Comment: Was Clotilde Reiss a French Spy in Iran?

Clotilde Reiss

Clotilde Reiss

The case of Clotilde Reiss acquired new momentum earlier this week, after a former French intelligence official claimed she had collaborated with French secret services. Pierre Siramy, who until late last year was a senior official at DGSE, France’s external intelligence agency, said on Sunday that Reiss had worked “very well” for France. Reiss, a 25-year-old Farsi-speaking French-language assistant at the University of Isfahan, was arrested in Iran last year on accusations of being a ‘nuclear spy’. But last weekend her ten-year prison sentence was suddenly commuted to a fine, and she was able to return home to France, in an apparent secret deal with Paris, which included the release of two Iranian operatives held in France.

The allegations of Pierre Siramy, who caused considerable controversy in French intelligence circles this year, by publishing a memoir of his experiences in the DGSE, sparked instant denials by French government officials and Ms. Reiss herself. She called the allegations “lies [by] former DGSE members” and said she had “never been in touch with the intelligence agencies”. French minister for European affairs, Pierre Lellouche went so far as to threaten Siramy with legal action for his “fanciful and ridiculous” allegations.

Who is telling the truth? Was Clotilde Reiss a French spy in Iran? The answer depends on one’s definition of a spy. One does not have to be an intelligence insider to realize that the thought of deploying a female field intelligence officer in Iran, a society where women’s social mobility and influence are severely restricted, would be nonsensical, to say the least. After 1979, most Western intelligence agencies have hardly been able to use male officers, let alone young non-native women, to recruit local agents on the ground in Iran’s various provinces. But this does not necessarily mean that Clotilde Reiss did not, in some way or another, perhaps even unwillingly, assist France’s DGSE. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine that DGSE officers operating out of France’s embassy in Tehran would not have tried to ‘debrief’ Reiss about the social and political conditions of the Iranian student body at Isfahan University, where she worked. The reality is that these DGSE agents would rarely –if ever– be able to experience these conditions first hand, so Reiss’ input would undoubtedly have been valuable.

The question is whether Clotilde Reiss knew that the French ‘diplomats’, who wanted to know about conditions at Isfahan Univeristy, were in fact DGSE officers. It is unlikely that she did. She was probably never recruited, as Pierre Siramy himself indirectly admitted, by noting that the young teaching assistant “wasn’t a spy”, but was simply an unpaid “contact of our representative in Tehran”, whom she provided with information on an “amicable” basis. This description does not appear to describe anything resembling a formal intelligence affiliation.

To be sure, Clotilde Reiss’ resume does feature some of the essential traits of an effective intelligence officer. She is fluent in Farsi and intimately familiar with Iranian culture and society; furthermore, her mother is an academic specializing on Iran, while her father works for France’s Nuclear Energy Agency (CEA). But this does not necessarily make her an intelligence operative, and a paid one at that. It is far more likely that her connection with DGSE, if it ever existed, was unplanned, unpaid, and –most likely than not– trivial. The French agency confirmed as much, by authorizing ‘anonymous sources’ to comment that “Miss Reiss has never worked for us […] in any capacity and was never assigned a code name or number”.

Nevertheless, Tehran did manage to exchange Reiss for two Iranian operatives held in France. Not bad, considering the young woman wasn’t even an intelligence operative, if she, the French government, and DGSE’s ‘anonymous sources’ are to be believed.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

3 Responses to Comment: Was Clotilde Reiss a French Spy in Iran?

  1. Kohji says:

    Very interesting analysis. I think most readers get that these paranoid countries (Iran and N Korea) have false accusations mixed in with true ones here and there. That is “were they really a spy”.

    This ties in well with the previous article on taiwanese citizen spies. (Agents.)

    I do think a trained covert operative would not have publicly engaged or associated their name with anti-gov work. Which is problematic, as this is likely obvious for Iran. Which puts more focus on **all** civilians from free world countries in such countries.

    How then does anyone ever get any intel from people inside? It raises the bar for any human int, and for getting in for doing technical intelligence which requires in place people or close site work. (eg, cell tower, manhole, etc)

    Why did Siramy release this information? Patriot citizens don’t need pats on the back. Regular citizens don’t need anything spelled out for them. Was it just to get headlines for himself?

    Iran is a big problem and paranoid. There is a lot which can be done to help them ease towards democracy or at least some form of gov less dangerous w/o engaging in anything looking like dark intrigue. Which they are deeply scarred on, due to the 50s overthrow there by kermit and the cia.

    French. US. No difference to these guys. Pepsi or Coke.

    Just widens their conspiracy paranoia. Which widens their perceived threat. Which encourages them to take down that threat by terrorism. Which they have engaged in. And have gotten away with. And so likely will do so again.

    Main thing intel could do is make it easier for iranians to get good quality cell phones, cameras, and make sure video upload sites have good anonymity and such information stays up for global condemnation, and especially, internal condemnation. Maybe. One thing. Positive, powerful.

    Right now, this info just feeds the hawks in iran which is too bad.

    Iran is a hard nut to crack. So was North Vietnam. So was Hussein’s Iraq.

  2. Michel Pasquat says:

    I think Siramy is trying different tricks to sell his new book about his life in DGSE. This is just another trick in his publisher’s campaing.

  3. Hank says:

    obviously a spy for the zionist regime

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