Analysis: Iran’s energy sector is now a high-stakes espionage target

Iran Petroleum Oil MinistryThe state-owned energy sector of Iran, one of the world’s most lucrative, has become a major target of international espionage since the imposition of new sanctions by the United States this year. The purpose of Washington’s sanctions is to limit the Islamic Republic’s ability to export energy, and by doing so end the country’s reliance on its primary source of income. It is estimated that Tehran’s energy exports have fallen by about 80 percent during the past year, and may continue to fall if the US has its way. This means that American and Iranian intelligence agencies are currently engaged in an intense war of espionage that concentrates on what remains of Iran’s oil exports. Iran continues to entice international buyers by selling energy at below-market prices, while sales are facilitated through the use of throwaway bank accounts that are difficult to trace. Exports are then carefully smuggled into overseas destinations through a variety of means.

In an article published last week, The New York Times’ Farnaz Fassihi explains that every snippet of information about Iran’s oil industry has now become “a prized geopolitical weapon” in a “a high-stakes global game of espionage and counterespionage”. Fassihi quotes a recent statement by Iran’s Minister of Petroleum Bijan Zanganeh that “information about Iran’s oil exports is war information”. That includes information on how Iran manages to deliver its exports abroad and how it gets paid for doing so. Once the US tightened its sanctions on Tehran, Iranian energy officials began to suspect that most inquiries to purchase oil were from foreign spies in search of information on the methods of transaction, writes Fassihi. So the Ministry of Petroleum stopped allowing thousands of freelance energy brokers to mediate between it and buyers. It proceeded to concentrate all transactions into the hands of fewer than five vetted individuals with prior tenure in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and other vetted government agencies. It also began to train Ministry officials on security and counterespionage protocols.

When the Iranians made it difficult to access information through the Ministry of Petroleum, foreign spy agencies changed their tactics, writes Fassihi. They used foreign academic researchers, including PhD students, who offered payments in hard cash for information on Iranian oil export methods that would help them in their research. Others descended on Tehran offering visas to the US, alcohol, prostitutes, and cash payments ranging from $100,000 to over $1 million in exchange for intelligence on the Iranian energy export sector. There is an atmosphere of paranoia in the Iranian capital, writes Fassihi, and the process of purchasing oil from Iran resembles a Hollywood spy thriller. Representatives of foreign buyers are asked to come to Tehran in person and are regularly required to switch hotels in the middle of the night. Additionally, once a transaction is agreed upon, the buyer’s representative is required to stay at a Petroleum Ministry safe house until the funds are transferred into Iranian government coffers. After that, the representative is allowed to leave, writes Fassihi.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 August 2019 | Permalink

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Austria issues international arrest warrant for alleged Russian spy

Igor Egorovich ZaytsevThe Austrian government has issued an international arrest warrant for a Russian man who allegedly recruited a retired colonel in the Austrian Federal Army to spy for Moscow. The arrest warrant was issued on Tuesday by the public prosecutor’s office in the city of Salzburg. It identifies the Russian man as Igor Egorovich Zaytsev. Austrian officials allege that the Moscow-born Zaytsev is in fact an intelligence officer for the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. Known as GRU, the organization is Russia’s primary military-intelligence agency.

In an accompanying press statement issued on Tuesday, the Austrian Ministry of the Interior said that Zaytsev had facilitated the “betrayal of state secrets” and that his actions had been “to the detriment of the Republic of Austria”. The arrest warrant accuses Zaytsev of having participated in the “intentional disclosure of a military secret”, but does not provide details. However, in a subsequent statement, Austrian police directly linked the search for Zaytsev with an espionage case that was reported in the Austrian media last year. The statement said that Zaytsev is believed to have recruited a man known as “Martin M.” to spy on Austria. This appears to refer to the arrest last November of a 70-year-old colonel in the Austrian Army, who was stationed in Salzburg. He is believed to have spied for Russia from at least 1992 until his arrest. Austrian media reported that the accused spy was believed to have given Russia information on a range of weapons systems used by the Austrian Army and Air Force, as well as the personal details of high-ranking officers in the Austrian Armed Forces.

Soon after the arrest of “Martin M.”, Austrian authorities arrested a second man, identified only as “O.”, who is also suspected on having spied for Russia. According to the Vienna Public Prosecutor’s Office, “O.” was an employee of the Austrian Office for Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, known as BVT. He had been investigated on suspicion of espionage for more than a year prior to his arrest. The man’s arrest took place alongside simultaneous raids at two residential addresses associated with him, according to reports. No further details have been made available since the arrest. It is not known whether Zaytsev’s is also connected with the case of “O.”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 July 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Did the US Central Intelligence Agency lose 17 spies in Iran?

