By Neil Mackay
The Sunday Herald – To British and American intelligence officers, the court appearance on Wednesday of a British soldier on charges of spying for the Iranian regime was not a shock. "We know that the Iranians are crawling all over us – particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq," one UK intelligence source said. "This kind of event has long been expected."
Last week, corporal Daniel James, a British soldier of Iranian extraction, was charged under the Official Secrets Act with passing secrets to the enemy. He was a trusted aide and interpreter for lieutenant-general David Richards, head of Nato forces in Afghanistan. If the allegations are true, Iranian intelligence have penetrated the very heart of the British military.
While it is an open secret that Iranian spies are operating with something approaching impunity in Iraq and also Afghanistan, the hidden story is the activity of Iranian intelligence operatives in western Europe and America. In Britain, France, Holland, Germany and the US, Iranian intelligence has run a relentless covert war against dissident Iranians and exiles from the religious regime for over two decades. After the 1979 theocratic revolution, tens of thousands of Iranians fled their homeland seeking refuge in the West.
Tehran’s revolutionary government infiltrated spies within this throng of exiles. These "sleepers" had two purposes: one, to spy on dissident organisations; and, two, to get into positions of power in the West – in areas such as academia, the media and industry – which could be exploited by Iran to extract secrets from Western nations and influence the policy-making of governments in Europe and America.
A number of documents from the German and Dutch security agencies, which have been seen by the Sunday Herald, reveal the extent of Iranian espionage in Western Europe. One 2005 report by Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution roughly equivalent to Britain’s MI5 stated: "Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) has several groups under surveillance in Europe … for collecting information and spying activities, Iran’s intelligence service uses a network of agents who have defected from dissident organisations. The agents are invited to travel to Iran for briefings. In the process of the talks these people are put under pressure.
"For agent recruitment, the MOIS … brings psychological pressure to bear on the targeted person, eg by threatening them with reprisals on their relatives living in Iran. Those who do not travel to Iran are contacted and directed from Iran by phone."
Holland’s Interior Security Service says that Iranian intelligence "distributes negative information" on dissidents and "strives to portray a Satanic view" of anti-Tehran refugees in order to weaken the opposition in exile. Ex-members of dissident groups who have been turned by Iranian intelligence are encouraged to write diatribes against exile groups. As well as using threats and intimidation to turn espionage targets, bribes are also employed.
Another German security report said that Iranian intelligence used the embassy in Berlin as the centre for its spying activities. Intelligence chiefs in Iran direct the European operations. The report states that when it comes to recruiting spies from exiles, "Tehran will make the final decision".
The German intelligence report also notes that an Iranian living in Germany was arrested for "working as an agent of the Iranian secret service". He had been spying on "Iranian dissidents living in Frankfurt under instructions of MOIS".
German intelligence feared that Iranian spies would carry out an act of terror during the World Cup and then blame it on exiles and dissidents in Europe in order to discredit their opponents internationally.
One MOIS spy revealed details of his espionage operations against dissidents and exiles in an affidavit he submitted to the US courts. Jamshid Tafrishi said: "I pretended that I was an opponent of the Iranian regime, while I was in fact advancing the assignments given by the Iranian Intelligence Ministry." He says he "actively participated in the Iranian regime conspiracy" to blacken the names of exiles. This included relaying false information to foreign governments, including claims that dissidents had the support of Saddam Hussein.
Between 1995 and 1999, he received some ÃÂ£35,000 from Iranian intelligence chiefs as payment for work on their behalf. Tafrishi said one of the senior spies he reported to had orchestrated the murder of at least 100 dissidents in Iran. He was told by his handlers that if dissidents could be discredited, then Tehran believed "the United Nations would no longer condemn the Iranian regime".
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were targeted, Tafrishi claimed, as recipients of disinformation and black propaganda about exiles and dissidents by Iranian intelligence, as was the US State Department and UN Human Rights Commission.
Clare Lopez, a high-ranking CIA officer of 20 years standing and now a senior adviser to the Iran Policy Committee, a Washington-based think-tank which advocates democracy in Iran, says: "The Iranian regime deploys its intelligence agents and assets in a very sophisticated campaign to infiltrate and influence Western academia, media, non-governmental organisations and policy-making structures.
"They make extensive use of the internet and fund or manage dozens of online websites. The MOIS are masters of disinformation, denial and deception – all crafted to lull the international community into acceptance of the terrorist regime in Tehran, compel us to abandon any serious punitive action at the UN Security Council over their nuclear weapons programme, and smear the reputation of Iranian dissidents and exiles who oppose the clerical clique that rules Iran today."
