iran’s interest — or war.

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The United States, for its part, has conducted itself with unusual restraint. US President Donald Trump has allegedly called off a military strike against IRGC targets because of the concern for human casualties. So far, the United States has failed to retaliate in any way for the repeated attacks against US targets in Iraq, constraining itself to combatting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Yemen, providing the Saudi-led coalition with logistical and intelligence assistance against the Houthis.

Likewise, despite tightening sanctions against Hezbollah, the United States has not pursued the armed group’s targets in Yemen, Africa or Latin America. It has also provided the Lebanese government with a supply of weapons despite the fact that Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the US government, holds a majority of seats in Lebanon’s parliament. The group is a major beneficiary of free advanced American weapons that in some case may have filtered to them via the Lebanese air force, and boasted of a number of Abrams tanks it captured from the Iraqi army.

In this context, Iran operates with knowledge that the United States is limited in its response by several factors. The central issue at the moment is that the United States is in the midst of a hotly contested election year, in which getting involved in either a major protracted conflagration or anything that could be perceived as a step in that direction will harm the administration’s chances. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, half of Americans expect a war with Iran “in the next few years.” Yet only a third of those polled want to see military action against Iran.

Other factors affecting the decision-making process include the political divide between the White House and Congress, particularly the Democrat-led House of Representatives. Furthermore, under the limelight are President Trump’s campaign promises to keep the US out of foreign conflicts and the general public distaste for US military interventionism. The sensationalist nature of he 24-hour media cycle adds to an impression of impending doom, even if in reality the tensions are fairly limited in scale and duration. The drama of the US being on the brink of war has been largely created to keep the US out of the Gulf, through a mass-scale psy-op of fearmongering.

How Iran Benefits

Given this context, the announcement of the capture of US spies likewise benefits Tehran in several ways. First, as such rumors go, it speaks to some extent to the internal weakness within the country and a paranoid atmosphere fueled by frequent mass protests across Iran, and not just by opposition activists. The level of dissatisfaction with the economic situation among the wider population, the regime’s recalcitrance in addressing grievances and the expenditures of any public funding toward foreign wars, terrorism and internal corruption are destabilizing and unnerving.

Nevertheless, the situation is largely under control thanks to the lack of leadership among the main opposition, and the various fissions among different segments of the population, including non-Persian minorities — Azeri Turkis, Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, Balochis and other ethnicities marginalized by the government — that don’t work closely with the mainstream Persian opposition.

The announcement of breaking up a foreign spy ring feeds into the regime narrative and serves to demoralize the opposition. If anyone truly believes that Americans have succeeded in recruiting agents who have penetrated the clandestine nuclear research and development program, their roundup can be perceived as a painful blow. And to everyone who has grown skeptical of such claims, it will be a reminder that the regime can arrest anyone for any reason and get away with extracting false confessions, without having to fear major consequences. Human rights sanctions against perpetrators of Iran’s domestic reign of terror have mostly eluded the regime apparatus, nor has it prevented any torture or executions.

The announced arrests and executions may also be a preemptive strike against any attempts to create an “Iranian Spring” by the Western powers. The regime should indeed be concerned.

Second, if Americans indeed had assets in Iran that were now exposed, this public announcement sends a signal to US intelligence that there was a security breach, which means that the entire CIA program in the country is possibly in danger. Also, it gives leverage to the regime to negotiate for minor concessions, depending on the value of any such assets. President Trump denied that this announcement was anything more than a propaganda move by Tehran. Secretary Pompeo, too, pointed out that Iran has a long history of fabricating such matters for its own benefit.

Of course, even if the CIA lost 17 assets, that will not ultimately stop future efforts at gathering intelligence, nor will it prevent the administration from pursuing tough policies against Iran if it so chooses. However, if the administration, as many believe, is on course to court a new and “better” nuclear deal with Tehran, these announcements are a different sort of signal. They may signify that the regime is looking to exchange these assets for Iranian spies imprisoned in the United States, or that it is now in possession of sensitive information about US operations against it or its own plans.

Detecting a Pattern

Even if this move is nothing more than bluster by the regime, it will contribute to the general perception that the tensions are rising, and that the United States may soon find itself on the brink of a perilous situation similar to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The regime has a long history of arresting ordinary protesters and activists and — after torture and humiliating Soviet-style show trials — parading them as CIA, Mossad or British intelligence spies.

In theory, this should discredit the alleged spies in the public eye. In reality, the regime is fully aware that at this point few Iranians — those who aren’t directly benefiting from close contact with the government — believe such rumors. If these people are indeed ordinary protesters, such periodic episodes signal a crackdown on dissident activity and serve to show that if people take to the streets, they will be treated as traitors and foreign spies. It also supports Tehran’s narrative that any dissent or a show of public dissatisfaction, even if not sponsored by Western powers, benefits the regime’s adversaries and, therefore, for all intents and purposes, they might as well be agents of US influence — or whoever else.

In light of the current developments, the regime has good reason to be concerned that Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran may inspire a new wave of protests over the summer, further destabilization and perhaps even defection of key members of the regime. Most recently, a number of senior IRGC officials have known to have disappeared, some only temporarily. If there is a rise in general chaos among Iranian intelligence, and if there is a fear of defection, this move may be signaling an internal shakedown as much as a crackdown against any mass public mobilization, like the Green Movement in 2009.

