U.S. Rivals Are Facing Unrest. Is It Due to Luck or Skill?

Mass protests create a favorable environment for intelligence agencies—but the CIA should tread carefully in China, Iran, and Russia.

By , a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, a former CIA operations officer, and the author of The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.
The Central Intelligence Agency headquarters are pictured in Langley, Virginia, on July 8, 2022.
The Central Intelligence Agency headquarters are pictured in Langley, Virginia, on July 8, 2022.
The Central Intelligence Agency headquarters are pictured in Langley, Virginia, on July 8, 2022. SAMUEL CORUM/AFP via Getty Images

In recent weeks, there have been major street protests in China and Iran, two of the United States’ main adversaries, and a mass exodus of fighting-age men amid an economic and military meltdown in Russia. Is it luck? Coincidence? Is CIA Director William Burns a total genius? Or is it the result of painstaking preparations to bring about a moment like this to bolster U.S. policy preferences? The answer is complicated—as are the options for U.S. officials when it comes to exploiting the circumstances.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has for years routinely blamed the West for inciting protests inside Russia, just as he attributes the Ukrainian war to U.S. and European meddling. China’s government blamed “forces with ulterior motives” for the ongoing protests against the ruling Communist Party sparked by anger over the country’s costly zero-COVID policy. As crowds grew across the country, their chants included demands for greater democracy and freedom, with some even calling for the removal of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have blamed the U.S. and Israeli governments for the ongoing protests that began after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman from northwest Iran, died in police custody. She had been arrested by Iran’s morality police in Tehran for allegedly violating the country’s strict rules requiring women to wear a hijab, or headscarf. Iran has also blamed dissident Kurdish groups for instigating the unrest, responding with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and by launching missile and drone attacks against Kurdish enclaves. The United States, of course, has relationships with Kurdish groups across the region.

In recent weeks, there have been major street protests in China and Iran, two of the United States’ main adversaries, and a mass exodus of fighting-age men amid an economic and military meltdown in Russia. Is it luck? Coincidence? Is CIA Director William Burns a total genius? Or is it the result of painstaking preparations to bring about a moment like this to bolster U.S. policy preferences? The answer is complicated—as are the options for U.S. officials when it comes to exploiting the circumstances.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has for years routinely blamed the West for inciting protests inside Russia, just as he attributes the Ukrainian war to U.S. and European meddling. China’s government blamed “forces with ulterior motives” for the ongoing protests against the ruling Communist Party sparked by anger over the country’s costly zero-COVID policy. As crowds grew across the country, their chants included demands for greater democracy and freedom, with some even calling for the removal of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have blamed the U.S. and Israeli governments for the ongoing protests that began after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman from northwest Iran, died in police custody. She had been arrested by Iran’s morality police in Tehran for allegedly violating the country’s strict rules requiring women to wear a hijab, or headscarf. Iran has also blamed dissident Kurdish groups for instigating the unrest, responding with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and by launching missile and drone attacks against Kurdish enclaves. The United States, of course, has relationships with Kurdish groups across the region.

It’s not beyond the United States’ means to sow unrest but doing so without any measure of control over the outcome is generally not a winning approach.

In Russia, protests against Putin’s war have been limited but might not fully reflect the underlying fissures and ongoing underground opposition, according to research recently highlighted by the Washington Post. Even as thousands of military-aged Russian men flee the country to avoid conscription, sabotage within Russia appears to be ongoing—and not necessarily by Ukrainians alone. Even hard-liners who support Putin and his war are becoming increasingly critical. Putin cronies such as Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group private military company, and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov have been less than subtle in their attacks against Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russia’s senior military commanders.

Some U.S. adversaries even appear to be making rare concessions to domestic opponents. In China, just as Xi appeared to take a proverbial victory lap on securing his third term in power—seemingly bringing Hong Kong under the whip, setting his sights on securing reunification with Taiwan, and challenging the U.S. as the preeminent global military and economic power—internal unrest broke out over COVID restrictions, among other grievances, and it is a disruption to which he must respond—possibly by making concessions.

