A Dangerous Tit-for-Tat

By Haggai Carmon

Iranian officials are accusing the United States of trying to encourage a “velvet revolution” in Iran. That term was first used in 1989 to describe the nonviolent revolution in Czechoslovakia that overthrew the communist government. And indeed, as part of its velvet war against Iran, the United States is broadcasting cultural programs in Farsi in support of democracy and human rights, so as to influence Iranian public opinion in favor of regime change. But all is not velvet: In the shadows, there is another ongoing conflict between the United States and its allies and Iran – a clandestine intelligence war where velvet tactics are hardly employed.

Most “shadow” events are muffled or mislabeled by Iran. In early March 2007, retired Iranian general Ali Reza Asgari disappeared from his hotel in Turkey after traveling to Syria to visit sites holy to Shi’ite Muslims. Subsequently, conflicting accounts appeared in the media suggesting that Asgari had defected to the United States. Iran accused the CIA and Israel’s Mossad of abducting him. A few days later, his name disappeared from the media’s radar.

In late May 2009, another top Iranian nuclear scientist, Dr. Shahram Amiri, vanished while participating in an Umrah Hajj pilgrimage to Medina, Saudi Arabia, with a group of Iranians. Asgari and Amiri are not small fish. They are leviathans in terms of the information they have, and can share, with the free world. Asgari is a former deputy defense minister of his country. When he was forced out by archrival Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Asgari became a disgruntled walking encyclopedia on Iran’s military and nuclear secrets, with enough rage to motivate their disclosure. Amiri was described by Iranian news agencies as a prize-winning Iranian nuclear physicist who conducted research for the country’s atomic energy organization and worked at the Malek-e-Ashtar University of Technology, which is affiliated with the Iranian defense ministry.

In what seems to be a response, Tehran is stepping up the arrest of Westerners and accusing them of espionage. Several of them are being held on charges related to violating U.S. export-control laws – essentially arms dealing. Concurrently, Iran is demanding the release of its citizens in “illegal” U.S. custody. Iranian authorities are thus effectively trying to engineer a person swap.

In late July 2009, Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal – all young Americans and former University of California, Berkeley, students – were hiking through Iraq’s Kurdistan autonomous region when they apparently accidently crossed the unmarked border into Iran. On December 13, Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said at a press conference that the three would be tried, presumably for espionage.

Are they spies?

Unlikely. No intelligence service is that stupid. There is no need to risk operatives’ lives to collect ground intelligence that is easily and routinely obtained by satellite. The hikers’ conduct demonstrates they were not trained intelligence operatives. They were too conspicuous, as three foreigners moving together in a remote and sensitive border area would be. There, everyone is an informant for someone: Kurds inform on Iraqis and vice versa; Iranian agents meddle in the Kurdish conflict with the surrounding countries to obtain independence; Israeli Mossad agents are rumored to be maintaining their half-a-century-old ties with the Kurds – the list goes on.

If the hikers had indeed been spies carrying sophisticated surveillance or communication devices, the Iranians would without question have displayed those devices in a televised news conference celebrating the capture of “dangerous American spies.” In July, the Iranian regime was wobbling and President Ahmadinejad needed every bit of evidence available to prove he was defending his country while his rivals were demonstrating in the streets – so his government would not have missed such an opportunity had such devices existed.

In addition to the hikers, Iran is holding other U.S. nationals. A former FBI agent, Robert Levinson, has been missing since he held a meeting with an Iranian on Kish Island more than three years ago. Iran has not, however, acknowledged holding him.

The United States has demanded the release on humanitarian grounds of the three American hikers. According to Swiss intermediaries, Iranian authorities countered with a list of 11 Iranians, including presumed defectors Asgari and Amiri, demanding their release. Nine Iranians on the list are believed to be in U.S. prisons, awaiting trial or already convicted in cases involving conspiracy to illegally export U.S.-manufactured military equipment, aircraft parts, software or other sensitive products to Iran. Tehran is trying to equate the three young hikers, who accidentally wandered into Iran, with arms dealers seeking to procure U.S. weapons technology prohibited from being exported to Iran. In effect, Iran is taking hostages and trying to bargain them off.

If the Iran is indeed proposing an exchange – Iranians convicted in the United States, for Americans held in Iran – it is following an old precedent from Cold War days. Obviously, no deal could ever include Iranian defectors, even if held by the United States. That would doom any future defection to the United States.

The Iranians are unlikely to release the three hikers without significant political payback. Whatever happens, we can assume that Iran – a nation in which bargaining and trading is a national birthright – will not end up empty-handed.

Haggai Carmon is an international lawyer and an author of four intelligence thrillers.

This op-ed was originally published in Ha’artez/International Herald Tribune on 01/03/2010


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