Thursday, December 10, 2009

Iranian Intelligence Abroad, A Telling Glimpse

The images of Iranian street demonstrations has captivated the imagination of the world. After a stolen election, bare knuckles brutality has been used to keep the Ahmadinejad regime in power.

But does Iran's power stop at its borders? Anyone who has studied revolutions knows that they are like trees cultivated as seedlings in a greenhouse and transplanted to their respective homelands in the proper season. Jose Marti spent decades in New York City. Lenin went to Switzerland. Ho Chi Minh was a dish washer in New York City. The unwritten rule is that you can plot revolution in your native land as long as you leave the host country alone.

This basic fact of political life is not lost on totalitarian regimes. Sadaam Husein's regime used to send video cassettes to dissidents abroad of their relatives being horribly tortured. It was enough to cow many into silence. Assassinations abroad are a common tool. Iran has a strategy and a program to control, manipulate, monitor and suppress dissidents abroad.

Ali Alfoneh is a political scientist whose scope of concern naturally includes his homeland. He had personal contact with Iran's overseas intelligence services. He wrote as follows in an article titled "The Bearded Gentleman" about his first hand experiences in The American, which is a journal of the American Enterprise Institute.

"Rock stars are worshipped by their fans, so are movie stars, famous authors, and even political analysts—or so I once thought. I had at least one fan while working in Copenhagen from 1988 to 2009. My fan was a bearded gentleman who showed up at all my public presentations on Iran. Regardless of the venue, season, and time of the day, this gentleman would find his way to each event and sit in the first row, dressed in the same suit, recording each word I spoke in his little notebook. The fourth time I saw the gentleman, I approached him and after elaborate exchange of Persian formalities I asked who he was. “I work in the cultural section of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he responded flatly; and down tumbled my world of vanity. His presumed devotion was less due to the power of my arguments or eloquence of speech, but evidently because he was employed to do so, and because the Islamic Republic wanted me to know that the embassy keeps an eye on Iranian scholars abroad."

Mr. Alfoneh saw his encounter as an opportunity, and engaged his minder in conversation, asking him how many Iranian spies there were in Denmark. The man created a picture of jealous Iranians caught up in personal and political rivalries, falling all over themselves to feed information to the Iranian government. Mr. Alfoneh found this answer to resonate with a measure of truth, even though the curious gentleman who was monitoring him had gracefully sidestepped any specifics. Iranian exile politics is a fractious affair. There are ethnic minorities within Iran. There are monarchists, communists and those who believe in something akin to Western democracy. Some of them hate each other more than they do the regime in Teheran.

Mr. Alfoneh pointed out another technique, that of economic engagement. He described it as follows in the same article.

"First and foremost, the Islamic Republic has managed to pacify great numbers of the expat Iranian population by returning confiscated real estate, land, and savings in Iranian banks. Indeed, by encouraging business, the Islamic Republic has managed to increase economic ties between the Iranian community outside of Iran and the motherland. This includes those Iranians politically or culturally opposed to the Islamic regime. But every once in a while, tales emerge of confiscated passports, interrogation, and imprisonment. While few in number, these cases spread fear among Iranians and temper their involvement in opposition activities abroad."

It is a principle of discipline that the possibility of punishment makes its actual use a rarity in the hands of a skilled disciplinarian. Such a principle is useful to a regime that treats its citizens like children.

The intelligence services don't simply collect information, they use it to exacerbate internal tensions in Iranian political, social and cultural groups abroad, according to Mr. Alfoneh. Groups that are independent of the regime are perceived as a threat, simply by providing a gathering place that is not under government auspices. Soccer clubs, cultural organisations and learning centers are then created by the Iranian government to provide a meeting ground for Iranians abroad that is more easily controlled.

Now that there is a demand within Iran for free elections, the bravery of Iranians in Iran is according to Mr. Alfoneh emboldening Iranians abroad. It is far easier to unite around a program of general political rights than it is to coalesce around a social vision and an economic approach. In the aftermath of the discredited June 12 elections, the old tricks of Iranian intelligence abroad are yielding diminishing returns.

The Ahmadinejad regime has gone to great measures to secure its hold on power. The streets of Tehran and other cities and the villages across the country are in a vise grip that betrays the desperation of a revolution in its terminal stages. It is in the streets of Copenhagen that we become aware of the cunning of the regime in Tehran as it hangs on to power by any means necessary. It will be interesting to see how Iranians abroad react to the events in their homeland and what, if anything the Ahmadinejad regime can do with its diminishing options. It is men like Ali Alfoneh who provide a valuable perspective in understanding these questions.

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