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12/03/2010 10:36 PM

America's 'Iran Watchers'

A Coordinated Effort to Get Information about Tehran

By Bernhard Zand

In 2006, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice realized that Washington needed to know a lot more about Iran. Since then, observation posts in surrounding countries have been supplying information, including rumors of a slap for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In no other country in the Middle East were US diplomats as well sourced as they were in Iran -- yet in no other country were they as off target. The fact that they didn't see the Islamic Revolution coming in 1979 -- that they didn't even see it as a possibility -- surely ranks among the biggest intelligence misjudgements in the history of US foreign policy. Even today, the painful effects of this failure can still be felt.

Such an oversight should never happen again, then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in 2006, four years after a group of Iranian exiles divulged the true scope of Iran's nuclear program. Rice added that the Iranian challenge was being given top priority, but added that the roughly 27 years since the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran had severely eroded the State Department's knowledge of the country. To compensate for this deficiency, it set up a whole series of observation posts in countries surrounding Iran.

Since then, teams of experts known as "Iran watchers" have been monitoring the Islamic republic from US embassies in Baku (Azerbaijan), Ashgabat (Turkmenistan), Baghdad and London, as well as at US consulates in Dubai and Istanbul. In these outposts, they speak with opponents and former loyalists of the regime, Shiite clerics, truck drivers, students and frustrated merchants in bazaars.

What have they found out? Does the US know what is going on in Iran, a country notoriously difficult to understand?

Rumors of Palace Intrigue

In February 2010, an electrifying communiqué arrived in Washington from Baku. According to a local source who "has reported accurately on several sensitive political and economic issues in the past," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had surprised his colleagues at a meeting of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. The Iranian people, he said according to the source, feel "suffocated" -- a reference to the repression that followed the contested presidential election of June 2009. He then proposed relaxing restrictions on the media.

"You are wrong!" the chief of staff of the Revolutionary Guards snapped back at Ahmadinejad. "(In fact) it is YOU who created this mess! And now you say give more freedom to the press?!" And then he slapped the president in the face, the informant alleged. Some Iranian blogs had also reported that the meeting had been abruptly broken up, the US source said. But they mentioned nothing about the reason -- the alleged slap.

Intimate details from within Iranian circles of power are, of course, of particular interest to the Iran watchers. In one report, they noted how Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's religious leader, "is subject to severe bouts of depression, and takes morphine (not opium) regularly."

Another report counters that view. Khamenei is healthy, doesn't smoke and exercises regularly, claimed another source who said he had spoken with Ali Khomeini, the grandson of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. A third report adds that Khamenei is much less powerful than is often claimed, that he enjoys only "limited political maneuverability" and that he is "primarily focused on protecting his and his son Mojtaba's future."

Conflicting Messages

The regime in Tehran pursues its interests with subtlety. Within Iran, for example, Kurds are allowed to smuggle with impunity in order to avoid unrest. Likewise, it recruits people from the murky milieu of Iran's martial-arts clubs to take care of assignments such as the assassination of regime critics. Within its neighboring states, it maintains a network of "money launderers and sanctions busters" who work to increase the wealth of the Revolutionary Guards. The US Embassy in Baku alone has a list of 11 men involved in such activities.

When it comes to leading members of the Iranian opposition, even sympathetic sources are skeptical. For example, they report that Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition leader who lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2009 elections, is "stubborn, but not charismatic," that dissident reformer Mahdi Karroubi is "courageous" but doesn't enjoy enough institutional ties in the theocratic state, and that former President Mohammad Khatami is "cautious and weak." Moreover, although they view ex-president and Ahmadinejad opponent Hashemi Rafsanjani as a skilled tactician and fund-raising virtuoso for the opposition, they still believe he lacks "sufficient popular legitimacy."

Members of both camps, it would seem -- both the conservatives and the reformers -- make regular visits to the southern Iraqi city of Najaf to meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali-al Sistani, the Iranian-born cleric who is viewed as one of the most respected Shiite authorities. So far, however, he has withheld support for either side. He sees the post-election situation in Iran as "very sad."

'An Important View'

In the summer of 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singled out the observation post in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, for praise for its "extremely useful" reports on the Iranian presidential election. The "Iran watchers" there had conveyed "an important view of working class Iranians' views on the elections" to Washington.

Their views are sometimes very different than those held by the members of the Western-oriented elite. One man from the north-eastern city of Mashhad, for example, told an "Iran watcher" on the Turkmeni border with Iran that "some people might not like individual leaders or clerics, but overall, they want an Islamic form of government."

One student, a follower of the opposition Green Movement, reported that his father even used bribes to buy his release from police custody. When he got home, his father told him: "I can't afford your revolution."

It also isn't true that all minorities in Iran are opposed to the regime, sources have told the US. The Kashgai, for example, are no longer the "nightmares" they once were for Persian authorities -- rather they no longer harbor any separatist views and are satisfied with the ruling regime. The sources report that most Kashgai probably voted for Ahmadinejad as a result of gratitude for improved health, education and infrastructure services." The "Iran watchers" quote one Kashgai trader as saying: "We are not Persians, but we are Iranians."

Religious Conflict and a Drug Epidemic

The situation in the primarily Sunni province of Baluchestan, on the border with Pakistan, however, is quite different. One source from the Ministry of Transportation in Tehran reported that state authorities have lost all control in the southeastern corner of the country: He "claimed that many guard and police posts in Sistan-Baluchestan areas are no longer occupied at night due to the increased danger of attack."

The source says that one reason for the precarious situation is the "arrogant" and anti-Sunni policies of the Shiite regime in Tehran. A businessman from the region adds that Ahmadinejad made a point of installing an ally of his, Habibullah Dehmorda, as governor there, describing him as a "stupid, brutal, Sunni-hater." Dehmorda has since been replaced.

The second reason is the drug trade, which happens to be one of the main issues the "Iran watchers" focus on. Tehran is powerless against the mass of drugs spilling over into the country from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Between 2005 and 2010, there was a significant increase in the amount of confiscated drugs -- but that was still just a fraction of the drugs that were smuggled into and consumed within the country itself. There are 50,000 Iranians enrolled in programs for recovering addicts, and 150,000 people are registered in methadone programs. Even those figures, according to US dispatches, represent just a small part of the problem.

'Our Target'

Indeed, the Iranian Interior Ministry has even gone so far as to ask the Americans -- through intermediaries -- for cooperation on the problem. Given the massive refugee and drug problems that Afghanistan is causing both countries, the time is now "ripe" for them to put their enmity aside. What's more, such collaboration could help counter the prevailing negative opinion of America in the region. According to the US documents, even Javad Zarif, Iran's former ambassador to the United Nations, has heavily campaigned for a joint effort with the Americans.

One advisor to two high-ranking regime officials even proposed a remarkable deal to the US Embassy in London. He has repeatedly referred to his desire for "a constructive and cooperative relationship with the US," particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, noting how Iran has considerable influence in both of those countries.

According to the advisor, Tehran views the Shiite militias in Iraq as "our allies, whom we created against Saddam." The advisor, according to the dispatches, even admitted that Iran had coordinated attacks by these militias on British soldiers in southern Iraq.

He also said that, in the end, America would have no choice but to join Iran in fighting the drug trade, otherwise things would become even more unpleasant. The US, he said, had become much too involved in Iraq. "You cannot stay and you cannot leave," he said. "Your forces there and in the region are our target."

Translated from the German by Josh Ward

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