Watching Iran

How the WikiLeaks disclosures could put a sweeping U.S. effort to monitor the Islamic Republic in jeopardy.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Searching for up-to-the-date country-specific information among the WikiLeaks cables is for the most part a pretty easy task. Interested in eavesdropping on contemporary France? Click on the collected messages from the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Want to browse the latest political proceedings in Russia? Go to the Moscow embassy link. But there’s one exception to that impressive efficiency. The dispatches from Tehran all date from 1979 or earlier, before the United States severed its diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic (in 1980) while 52 Americans were being held against their will in their country’s embassy on a main boulevard downtown.

That’s not to say U.S. diplomats have stopped following their main Middle East adversary. To the contrary, Iran is famously at the center of much of the diplomatic business recorded in the WikiLeaks cables — that business, though, is forced to take place in other countries. Indeed, WikiLeaks has shed light not only on the content of America’s Iran strategy, but on the unorthodox ways in which Washington finds itself gathering information about a state with which it has had limited direct contact. At the center of those efforts are the so-called Iran Watch stations, a set of monitoring posts the United States has been operating in more than a dozen cities on Iran’s periphery and in Western Europe.

These offices were established starting in 2006 by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Dismayed by the State Department’s failure to cultivate linguistic and diplomatic expertise on Iran, she beefed up the department’s Iran desk and insisted that Farsi-speaking U.S. diplomats be placed in embassies and consulates outside the Islamic Republic. Nicholas Burns, then the undersecretary of state for political affairs and the George W. Bush administration’s point man on Iran, compared the strategy to posting Soviet expert George Kennan to Riga, Latvia, in the 1920s before the United States recognized the Soviet Union.

The new push began with the Iran Regional Presence Office in Dubai, just across the Persian Gulf from Iran’s Hormozgan province and adjacent to the Strait of Hormuz, the geographic bottleneck through which nearly 40 percent of the world’s traded oil passes. Dubai is also home to a large Iranian expatriate community. With about a half dozen staff, Dubai’s is the largest Iran Watch station and benefits from the regular traffic between the emirate and Iran by Iranians and others visiting the Islamic Republic.

Other Iran Watch posts are single-officer affairs and are currently located in Baghdad, Baku, Berlin, Istanbul, London, Paris, and Tel Aviv. There was also an Iran Watch officer in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, for several years, but the office closed in part because of the repressive nature of the local government and the lack of high-value Iranian contacts. Aside from reporting on Iran, the watchers interact with Iran experts in local governments. The creation of these monitoring stations is having a cumulative impact on the State Department’s bureaucracy, helping re-create an Iran-centered career track within the agency. But, more substantively, the posts are useful in providing a reality check for U.S. policymakers in the form of unvarnished information about Iranian political developments, says John Limbert, who was responsible for the Iran Watch stations during his recently ended nine-month stint as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, agrees. "It’s the internal reporting about what’s afoot in Iran that Washington is starved for," the U.S. official said. "It supplements what we get from other sources."

Still, Limbert, who personally visited all the Iran Watch stations, expressed frustration that the diplomats’ views were often not taken into account by an administration that has focused more in recent months on economic sanctions than on outreach.

"I liked them a lot, given the limitations they were under. They did some good stuff," he said. "One of my jobs was to encourage them. These are really smart people, and somebody needs to validate them."

As glimpsed through the WikiLeaks cables, watch officers certainly provided some tantalizing and significant information. The cables discuss, among other things, growing instability in Iran’s southeastern province of Balochistan, sanction-busting efforts all over the Middle East, and multiplying heroin shipments from Iran into its northwestern neighbor, Azerbaijan. (Granted, there is no indication whether the material has been confirmed by other sources. U.S. officials, currently engaged in massive damage control, would not comment about the validity of the reports.)

One cable dated Oct. 23, 2008, according to the Guardian’s summary, quotes "an Iranian with detailed knowledge of the country’s Red Crescent — the Islamic version of the Red Cross" as saying that the Iranian government is using the body "as a cover for its agents in Iran, Lebanon and elsewhere around the Middle East, and to smuggle weapons."

The source, whose name was withheld by the Guardian, goes on to say that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after his election as Iranian president in 2005, appointed four new members of the Red Crescent management, most of them members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — the military force that now runs much of the rest of the government — or the Ministry of Intelligence. In Iraq, the Red Crescent began building health clinics in the Shiite Muslim centers of Basra, Hilla, Karbala, Kazemayn, and Najaf, the cable said. According to the source, "the clinics would be used for treatment but also as warehouses for military equipment or military bases if needed."

The source described a similar dual role for the Red Crescent in Lebanon during the 2006 war with Israel. The source said the body "facilitated the entry of Qods force officers to Lebanon," referring to the elite external "Jerusalem" unit of the Revolutionary Guards. The source added that Red Crescent shipments — ostensibly of medical supplies — included weapons for Iran’s Lebanese partner, Hezbollah.

Other cables analyze Iran’s tumultuous domestic scene. One missive from the U.S. Iran watcher in Baku dated June 12, 2009 — the day of Iran’s presidential election — reports growing sectarian unrest in Sistan and Balochistan, scene of recent suicide bombings and other attacks. The predominantly Sunni Muslim population there was allegedly so opposed to the Shiite Iranian government that neighboring Pakistan decided to postpone "completion of the long-planned improved rail link between Pakistan and Iran," the cable says. On the other side of Iran, the Baku-based watcher also says that local seizures of heroin from Iran in Azerbaijan totaled nearly 59,000 kilos in the first quarter of 2009 compared with 15,000 kilos in the same period of 2008.

Many of the leaked cables deal with Iranian politics, describing the trajectory of optimism and despair that led up to and followed Ahmadinejad’s fraud-tainted reelection. The then Iran Watcher in Ashgabat, writing three days after the election, quotes a source as saying that the Revolutionary Guards have pulled off a "coup d’etat" and that Ahmadinejad is now akin to the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

According to the source, whose name has been redacted by the Guardian, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s chief opponent, got about 26 million votes — 61 percent of the 42 million votes cast — while Ahmadinejad got "a maximum of 4-5 million votes." Mehdi Karroubi, another opposition candidate, actually got between 10 million and 12 million votes, according to the source, while the rest went to conservative Mohsen Rezai. (Official Iranian results said that Ahmadinejad won by a landslide of 63 percent, that Mousavi got 34 percent, and that Karroubi and Rezai split the rest.) The cable quotes the source as saying that the pro-Ahmadinejad forces stole the election by refusing to allow local precincts to announce the votes and having central election authorities declare the results.

The source warns presciently that Iranian authorities will be "merciless" in putting down protests. He says the only option for Iranians opposed to the regime is prolonged civil disobedience.

While the Iran Watch stations may have benefited from being in the spotlight, their work also could be imperiled. Even with the names redacted, Iranian intelligence officers may be able to figure out from the leaked cables who the sources were — and they would have no qualms about retaliating against them or their relatives.

Ultimately, of course, U.S. diplomats would get a much better sense of what is actually going on in Iran if they could be based there. But Barack Obama’s administration has not even suggested the establishment of a small interests section in Tehran to process visas (an idea floated by the Bush administration in 2005 and 2008), much less a full-scale embassy. The dispute over Iran’s nuclear program is, for now, the major impediment to any further diplomatic progress between the two countries. And with neither Americans nor Iranians holding out much hope for an immediate breakthrough when talks convene in Geneva on Dec. 6, the State Department’s remote Iran watchers will probably have plenty to do for the foreseeable future.

Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.  Twitter: @BarbaraSlavin1

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