America's 'Iran Watchers': A Coordinated Effort to Get Information about Tehran

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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.

US and Iraqi soldiers peer over the border into Iran. Zoom
AFP

US and Iraqi soldiers peer over the border into Iran.

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."

Originals: The Key Iran Watchers Cables
Click on the headlines below to read the full texts...
Jan. 22, 2010 -- Baghdad: "rental sheiks and lost iranian weekends"
XXXXXX: Redacted by the editors. Important note on the dispatches...

<<245004>> 1/22/2010 16:50 10BAGHDAD167 Embassy Baghdad SECRET 08BAGHDAD3492|08BAGHDAD3654 VZCZCXYZ0018 RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHGB #0167/01 0221650 ZNY SSSSS ZZH R 221650Z JAN 10 FM AMEMBASSY BAGHDAD TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 6243 INFO RUCNRAQ/IRAQ COLLECTIVE TAGS: PGOV, KISL, KCOR SUBJECT: PRT MUTHANNA: RENTAL SHEIKS AND LOST IRANIAN REF: A. 08 BAGHDAD 3492

S e c r e t baghdad 000167

Sipdis

E.o. 12958: decl: 01/22/2020 Tags: pgov, kisl, kcor Subject: prt muthanna: rental sheiks and lost iranian weekends

Ref: a. 08 baghdad 3492 b. 08 baghdad 3654

Classified By: xxxxx for Reasons 1.4 (b) and (d )

1. (U) This is a xxxxx reporting cable.

2. (S) SUMMARY: xxxxx met with local leader Sheikh xxxxx. During our lengthy discussions the Sheikh shared his belief that the USG has poorly utilized its influence in Iraq, leaving the way open for Iran to advance its agenda at USG expense. He went on to describe Iranian government attempts to buy his influence on a recent trip he made to Iran. End Summary.

A new twist on &what happens in vegas, stays in vegas8 --------------------------------------------- --------- 3. (S) Sheikh xxxxx on January 13 to discuss his recent trip to Iran. He told the xxxxx that he has been courted by Iranian officials in an effort to garner more support and influence among well-placed Iraqis in the middle Euphrates area. He noted that the &handler8 for the tribal leaders in this area is xxxxx, who has long family ties locally.

4. (S) The public reason for xxxxx trip to Tehran was for a medical check-up. He privately told xxxxx that his trip was more for pleasure than medical treatment and included one or more short-term &marriages8 (i.e. with state-sanctioned prostitutes) and other entertainment. xxxxx shared that other (unnamed) tribal leaders had enjoyed similar privileges while guests of the Iranian regime recently.

Dashed expectations ------------------- 5. (S) The Sheikh suggested that some Iraqi figures are more susceptible to Iranian influence because of disillusionment with the United States. During the meeting with xxxxx asked repeatedly, &Why have the Americans let us down?8 After he and other tribal sheikhs visited the White House and met then-President Bush in 2008, he expected to benefit financially from the Americans. Instead, he suggested that the Americans did nothing for him, even after he reported on Iranian activities in Muthanna (Ref A). &The United States did not secure their friends, the sheikhs, financially, and has left them vulnerable to Iranian temptations.8

6. (S) xxxxx also complained that while tribal leaders in fairly stable areas used their influence to help minimize insurgent activities over the past several years, they have received nothing for their efforts. Cooperative sheikhs in insurgent hotbeds like Anbar, in contrast, received benefits from the Americans. xxxxx cited Abu Risha as an example, noting he received money, projects, and other perquisites for his cooperation. He finished by noting that several of the White House-invited tribal leaders have been quietly grumbling. He states that he has had conversations on this perceived inequity with parliamentarian xxxxx from Diwaniyah.

7. (S) Additionally, xxxxx was frustrated with the current regime in Baghdad. He stated that the United States' support of the Maliki government has only increased Iran's influence in Iraq, enabling operatives to influence political decisions and diminish national sovereignty. The Iraqi government has not made progress in fighting poverty, it has failed to provide essential services, and it is full of corruption. He asked if the United States is supporting Iran. &Why? Because you have American troops on the ground, but you are advancing Iranian interests without costing them anything.8

Comment ------- 8. (S) PRT COMMENT: Southern Iraqi sheikhs are well known Q8. (S) PRT COMMENT: Southern Iraqi sheikhs are well known for shifting their loyalties based on financial considerations. PM Maliki's Isnad/Tribal Support Councils are particularly noteworthy in this regard. Susceptible sheikhs will trade their influence for financial support especially if the sheikh is not independently wealthy. (Note: xxxxx and does not independently enjoy a large bankroll. End note.) In turn, the sheikh can mobilize supporters, when needed (e.g. Ref B). The influence, however, is rented and not bought. If the financial contributions suddenly stop, much of the support may also cease. xxxxx considers this true for Iranian influence in the region as well. If Iran continues to pay for support among influential sheikhs, the

Islamic Republic will likely increase its influence. If and when the money dries up, so will the cooperation among these rented sheikhs. End Comment. Hill
19.6, 2009, Washington: "kudos for iranian election reporting"
XXXXXX: Redacted by the editors. Important note on the dispatches...

