Conflicting details on Iranian nuclear negotiator arrested for espionage

Iran nuclear negotiationsIranian officials have confirmed reports from earlier this month that a member of the country’s team of nuclear negotiators has been arrested for engaging in espionage for a foreign country. But there are conflicting details about the case in Iranian media reports. Rumors about the identity of the individual began to circulate on August 16, after the office of the Iranian prosecutor announced that a duel national with Iranian citizenship had been arrested for spying on Tehran for a foreign intelligence service. The individual was not named, but some reports connected him with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6.

On Sunday, Iran’s judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejeie, identified the man as Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahani. Ejeie was specifically asked about the espionage case during his weekly press conference, and responded saying that an “espionage infiltration” had indeed been detected and that “legal action” was being taken against Esfahani. He did add, however, that the arrest and concurrent investigation had not yet resulted in a case that could stand in court, thus Esfahani had been released on bail. When asked whether Esfahani would be charged, Ejeie said that official charges had not been filed, because “the charge against [Esfahani] has not been proven yet”. He implied, however, that charges would eventually be filed.

There are also conflicting reports about Esfahani’s background and involvement with the Iranian government. Early reports suggested that he is a dual citizen of Canada and Iran. But subsequent reports stated that he holds both Iranian and British passports, and that he had been recruited by MI6. Some unconfirmed reports claimed that Esfahani received payments from both British and American intelligence agencies. What appears more certain is that Esfahaniis an accountant with some involvement in the financial aspects of the recent nuclear negotiations between Iran and foreign powers. It is also believed that he was not a core member of Iran’s negotiating team, but provided a supporting role on financial aspects of the negotiations.

The recently concluded negotiations, were aimed at bridging the differences between the Islamic Republic and a group of nations that have come to be known as P5+1, representing the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. In March 2015, Hossein Motaghi, a media advisor to the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, who was in Switzerland to cover the negotiations, defected and filed an application for political asylum in Switzerland.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 August 2016 | Permalink

Iran executes nuclear scientist who claimed he was kidnapped by CIA

Shahram AmiriAuthorities in Iran have admitted that they executed a former scientist for the country’s nuclear program, who claimed that he was abducted by the United States after disappearing from Iran for a year. Shahram Amiri worked for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the government body that is responsible for operating and regulating the country’s nuclear installations. But in the summer of 2009, while on a religious pilgrimage to the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca, Amiri disappeared. Iranian authorities alleged at the time that Amiri had been kidnapped and possibly killed by Saudi, Israeli or American intelligence operatives.

Remarkably, the Iranian scientist reappeared almost a year later in Washington, DC. He entered the embassy of Pakistan in the American capital and asked to speak to the official in charge of the embassy’s Iranian interests section (since America and the Islamic Public have no official diplomatic relations, Pakistan’s embassy serves as an intermediary). He told officials at the embassy that he had been abducted by the Central Intelligence Agency after being drugged in Saudi Arabia. He also claimed that he was secretly transported to the US, where he was “subjected to intense psychological pressure” involving psychotropic drugs, interrogated and forced to reveal secrets about Iran’s nuclear program. But US officials denied Amiri’s claims and said the Iranian scientist had defected on his own accord and was free to return to Iran, if he wanted. Unconfirmed reports suggested that Amiri had changed his mind after defecting to the US, because he feared that Iranian authorities would harm his family. Some anonymous sources in Washington also claimed that Amiri had been offered $5 million for the information he gave the CIA, but that he had chosen to return to Iran instead of accepting the money.