US embassy IranIf the announcements from Tehran are to be believed, the United States Central Intelligence Agency lost at least 17 spies in Iran in the months leading up to March 2019. According to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, the Islamic Republic busted an alleged “CIA network” operating in sensitive private sector companies and government agencies that relate to defense, aerospace and energy. At least some of the 17 alleged spies have reportedly been sentenced to death, though their exact number remains unknown.

Officials in Tehran said on Sunday that all of the purported spies are Iranian nationals and were lured by the CIA with promises of receiving visas to enter America. Others were already in possession of visas and were “blackmailed” to spy for the US in order to have them renewed by the US Department of State, according to Iranian media reports. Visa applicants were allegedly carefully selected based on their work in critical areas such as Iran’s nuclear program or defense procurement.

A government-sanctioned documentary, which aired on Iran’s state owned television on Monday, claimed that the 17 spies did not know each other, but all had been trained independently in clandestine tradecraft. This allegedly included setting up and using secret communications systems, as well as carrying out dead drops without being detected. Dead drops utilized containersQ Quote made to look like rocks, which were located “in parks and other mountainous areas” in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, according to Iranian officials. Some of the assets communicated with their handlers while attending science conferences through- out Europe, Africa and Asia.

The Iranian television documentary claimed that the 17 arrests had “dealt a lethal blow to US foreign intelligence”. But US President Donald Trump said in a tweet that Tehran’s allegations were “totally false” and contained “zero truth”, just “more lies and propaganda” from Tehran.

Who is right? To begin with, there is no question that the CIA recruits heavily in Iran, given that the Islamic Republic is one of America’s —indeed the world’s— primary intelligence targets. What is more, since 1979, when Washington lost its embassy in Iran, the CIA have found it more difficult to collect accurate information from inside the energy-rich country. Therefore, the need for dependable assets inside Iran has increased exponentially, and has become even more pressing now, given the importance placed on Iran by Donald Trump. Additionally, Read more of this post

Poland frees on bail former intelligence officer arrested for spying for China

Orange PolskaThe Polish government has authorized the release on bail of a former counterintelligence officer who was charged in January of this year with spying for China. The man has been identified in media reports as Piotr Durbajlo and is believed to have served as deputy director of the Internal Security Agency, Poland’s domestic counterintelligence service. A cyber security expert, Durbajlo also served in Poland’s Office of Electronic Communications with a top security clearance and unrestricted access to classified systems of Poland and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Poland is a member.

However, at the time of his arrest on January 10, Durbajlo had left government service and was a mid-level executive at Orange Polska. The company operates as the Polish branch of a French multinational telecommunications carrier with sister companies in several European Union countries. Along with Durbajlo, Polish authorities arrested Wang Weijing, a Chinese national who worked for the Chinese telecommunications manufacturer Huawei. Orange Polska is Huawei’s main domestic partner in Poland. Wang reportedly learned Polish at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. In 2006 he was posted by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Chinese consulate in Gdansk, Poland’s largest Baltic Sea port. In 2011 he left the Foreign Service and joined the Polish office of Huawei. Following his arrest on January 10, he was charged with espionage. Huawei denied it had any role in espionage against the Polish state, but fired Wang nonetheless. Both Wang and Durbajlo have been in pretrial detention since their arrest in January.

On Friday, July 5, Durbajlo’s legal team announced that he would be set free on July 7, on a $31,500 bail that must be paid within 30 days to secure his release. His lawyers explained that the charges against him had not been dropped, but did not explain why he was being released. It is worth noting that Durbajlo’s release on bail was announced during a visit to Poland by a high-level Chinese delegation, aimed at discussing economic and political ties between Warsaw and Beijing. Late on Tuesday it was announced that Wang would remain in pretrial detention for at least three more months.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 July 2019 | Permalink

Tunisia suspects espionage after Belarusians are caught with several passports

Sfax TunisiaTunisian authorities are investigating two Belarusian men who were found to be in possession of several forged passports and electronic surveillance equipment. The two men were reportedly arrested on Tuesday in Sfax, Tunisia’s second most populous city, which is located on the Mediterranean coast. It is worth noting that Sfax was also the home of Mohamed Zaouari, the 49-year-old Hamas avition engineer who was shot dead in December 2016 by a group of assailants using gun silencers. Hamas claims that he was Zaouari was killed by Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.