<<213112>> 6/19/2009 16:00 09STATE63812 Secretary of State UNCLASSIFIED 09ASHGABAT687|09ASHGABAT733 VZCZCXYZ0012 PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHC #3812 1701621 ZNR UUUUU ZZH P 191600Z JUN 09 FM SECSTATE WASHDC TO AMEMBASSY ASHGABAT PRIORITY 1208 TAGS: PGOV, PREL, TX, IR SUBJECT: KUDOS FOR IRANIAN ELECTION REPORTING REF: A. ASHGABAT687

Unclas state 063812

Sipdis

E.o. 12958: n/a Tags: pgov, prel, tx, ir Subject: kudos for iranian election reporting

Ref: a. Ashgabat687 b. Ashgabat733

From nea acting assistant secretary jeffrey feltman for charge miles

I commend Embassy Ashgabat and in particular Iran Watcher xxxxx, for its excellent reporting on the Iranian elections. Embassy insights were extremely useful for their timeliness and for the helpful view from "man on the street" Iranians. Your second cable in particular identified the interesting trend that Mousavi was picking up votes from rural voters. This excellent reporting provided key insights to 7th floor principals and NEA.

Embassy reporting gave Washington recipients an important view of working class Iranians' views on the elections. Washington appreciates this reporting that represents a key socioeconomic class from a variety of geographic areas and ethnic groups -- a group to which we might not otherwise have access. By continuing and expanding your outreach, you have provided an important snapshot of the elections. This crucial information has helped NEA and key principals in deciphering the maze of Iranian electoral politics.

We look forward to further high quality reporting from Embassy Ashgabat as we look to interpret the election results and information you garner from this key socioeconomic class and other contacts.

You have set a high standard for your colleagues here in Washington and elsewhere.

Best,

Jeff clinton
11.2.2010, Baku: "iran: jafari reportedly slaps ahmedinejad..."
XXXXXX: Redacted by the editors. Important note on the dispatches...

<<248320>> 02.11.2010 10:23 10BAKU98 Embassy Baku SECRET 09BAKU909|09BAKU920|09BAKU921|09BAKU972 VZCZCXYZ0001 PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHKB #0098 0421023 ZNY SSSSS ZZH P 111023Z FEB 10 FM AMEMBASSY BAKU TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 2384 INFO RUCNIRA/IRAN COLLECTIVE PRIORITY RHMFISS/CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY RHMFISS/CDR USEUCOM VAIHINGEN GE PRIORITY RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY RUEKDIA/DIA WASHDC PRIORITY RUEKJCS/JOINT STAFF WASHDC PRIORITY RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC PRIORITY TAGS: PGOV, PARM, PHUM, AJ, IR SUBJECT: IRAN: JAFARI REPORTEDLY SLAPS AHMEDINEJAD AT SNSC REF: A. A) 2009 BAKU 972

S e c r e t baku 000098

Sipdis

E.o. 12958: decl: 02/11/2020 Tags: pgov, parm, phum, aj, ir Subject: iran: jafari reportedly slaps ahmedinejad at snsc meeting; tudeh re-emerging?

Ref: a. A) 2009 baku 972 b. B) 2009 baku 921 c. C) 2009 baku 920 (notal) d. D) 2009 baku 909

Classified By: xxxxx for Reasons 1.4 (b and d)

1. (S) Baku Iran watcher met with xxxxx (strictly protect - see reftels).

He who Got Slapped ------------------

2. (S) According to source, President Ahmedinejad surprised other SNSC members by taking a surprisingly liberal posture during a mid January post-Ashura meeting of the SNSC called to discuss next steps on dealing with opposition protests. Source said that Ahmedinejad claimed that "people feel suffocated," and mused that to defuse the situation it may be necessary to allow more personal and social freedoms, including more freedom of the press.

3. (S) According to source, Ahmedinejad's statements infuriated Revolutionary Guard Chief of Staff Mohammed Ali Jafari, who exclaimed "You are wrong! (In fact) it is YOU who created this mess! And now you say give more freedom to the press?!" Source said that Jafarli then slapped Ahmedinejad in the face, causing an uproar and an immediate call for a break in the meeting, which was never resumed. Source said that SNSC did not meet again for another two weeks, after Ayatollah Janati succesfully acted as a "peacemaker" between Jafarli and Ahmedinejad. Source added that the break in the SNSC meeting, but not the slap that caused it, has made its way on to some Iranian blogs.

Sides Preparing for New Confrontations --------------------------------------

4. (S) Meanwhile, source said, both sides are digging in for new confrontations, while various sub-groups maneuver. He stressed the importance of recent speeches by Karroubi and Khatami to the effect that Ahmedinejad will not be able finish his term, and that Supreme Leaders should not take partisan political sides. He stressed that "Karroubi chooses each word carefully," and aid the recent speeches reflect an ongoing effort to split Khameini from the Ahmedinejad group. Source described the overall political situation within and without the political elite as "getting worse and worse." xxxxx opined that this situation (of protests and instability) cannot be sustained indefinitely, and predicted that events are trending towards major developments and a new phases. Asked what Iran will likely look like over the next year, he responded "ask me after 22 Bahman (February 11)."

Tudeh Acticsts Re-Emerging? --------------------------

5. (S) Source (a former non-Marxist revolutionary activist) also asserted that the Iranian Tudeh (communist) party is reorganizing among factory and government workers, and intellectuals. He claimed that many former Tudeh sympathizers hold positions in the bureaucracy and elsewhere, and opined that many still privately support the movement. He mentioned one xxxxx organizer who has re-emerged behind the scenes of recent bus worker and other labor strikes. Lu

Translated from the German by Josh Ward

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