On July 15, 2010, just three days after contacting the Pakistani embassy in DC, Amiri returned to a hero’s welcome in Iran, which was televised live. Meanwhile, Iranian officials accused the US and Israel of employing dirty tactics against the Islamic Republic. However, in May 2011 Amiri was suddenly arrested at his family home in Tehran and charged with treason. He underwent a secret trial, was convicted and was never again seen in public. On Saturday, Amiri’s family said they had received his body from the government, and that it appeared that he had died from hanging, judging by rope marks around his neck. On Sunday, Iran’s first deputy chief justice and former intelligence minister, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i, told reporters that Amir had indeed been executed by hanging. During his brief announcement, Mohseni-Eje’i said Amiri had endangered the Islamic Republic by giving “vital intelligence about the country to the enemy”, by which he said he meant the United States.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 August 2016 | Permalink

Fake URL shortening service was part of British online spy operation

Iran protestsAn internet website that offered free URL shortening services appears to have been a front created by British intelligence in order to spread messages and monitor activists involved in protests in Iran and the Arab world. The website was used heavily during the Iranian presidential election protests of 2009, which became known as the Iranian Green Movement. After a brief hiatus, the website was used again in 2011, as the Arab Spring revolts in North Africa and the Middle East were intensifying. The information pointing to the use of the website comes from documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the American former intelligence employee who has been granted political asylum in Russia.

According to the leaked documents, the website, lurl.me, was devised by a specialist until of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s intelligence agency that collects signals intelligence. The unit, called Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG), devised the website as part of an operation codenamed DEADPOOL. The leaked documents state that the purpose of the website was to operate as a “shaping and honeypot” tool, by helping disseminate messages in support of the protests while at the same time allowing the GCHQ to monitor the protesters’ online activities. Lurl.me first appeared in June 2009 as a self-described “free URL shortening service”, using the slogan: “we help you get links to your friends and family fast”. It was used repeatedly on Twitter and other social media platforms to spread messages against the government of Iran. But the vast majority of social media accounts that made use of the website, like @2009iranfree, were operational only for a short period of time, had few followers, and ceased all activity at the end of the Iranian Green Movement. By that time, hardly anyone was using lurl.me. But the website made its appearance again on social media in April of 2011, with messages against the government of Syria. According to Vice’s Motherboard website, Tweets using the lurl.me service appeared to be active only between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. UK time, and only on weekdays.

Both in 2009 and 2011-2013, lurl.me was used to instruct anti-government activists on how to avoid being monitored by the authorities. Some links contained instructions on how to access the Internet via satellite. Others provided directions on using proxies to access websites that were blocked by the authorities. At the same time, however, the documents leaked by Snowden show that the GCHQ also used the service to track the activities of anti-government activists who clicked on the lurl.me links, and even to ‘deanonymize’ (=to establish the real identity) of these users.

IntelNews first reported on JTRIG in February 2014, when its existence was first revealed by Snowden. The specialist unit has been associated with targeting self-described ‘hacktivist’ groups like Anonymous or LulzSec, using malware, social engineering, and other techniques. JTRIG also appears to have conducted online intelligence operations against the government of Argentina.

Motherboard reports that lurl.me was last used in November 2013, shortly after Snowden began leaking files from his secret hiding place in Russia. Motherboard said it contacted GCHQ for a reaction to the lurl.me allegations, but the agency said it would “not comment on intelligence matters”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 August 2016 | Permalink

Iran says it foiled ‘massive terrorist attack’ by Sunni militants

TehranIranian intelligence officials said on Monday that they foiled “one of the largest terrorist attacks ever planned” against the country, allegedly plotted by Sunni militants aiming to inflict mass casualties during the month of Ramadan. A statement by the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Intelligence said that the attacks had been planned to take place simultaneously in the capital Tehran and several other Iranian cities. Iranian state-owned news agencies reported that an unspecified number of suspects had been arrested and were under interrogation by the authorities.

The statement by the Intelligence Ministry provided few details, but said that the suspects were arrested in several raids conducted across Iran. It added that “a great deal of explosives and ammunition” were confiscated in the raids. The Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), which has close links with the Iranian government, said that the raids were personally coordinated by Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani. Shamkhani is secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, which is effectively the country’s national security council. Another government-controlled news agency, Fars, said that the terrorist plot aimed to attack civilian targets during the holy month of Ramadan, which is the most revered time on the Muslim religious calendar. Iran’s official state news agency, IRNA, reported on Monday that the attacks had been planned for last Thursday, a day in the Iranian religious calendar when festivities are held to commemorate the death of Khadija bint Khuwaylid, the first wife of the Prophet Mohammed.