Tunis Afrique Presse, a private news agency headquartered in Tunis, said on Monday that the two Belarusians arrived in Sfax in early June, and checked into a hotel using Belarusian passports. They reportedly attracted the attention of the hotel staff, because Sfax is not a noted tourist destination and attracts few of the foreigners who visit the North African country. Hotel staff alerted the authorities after the two Belarusians forbade anyone, including hotel cleaning staff, to enter their room. Tunisian security officers then monitored the two Belarusians for two weeks before entering their room and searching their belongings, after receiving permission from their superiors. The search reportedly produced several forged passports from Ukraine, the Maldives and Poland, as well as SIM cards and electronic surveillance equipment. At a press conference in Sfax on Monday, Mourad Turki, a court official, said that the Tunisian Prosecutor’s Office decided to issue an arrest warrant for the two Belarusians. An investigation has been launched, he said.

Tunisia and Belarus do not have active diplomatic relations. There have been several high-level meetings between Tunisian and Belarusian officials in recent years, but diplomatic relations between the two countries have remained stagnant. Belsat TV, a Belarusian news network based in Poland, contacted the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs but a spokesman refused to comment on the cases of the two men. The United States-based Radio Free Europe was told by a government official in Minsk that the Belarusian government is looking into the matter.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 04 July 2019 | Permalink

Spy services seeking access to Angela Merkel’s medical file, reports claim

Angela MerkelForeign intelligence agencies are allegedly trying to acquire the medical file of German Chancellor Angela Merkel after she was seen trembling uncontrollably in public twice in as many weeks. Reports about foreign spy interest in Merkel’s health emerged in German and British newspapers last weekend, after the German chancellor was seen trembling during high-level meetings earlier this month. The first incident took place during an official meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on June 18. The German Chancellery said Merkel had suffered from dehydration and “felt like herself again after drinking a few cups of water”. But the tremors were back again on June 27 during the German leader’s visit to Japan for the G20 Summit. Reports stated that the chancellor was seen “clutching her arms in a failed attempt to prevent herself shaking” during the ceremonial part of the proceedings. At a press conference afterwards, Merkel told reporters that the trembling had been caused by “psychological stress” and that she was convinced it would “disappear just like it appeared”. But she avoided answering questions about whether she had sought medical attention about the trembling.

On June 30, British newspaper The Sunday Times said that foreign spies were showing interest in finding out Merkel’s medical state. The paper added that “one Western intelligence agency believed that the German leader was suffering from a ‘neurological problem’”, but did not specify the agency or the alleged condition. Two days earlier, on June 28, the German tabloid Bild claimed that foreign intelligence agencies had been detected attempting to gain access to the German leader’s private medical file. The paper said that foreign governments in Europe and beyond were suspicious of Merkel’s health state following her refusal to speak openly about it to the media. Several intelligence agencies were therefore “trying to get their hands on Merkel’s medical records” in an attempt to verify whether her trembling was caused by stress and dehydration, or whether it may denote a deeper neurological cause, it said. The paper added that the German leader’s medical records were kept “in a secure military facility” somewhere in Germany.

There has been intense speculation in the German media in the past four days about whether Chancellor Merkel will be able to stay in power until the end of her final term as leader of the country. In October 2018, the German leader announced that she would not seek reelection as Chancellor once her current term expires in 2021. She is scheduled to be replaced by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who last year also replaced her as leader of the Christian Democratic Union Party.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 July 2019 | Permalink

Iran announces arrest of 16 oil ministry officials for spying for CIA

Iran Petroleum Oil MinistryIranian state media announced on Sunday the arrest of 16 officials in the country’s Ministry of Petroleum, allegedly for sabotaging Iranian energy policy. It is not known whether these arrests are in any way connected with Tehran’s announcement last week that it had dismantled “one of the most complicated” espionage operations by the United States Central Intelligence Agency in several countries. According to the state-owned Fars News Agency, the 16 officials were arrested over the weekend in synchronized pre-dawn raids. All of them had managerial positions in Iran’s oil industry —including in the areas of exploration, production and distribution of Iran’s oil and petrochemical products inside the country as well as abroad.

The report about the latest arrests cited Hossein Ali Haji Deligani, a senior legislator representing the most conservative political wing in the Iranian parliament. Deligani said that the ministry employees “operated under a woman”, whom he did not name. Working in concert, the employees had been “able to influence […] the oil ministry to put off important decisions” and to “make wrong decisions”. These decisions were “in line with the enemies’ goals and against Iran’s national interest”, and ultimately delivered “a blow to the country in the United States economic war against Iran”, said Deligani. He did not elaborate on the topic and did not discuss whether the arrests were linked to the dismantling of an alleged CIA cyber espionage operation, which Iran announced last week.

Sunday’s announcement by the Fars News Agency comes two days after the execution of Jalal Haji Zavar, an employee of Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization, which operates under the Iranian a unit of the Ministry of Defense. Zavar was executed on Friday after a military court found him guilty of having committed espionage against Iran on behalf of the CIA. Media reports said that unspecified incriminating documents and “spying equipment” were found in Zavar’s home.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 June 2019 | Permalink