Lopez says that "Iranian intelligence agents have been implicated in assassinations, bombings and terrorist attacks around the world since the 1979 Iranian revolution". According to Lopez, as well as sources in British intelligence, the pace of Iranian espionage has increased dramatically since avowed hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became Iran’s president in 2005.
One of the most audacious Iranian intelligence operations ever was launched in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. One of the highest-ranking official in the British Ministry of Defence told the Sunday Herald that Iranian intelligence used Iraqi exiles – who were desperate to have Saddam deposed – to pass fake intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programmes to the West.
The Iranian operation, however, does not let the US and the UK off the hook for massaging intelligence and lying to the British and American people about weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Britain and America were already running two secret "spin units" – Operation Rockingham in the UK and the Office of Special Plans in America – designed to bypass traditional intelligence analysts within the CIA and MI6 and exaggerate claims about Iraq’s nuclear, biological and chemical capabilities in order to concoct a false premise for war.
The Iranian operation involved Tehran spies funnelling fake intelligence on Saddam’s WMD to organisations like the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which in turn sent the disinformation to London and Washington. The INC was desperate to see Saddam removed, and Washington and London were happy for any bits of information which would bolster the case for war.
Ahmed Chalabi, who led the INC, was later accused by the US of giving American secrets to the Iranians after the invasion. He denied the allegations, but his position as Washington’s "pet Iraqi" was soured forever.
The British defence chief said the Iranian operation was "one of the biggest intelligence coups of the century", adding: "It got the US and UK to go to war against Iraq by infiltrating our intelligence services in the most subtle of ways. The operation was quite brilliant."
According to British and American intelligence sources, thousands of Iran’s spies from the MOIS and also from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are now operating in Iraq. Lopez said that in Iraq, Tehran’s spies were "co-ordinating the transfer of advanced IED improvised explosive device technology that kills British, American and other coalition troops; inciting sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia populations; mounting intelligence and surveillance operations against coalition forces; and conducting training of Iraqi insurgent forces".
"Iranian intelligence and security forces also provide safe haven, safe passage, logistics, funding and official documentation support to Iraqi insurgents," she said.
Western intelligence services say that Islamic Revolutionary Guards were in North Korea when it tested long-range missiles back in July and were also there in October when the regime of Kim Jong-il claimed to have exploded a nuclear weapon. Iranian intelligence also assisted Hezbollah during its war against Israel in the summer of this year.
MOIS has an extensive network of front companies around the world that act as cover for Iranian intelligence operatives. These front companies have helped the regime get the technology it has needed to develop its nuclear programme. Iran has been repeatedly accused of carrying out acts of state-sponsored terrorism and assassinating enemies of the regime.
British and US intelligence is engaged in a global cold war with Iranian spies. The US keeps a file on every single Iranian diplomat on the planet, filled with details of their personal and professional relationships and notes on all their movements and meetings. Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, and the security agencies of countries including Jordan and Egypt also assist with counter-espionage work against Iranian intelligence.
MI6 is assisting dissidents in Iran located near the country’s southwestern border with Iraq. British special forces and intelligence officers are able to operate in the area by crossing the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran from the British-controlled southern sector of Iraq. There has been a series of bombings in this oil-producing region of Iran which Tehran has blamed on "foreigners".
British and American intelligence agents are also mounting a push against Iran and increasing espionage activity inside the country. Spy planes are making increasingly frequent reconnaissance missions over Iran.
A significant number of Iranian spies have been educated in the West – particularly in the UK. As well as using embassies as a front for their spies, Iranian intelligence also provides cover and employment for its agents in cultural organisations, the media, charities and businesses.
Following the arrest of corporal James for allegedly working for Iran, one British intelligence source said that the UK spying services were now under more pressure than at any time since the second world war.
"During the cold war, we only had one main enemy to worry about – Soviet Russia. But now we have homegrown Islamic terrorists, al-Qaeda terrorists from abroad, a resurgent Russia that’s upped its espionage game, a proliferation of states with weapons of mass destruction like North Korea – and then there is Iran too.
"Iran has one of the most sophisticated intelligence networks on Earth, I believe. They are resourceful, clever and never complacent. They also have a cause and ideology that they believe in and are fighting for. On top of all that, the regime is beset with problems ranging from a creaking economy to a growth in dissent. That all combines to make a nation – and an intelligence system – that is a powerful and hungry adversary," the source said.