None of the media reports identified those who were allegedly connected with the planned attacks. However, the reports repeatedly used the term ‘takfir’, a derogatory epithet used to describe Muslims who display militancy against those whom they consider to be ‘unbelievers’. The term is frequently employed by state-owned Iranian media to refer to the followers of the Islamic State, which Iran has been battling for over a year in support of the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. However, IRNA referred to the alleged plotters as “Wahhabi takfiris”, possibly implying a link with Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism is the state-promoted religious dogma. Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have sunk to unprecedented lows in recent years. Last month, Iran said it would not allow religious pilgrims to visit Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj pilgrimage, because the Saudi authorities had not responded to Tehran’s requests to provide security for Iranian pilgrims.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 21 June 2016 | Permalink

Revealed: Iran’s Khomeini had secret dealings with US in 1979

KhomeiniNewly declassified files show that Ayatollah Khomeini, who led Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, had a secret channel of communication with the United States, and even sent a personal letter to US President Jimmy Carter. On January 16, 1979, after nearly a year of street clashes and protests against his leadership, the king of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, fled the country for the US. His decision to leave was strongly influenced by his American advisors, who feared that Iran was heading toward a catastrophic civil war. The Shah’s departure did little to calm tensions in the country. Protesters —many of them armed— engaged in daily street battles with members of the police and the military, who remained loyal to Pahlavi. Meanwhile, a national strike had brought the Iranian oil sector to a standstill, thereby threatening to bring about a global energy crisis. Moreover, the country was home to thousands of American military advisors and the Iranian military was almost exclusively funded and supplied by Washington. The Carter administration worried that the weaponry and technical knowledge might fall into the hands of a new, pro-Soviet government in Tehran.

It was in that tense and highly unpredictable context that the White House opened a secret channel of communication with Ayatollah Khomeini. Newly declassified US government documents show that these secret contacts began on January 15, 1979, just days before Khomeini returned to Iran from France, where he had been living in exile. The files have been accessed by the BBC’s Persian service, and allegedly contain “diplomatic cables, policy memos, meeting records” and other documents. They show that the first meeting between US government officials and Khomeini’s team took place in Neauphle-le-Château, a small village located a few miles west of Paris. It was led by Warren Zimmermann, a political secretary at the US embassy in Paris, and Ebrahim Yazdi, an Iranian-American physician who was Khomeini’s chief of staff in France. Through these secret meetings, Washington signaled to Khomeini on January 18 that American advisors in Tehran would not oppose a discussion about changing the Iranian constitution in order to abolish the monarchy and turn the country into a republic.

Khomeini letterNine days later, on January 27, Dr. Yazdi gave Zimmerman a letter written by Khomeini and addressed to President Carter. The letter, which addressed Carter in the first person, was cabled to the Department of State from the US embassy in Paris and, according to the BBC, reached the US president. In the letter, Khomeini promises to protect “America’s interests and citizens in Iran” if Washington pressured the Iranian military to stand aside and allow him and his advisers to return to Iran. Khomeini’s fear was that the royalist Iranian military would not allow a new government to take hold in Tehran. But the exiled cleric was aware of America’s influence in Iranian military circles, which at the time were effectively under the command of General Robert Huyser, Deputy Commander of US Forces in Europe, who had been dispatched to Tehran by President Carter. Before answering Khomeini’s letter, the White House sent a draft response to the embassy in Tehran for input and advice. But Khomeini did not wait for Washington’s response. On February 1, he returned to Iran, where he was greeted by millions of people in the streets and welcomed as the next leader of the country. Meanwhile, Washington had already instructed General Huyser to rule out the so-called “option C”, namely a military coup carried out by the Iranian armed forces.