Sun Chunlan, Xi’s vice premier, recently told national health officials that the country is entering a “new stage and mission,” as several regions, including Shanghai, begin to lift lockdowns despite continuing high case numbers. Sun predicated changes on “the decreasing pathogenicity of the Omicron variant, the increasing vaccination rate and the accumulating experience of outbreak control and prevention.”

Likewise, in Iran, the regime seems to be exercising restraint, at least to some extent. There is now uncertainty over the status of the morality police, which enforces its dress code, after Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said they “have been shut down from where they were set up.” Although the New York Times was among those reporting the unconfirmed move as a possible concession to the protesters, local Iranian media outlets were quick to note that Montazeri’s remarks had been “misinterpreted.” Still, senior Iranian officials don’t generally go off script on their own, and the comments might have been a trial balloon.

Despite the excitement, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines remarked while responding to journalists recently that “we’re not seeing the [Iranian] regime perceive this as an imminent threat to their stability and effect,” but “on the other hand … they are really having challenges and even nationwide seeing sporadic close-downs of businesses, [which] from our perspective, that’s one of those things that will lead to a greater risk of unrest and instability over time.” Iran “could face more unrest because of high inflation and economic uncertainty.”


Weakening adversaries from within is a page from Putin’s hybrid warfare playbook, but the unrest being manifested among major U.S. adversaries poses as much risk as it does opportunity. While I suspect U.S. intelligence operations are enjoying a period of major success, as reflected most publicly by its declassified reporting concerning Putin’s intentions in Ukraine and China’s response to the conflict, conspiracy theorists suggesting a direct U.S. hand in Iran’s and China’s current unrest would be disappointed.

It’s not beyond the United States’ means to sow unrest but doing so without any measure of control over the outcome is generally not a winning approach. Instability leads to unpredictability and escalatory possibilities in which desperate despots could look abroad for high-risk solutions. The internal consequences could also be worse for U.S. interests than what preceded them. If Iran’s government or Russia’s were overthrown, there is no guarantee that the successor would be more democratic or less violent; they could be even more brutal.

Promoting regime change is also a messy business. There’s a complicated political, economic, and military risk calculus to such enterprises, the mechanics of which are governed by exhaustive U.S. covert action legal authorities and requirements. Although U.S. regime change efforts over the years in Iran, Cuba, Chile, Afghanistan, and Iraq were not exactly well thought out and were based on a mistaken premise, at least there was a plan.

Fomenting civil unrest can and does lead to an array of second- and third-order circumstances, some predictable, others not.

Fomenting civil unrest, whether it’s in the interest of regime change or simply to increase an adversary’s burden, can and does lead to an array of second- and third-order circumstances, some predictable, others not. At a minimum, the lawyers, of which there are many in the U.S. intelligence community, will tell you that there’s an expectation that facilitating such unrest will result in violence. The outcome will inevitably include deaths—requiring the written direction of the president with ensuing authorities and a memorandum of notification to congressional leadership and its intelligence oversight committees.

The United States pursued regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan via military intervention, and against Bashar al-Assad in Syria by a problematic mix of overt and covert engagement with rebels. The outcomes have hardly been favorable. And while the August 1953 coup that toppled Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh may have provided short-term gains in the eyes of Cold War-era U.S. policymakers, the enduring price of how Iranians view the United States continues to have a toll on U.S. security interests.

According to documents the CIA released in 2013 acknowledging its role, Britain’s MI6 and the CIA enjoyed a much more permissive and advantageous operational environment than found today in Russia, China, or Iran. Iran in 1953 was a relatively open and democratic society. In supporting the coup, the United States and the United Kingdom recruited allies among the Islamic clergy and leveraged bribery to secure the cooperation of the Iranian majlis and senior military officers and to rent crowds. That sort of approach is more difficult today.

Against the more restrictive environments such as those in Russia, China, and Iran, the United States has in the past cooperated with exile groups to promote internal change. Operating against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, for example, the United States relied foremost on Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Pentagon-backed Iraqi National Congress, realizing only too late how little he and such groups represented the country or enjoyed popular followings.

