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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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

Mossad chief sees historic shift of alliances as Arab states side with Israel against Iran

Yossi CohenIn a rare public appearance, the director of the Mossad spy agency said that the Middle East is witnessing a historic shift of alliances as many Arab states are forming tacit pacts with Israel against Iran and its proxies. Yosef “Yossi” Cohen spoke on Monday morning at the Herzliya Conference, a security-themed event organized by the Interdisciplinary Center, a university in Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv.

In his 40-minute speech Cohen said that the Mossad had identified the present time as “a rare opportunity —perhaps the first in the history of the Middle East— to reach a regional understanding that would lead to an inclusive regional peace agreement” between Israel and most of the Arab states. He justified his reasoning by claiming that many Arab states are siding with Israel to pursue “common interests [such as] the fight against rivals like Iran and jihadist terrorism”. This historic shift in alliances is happening as Israel is enjoying “close relations with the White House” and keeping open “channels of communication with the Kremlin”, said the spy chief. These factors “combine to create what might be a one-time window of opportunity” for Israel to form a strategic alliance with the majority of its Arab neighbors, said Cohen.

The Mossad chief went on to allege that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were behind the recent bombings of commercial oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. He told the conference that he could “say with certainty that Iran was behind these attacks” and that they were “approved by the Iranian leadership and carried out by the [IRGC]”. Cohen cited “the best sources of Israeli and Western intelligence” but did not provide specific evidence to support his allegation, which Iran denies. Later in his speech, Cohen said that the IRGC and Iranian intelligence agencies had carried out assassinations throughout Europe and had discussed further plans to attack Jewish and Israeli targets in Denmark, Azerbaijan and the North America. “And that is only the tip of the iceberg”, said Cohen, and went on to claim that the IRGC had set up a network of 300 agents in the African continent and was heavily present in Syria, mainly through its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.

At the conclusion of his speech, the Mossad chief repeated prior warnings by Israeli officials that the Jewish state would never allow the development of an Iranian nuclear arsenal. “Mossad and the State of Israel have not signed the nuclear deal and will do all to ensure Iran will never possess a nuclear arsenal”, said Cohen.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 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

Israeli officials announce arrest of alleged deep-cover spy for Iran

Thaer Sha'afutIsraeli authorities announced on Thursday the arrest of a deep-cover intelligence operative who allegedly attempted to establish a base for Iranian intelligence in Israel and the West Bank, according to news reports from Israel. Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security and counterintelligence agency, said it arrested Thaer Sha’afut (pictured), a Jordanian national, on espionage charges. The arrest reportedly occurred in April, but was only announced this week. According to Shin Bet officials, Sha’afut was an accredited deep-cover intelligence operative for the Iranian spy services. He was allegedly was commissioned “to carry out missions that were meant to establish a network in Israel and the West Bank, which would be used for covert operations by the Iranians”.

Israeli officials said Sha’afut received instructions from his Iranian handlers to enter Israeli territory between July and August of 2018. After entering Israel, his goal was “to form business ties” in the West Bank and in Israel proper. He planned to do that, said the Shin Bet, by hiring Shiite Muslims to staff a new factory in Jordan and then use the new venture “as an anchor for future Iranian activities in Israel and the West Bank”. These activities included the eventual recruitment of “spies who would help collect intelligence for Iranian interests”, according to court documents. The Shin Bet said that Sha’afut’s handlers were two Arabic-speaking Iranian intelligence officers based in Lebanon and Syria, who went by the names Abu Sadek and Abu Jaffar. They allegedly provided Shafut with “an encrypted communication device”, which he used to arrange clandestine meetings with them throughout 2018 and 2019.