The documents unearthed by the BBC show that, despite their apparent recalcitrance, the US government and Ayatollah Khomeini were far more engaged with each other than has generally been assumed. The revelations would appear to especially affect the official narrative of the Islamic Republic, which claims that Khomeini managed to take command of the Islamic Revolution despite frantic attempts by Washington to stop him. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tehran has dismissed the BBC’s revelations, calling the documents “fake” and denouncing what it described as “hostility from the British”. The Department of State has refused comment on the BBC’s revelations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 June 2016 | Permalink

Late Taliban leader’s regular trips to Iran helped US spies track him down

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad MansourFrequent trips to Iran caused the demise of the late leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed in a secret American operation on May 21. The death of Mansour, who had led the Afghan Taliban since July 2015, when he succeeded Mullah Mohammad Omar, was announced by the Taliban on May 26. Early reports stated that Mansour was killed while traveling to the Pakistani city of Quetta from Iran. He is believed to have been visiting family or seeking medical treatment in Iran, which he appears to have entered using a forged passport.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the United States found out in February that Mansour made regular trips to Iran, as well as the precise route that the Taliban leader took to enter the country. American intelligence agencies also received “details about the devices [Mansour] used for communications” while in Iran. They then intercepted communications from Iran that matched Mansour’s electronic signature and followed these signals across the border into Pakistan. The Taliban leader entered Pakistan’s Baluchistan province on Saturday, May 21. Once in Pakistan, Mansour entered a Toyota Corolla, believed to be a taxi, and made his way through the N-40 National Highway, heading to Quetta.

The Journal report states that the Taliban were aware that Baluchistan’s airspace is outside the Central Intelligence Agency drones’ operational area, and thus “felt more comfortable there”. Indeed, the paper claims that no CIA drones were actively targeting Mansour at the time. However, US President Barack Obama had given ordered the Joint Special Operations Command to have the Taliban leader killed. Reaper drones were deployed to launch two Hellfire missiles at Mansour’s car, which was totaled, killing the Taliban commander and his driver. According to the Journal, the White House had decided to ambush Mansour before he entered the city of Quetta, in order to prevent civilian casualties. After firing at it, the American drones hovered over the remains of Mansour’s vehicle to ensure that there were no survivors, before exiting Pakistani airspace.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 May 2016 | Permalink

France seizes ship with ‘hundreds of weapons’ heading for Yemen

Combined Maritime ForcesThe United States says a ship carrying hundreds of weapons, which was captured by the French Navy in the Indian Ocean, originated from Iran, and that the cargo was destined for Yemeni rebels through Somalia. The ship was seized on March 20 by a French warship patrolling the Indian Ocean as part of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF). The CMF is a multinational naval fleet that aims to implement United Nations sanctions on Somalia. The sanctions are designed to frustrate the activities of al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked Somali militant group, and to put an end to maritime piracy in the Horn of Africa.

The ship carrying the weapons is believed to have been initially spotted by a French helicopter that was conducting surveillance flights in support of CMF’s mission. Soon after boarding the ship, French forces discovered large amounts of weaponry. A statement posted on the CMF website said that the ship was found to be carrying “several hundred AK47 assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank weapons”. The French Ministry of Defense said that the vessel was not registered to any country and that the crew of 10 was multinational. All crew members were released after being questioned by their French captors.

An assessment of the ship’s capture by the US Department of Defense states that the arms shipment probably originated in Iran and that it was heading to Somalia. However, the most likely final destination of the cargo was not al-Shabaab, but Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iran is known to be supporting and funding Houthi rebels, who are Shiite and are fighting a bitter civil war against the country’s Saudi-supported Sunni government.

It is worth noting that the recent capture of the unregistered vessel is the third such seizure of a large cache of weapons heading for Yemen through Somalia since September. In the previous most recent case, an Australian Navy ship sailing off the coast of Oman intercepted a large cache of weapons being transported to Yemen. US sources speculated that the intercepted ship originated from Iran and was heading to Yemen.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 31 March 2016 | Permalink