There are limited options available among external Russian, Chinese, or Iranian opposition groups. In the Iranian case, there is the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), but the U.S. intelligence community’s Iranian experts have long warned successive White Houses to keep a respectable distance from the rather cultish and Marxist-leaning entity despite its renunciation of violence and bipartisan list of paid guest speakers.

Over the course of my CIA career, it was not uncommon to be approached by political dissidents and even insurgent groups seeking a relationship with the U.S. government for support in changing their country’s regimes. Few were credible, and some of those who were offered a potentially greater risk to U.S. interests than the regimes they sought to replace. Even supporting legitimate, progressive, internal opposition movements can be a double-edged sword should exposure of cooperation damage those movements’ credibility.


Every good spy knows that in chaos, there is opportunity; as I wrote in the Wall Street Journal in March, “Spies Will Doom Putin.” And luck in exploiting such opportunities for an intelligence service is the product of a great deal of preparation and the long-term nurturing of relationships with the right people. The instability and unrest across the autocratic powers against which the United States competes creates an operationally fortuitous and target-rich environment.

The CIA is a strategic intelligence service, good at its work but not particularly adept at taking the pulse of the people or engaging with legitimate political opposition. It’s not supposed to. The CIA is good at engaging clandestinely with those who have access to secrets and power, and in this environment, I expect business in Russia, China, and Iran is good.

David Marlowe, the CIA’s deputy director of operations, called the invasion of Ukraine a massive failure for Putin and argued that could lead to opportunities for Western intelligence agencies recruiting disaffected Russians. Marlowe was speaking about those Russians pushed to the edge who are now more inclined to cooperate with foreign intelligence services. There is a large cross-section of Russians whose motivation in cooperating with the West might span patriotism, disgruntlement, and the pursuit of an insurance policy against harder times possibly to come.

What if success in stirring opposition leads to constructive responses by the autocratic regimes the United States seeks to weaken? Could such meddling actually strengthen rivals?

But what if success in stirring opposition leads to constructive responses by the autocratic regimes the United States seeks to weaken? Could such meddling actually strengthen rivals who accommodate the demands of their citizens and thereby become stronger and more capable adversaries?

In China, could Xi’s easing of COVID-19 restrictions be the remedy to restoring China’s economy? Might Iran’s theologians gauge reaction to a possible temporary and superficial easing of social restrictions and leverage nationalistic themes? Will Putin manipulate the appearance of democratic concessions to create an illusion of popularity that becomes reality?

With the possible exception of China, it’s not likely. Iran has no room to maneuver. The current leadership requires its conservative religious credentials to legitimize the repression and brutality necessary to retain power. The Iranian regime’s actions in past uprisings reflect lessons learned from the 1979 revolution that partial compromises such as those with which the shah experimented before his downfall only encourage bolder opposition.

Putin similarly believes in the necessity of his image of invincibility, one that would be publicly undermined by any appearance of weakness that he perceives accommodation could cause. And even Xi can only go so far without raising protesters’ expectations and risk tolerance, but he has little need to lessen political restrictions. Xi’s most pressing challenge is to maintain the social contract of providing his 1.4 billion citizens a robust economy in exchange for their deference to China’s Communist Party concerning politics; restoring economic stability might require some opening up after harsh lockdowns.

The conditions and circumstances from which Western intelligence services can profit are likely to build rather than recede in Russia, China, and Iran, given how undercurrents of resentment and resistance arguably grow in societies over time.

The United States should illuminate the wrongdoings and malign behavior of these despotic regimes and, with limited and carefully considered covert exceptions, overtly enable organic dissent, much as it did during the Cold War. That support must necessarily be deployed in a manner that doesn’t undermine courageous domestic efforts; it should be extended to groups that truly reflect their countries, and it mustn’t leave the U.S. government with even bigger problems than those it hoped to solve.

Douglas London is a professor of intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. He is a Russian-speaking operations officer and served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for more than 34 years, mostly in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Africa—including three assignments as a chief of station, including in a former Soviet state. He is the author of The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence. Twitter: @DouglasLondon5

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