Unlike his predecessor, President Trump is highly likely to express open support for such events, which will demoralize Iran’s intelligence servieces and give support to the opposition. In order to prevent this from happening, the regime is likely to take measures to secure both its own people and take further measures to intimidate the opposition.

In other words, the announced arrests and executions may also be a preemptive strike against any attempts to create an “Iranian Spring” by the Western powers. The regime should indeed be concerned. The entire country is roiling from the economic and environmental devastation precipitated by misgovernment. Foreign involvement, such as China’s unceremonious meddling, is decidedly unwelcome. An internet crackdown and anti-Western rhetoric are seen as a hostile act by the very young Iranian population, which is increasingly secular and open to the West. Iran faces a plethora of internal problems, and going on a witch-hunt against real or imaginary spies at a time when it has limited resources to stand up to a much stronger West is a sign of desperation.

However, there is an exception to this otherwise predictable and unimpressive pattern. During the nuclear negotiations with Iran, one of the conditions presented to former President Barack Obama was the termination of intelligence activities in Iran. During the period of negotiations between 2011 and 2012 that resulted in the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which were still secret at the time, a mysterious communication breach that apparently was not fixed for years led to the exposure of a number of CIA assets in Iran and other countries.

But was it mere incompetence coupled with arrogance, or was the breach at least partly connected to a tacit political agreement? President Obama’s willingness to allow Bashar al-Assad’s massacre of civilians in Syria to continue despite his pronounced “red line,” as well as his supportive attitude to Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi’s tenure despite his rapprochement with Iran at around the same time would lead one to believe that even if such an agreement was never formalized, Iran would have demanded, as a sign of good faith, that the US abandon its intelligence gathering operations in Iran and that the US intelligence agencies should quietly cease protecting their assets in the event of exposure. Exploiting a known vulnerability without taking steps to protect these assets may have been a nod as a show of good faith during the negotiations.

As a result, the CIA allegedly lost 30 agents. Many assets were arrested, imprisoned or executed. If the Trump administration is indeed pursuing a renegotiation of the nuclear deal, the regime may very likely make the same demands of it and announce the capture of these assets shortly before making an offer to the Trump administration that the White House cannot refuse.

Finally, it is worth noting that Iran has taken hostage a number of Americans and dual nationals, accusing them of espionage, likely in an effort to broker advantageous deals during any potential negotiations. It would be a repeat of similar efforts under Obama when the regime exchanged several Americans, including The Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, for a substantial sum of money and several Iranian prisoners. However, all of these individuals have been publicly named and have been arrested on individual basis while doing research or visiting family members, like Iranian-British dual national Nasreen Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been imprisoned in Iran since 2016. Iran has not claimed that they are part of a “network” taken as a group.

Paper Tiger

This pattern leads one to believe that those taken by the regime are regular Iranians who are less likely to attract international attention and campaign to secure their release than prisoners with Western connections. What does this ultimately mean for the United States?

First, Iran is largely a paper tiger: There is no need to fear a confrontation. Its military capabilities are vastly inferior to the US. Its economy, devastated by corruption has little to offer to the United States. Furthermore, the regime has a history of being manipulative and deceptive. So far, all of the efforts to make a deal with it resulted in breaches and abuses. Therefore, a pursuit of a new nuclear agreement will likely yield more of the same and is not worth the potential devastation of the region and loss of trust by regional allies.

Second, Iran has used intelligence as a weapon of pressure against the opposition, as well as countries abroad. It has accused dissidents of working for the West while inserting fifth columnists in Western institutions and weaponizing the diplomatic service around the world to cover for terrorist activities and assassination attempts against dissidents. US officials dealing with Iran should openly confront Foreign Minister Javad Zarif or other visiting officials instead of letting them speak freely to US media, largely unchallenged. Iran presents plenty of opportunities to expose its record of deception, manipulation and false and hypocritical accusations.

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Finally, no negotiations with Iran are possible until every American and other Western national is released. That should be a starting point, not a sideshow that Iran could use to exercise further leverage. Likewise, if the alleged captives are indeed spies, Iran should act as any civilized country in such a situation and at the very least publicize their names. In the past, it has arrested activists and scientists, accusing of them espionage in an attempt to recruit them to carry out the regime’s agenda, but the information eventually became known to their governments and to the public at large.

This cynical ploy that is meant to keep everyone wondering what Iran will do next is unacceptable and should be forcefully rejected. Here is an opportunity for the international community to call out Iran for its horrendous abuse of the legal system to come up with baseless accusations against both its own citizens and foreigners, making a mockery of the courts. Regardless of the identity of these people and the cause for their arrest, the fact that they are being tried on such serious charges and have been sentenced to death, likely after torture and false confessions, should not go unchallenged.

It is time to show that Iran is playing games with the West largely through bluff and exploitation of greed, false expectations and cowardice rather than because it has anything advantageous to bring to the table. Its corrupt system would not enrich investors. Its oil is of poor quality and needs to be refined externally. Members of the business community connected to the regime are implicated in all sorts of illegal activities that may violate international law and so cannot be trusted. It is time to realize that Iran has nothing to offer except chaos and threats, and be put it in its place.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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