Sha’afut’s Iranian handlers allegedly planned to use him as a conduit for transferring funds to spies in the West Bank and Israel. They had told Sha’afut that Iranian intelligence would make an initial investment of $500,000 in his factory venture in Jordan and to an import-export business, in order to sustain his base of operations, with more funds to follow. Once the factory was set up, Sha’afut was expected to travel clandestinely to Iran in order to complete his training as a deep-cover case officer. Israeli daily Haaretz said on Thursday that Sha’afut was indicted earlier this month by military prosecutors in Jerusalem for “contact with an enemy country, contact with a hostile organization, and conspiracy to funnel money from an enemy entity”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 June 2019 | Permalink

Iran says it dismantled a ‘complicated’ CIA cyber operation in several countries

Ali ShamkhaniA senior Iranian security official said on Monday that Tehran had dismantled “one of the most complicated” espionage operations by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, leading to “arrests and confessions” of suspects in several countries. The announcement was made by Ali Shamkhani (pictured), secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, the Islamic Republic’s highest security decision-making body, which is chaired by the country’s president.

Speaking in Tehran to reporters from pro-government news agencies, including IRIB and Fars News, Shamkhani said that Iran had “exposed” what he described as a CIA-run cyber espionage network, which carried out “operations in different countries”. He said the alleged espionage network had been detected by Iranian counterintelligence agencies “some time ago and was dismantled”. Iran’s counterintelligence actions had led to the “identification and arrest of CIA intelligence agents”, said Shamkhani, many of whom had been arrested “in different countries”. The arrests occurred after Iran “shared the information about the exposed network with our allies”, said Shamkhani, which led to the “disclosure and dismantling of a network of CIA officers” as well as the “detention and punishment of several spies”. Shamkhani did not specify the number of people arrested, or in which countries, but appeared to refer to both CIA personnel and local assets. He concluded his remarks by saying that Iran was building a regional alliance “to counter American espionage”. He also urged Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence to release “videos and confessions” relating to the arrests.

Meanwhile, Iranian anti-government groups based abroad alleged on Monday that a senior official in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was arrested in Tehran for allegedly working for Israel. The unidentified individual is believed to have helped Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency gain access to the archive of the Iranian nuclear program in 2018, and steal an unspecified number of classified documents. It is not known whether this alleged arrest is connected with Shamkhani’s announcement on Monday.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 June 2019 | Permalink

In a surprise move, Iran releases Washington resident accused of espionage

Nizar ZakkaIran has announced that it will release a Lebanese national and United States permanent resident, who has served nearly half of his 10-year prison sentence for allegedly spying for Washington. Nizar Zakka, 52, was born in Lebanon but was schooled in the US, where he lived permanently until 2015. In September of that year, Zakka traveled to the Iranian capital Tehran at the invitation of the government of Iran, where he spoke at a conference on Internet-based entrepreneurship. He attended the event as an information technology expert who worked for companies like Cisco and Microsoft before setting up his own company called IJMA3. Based in Washington, DC, IJMA3 lobbies investors to help build online networks in the Middle East in order to develop the region economically, socially and politically.

But on September 18, 2015, as Zakka was traveling to the Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran for his return flight, he was detained by Iranian security officers and never made it out of the country. A year later, he was convicted of spying for the US and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The court also handed him a $4.2 million fine, allegedly for “collaborating with a government that was hostile to Iran”. Iran’s state-run media said Zakka was a “treasure trove” of intelligence on the American military. But the Lebanese IT expert denied all charges leveled against him. He said he was tortured during his interrogation and he went on frequent hunger strikes to protest his innocence and the conditions of his detention. Throughout his imprisonment, the Lebanese government pressured Iran for his release. The US also raised the issue through Congress and the Department of State. But Washington’s ability to influence Iran was limited, as it does not have diplomatic relations with Tehran.

On Tuesday, however, Lebanon’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had received word from Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon that Zakka would be released soon. The Iranians reportedly said they decided to release Zakka following personal interventions by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the country’s President Michel Aoun. Additionally, said the Iranian ambassador, Zakka would be released as “a goodwill gesture” during Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. The statement added that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was “ready to receive a Lebanese delegation at any time for the extradition of the Lebanese prisoner Nizar Zakka”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 June 2019 | Permalink