By William Tucker
Over the past weekend there were several interesting pieces in the media regarding Iran. Siemens, a German engineering firm, was accused by Tehran of sabotaging equipment destined for Iran with explosives. Naturally, the Iranian government did not state where the Siemens equipment was coming from. Because of the current sanctions regime sales of certain equipment to Iran is prohibited. Iran then claimed to have discovered a listening device last month, only recently revealed, that was disguised as a rock outside the Fordow facility – the same facility where uranium enrichment has recently increased. This is also the same facility where an explosion disabled the power lines running from the city of Qom to the Fordow facility during the same timeframe. And finally, the U.S. has reportedly taken the final step towards delisting the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, also known as MEK, from the State Departments list of terrorist organizations. Each story, although reported separately, is linked and demonstrates the continued effort to collect intelligence within Iran. Furthermore, the continued collection of intelligence may reveal information timely enough to act upon covertly, diplomatically, or a combination of both.
The proposed delisting of MEK has been an idea floating around in foreign policy circles for some time. To be sure, both advocates and dissenters of the measure offer compelling evidence to support their position and have often done so on ideological or moralistic grounds. In this case, however, the pragmatic need to leverage the MEK inside Iran may have been the impetus behind the decision from the State Department. Using dissident groups for intelligence collection is fraught with risk because the collector may be presented with information that could be used to pursue the dissident movements political aims, but the U.S., and other concerned powers, may be willing to take that risk. The upside of using a dissident group is the obvious linguistic and cultural ties with the target country. Additionally, underground movements may have existing information/logistics networks and, quite obviously, already know the lay of the land. Despite the plethora of misgivings that are present when working with a group formerly listed as a terrorist entity, the current need to collect information from a target as difficult as Iran can make the relationship necessary.
One way to lower the risk associated with working with a dissident movement is to ensure the capture of unbiased information via technical means. If the Iranians are to be believed that they found a listening device outside Fordow, then the device had to be placed by someone with a knowledge of the land and the ability to approach the site without raising suspicions. Using a movement like the MEK would be a smart approach in accomplishing this. For those wishing to collect raw intelligence without having to use an indigenous human asset to relay that information, placing an electronic device capable of capturing and retransmitting that information, offers a workable solution. Also mentioned in the recent media reports was the sabotage of the power lines running to the Fordow plant from the nearby city of Qom. Again, using an asset, or assets, already in the country can lower the risk of a disruption in the operation. Granted, Iranian intelligence may be trying, and likely has, penetrated the MEK to some extent; however the MEK is a dissident group and assumes a high risk simply by existing. Using the group to collect intelligence for a third party doesn’t necessarily increase their risk of incurring Iranian ire, but it can create risk for the collector through counterintelligence exploitation.
The move by the U.S. to delist the MEK as a terrorist organization may also have roots in an unlikely source. It has been speculated that Israel has been working with both the MEK and some Kurdish elements to conduct covert activities inside Iran. Some have even gone so far as to claim that the MEK was involved in several assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. While open source information is inadequate to support such claims we cannot easily dismiss them either. It is certainly possible that Israel would use an indigenous dissident group just as any other intelligence collection effort by a nation-state would, but that alone is hardly evidence of a working relationship. If a relationship does exist, then the U.S. delisting of MEK becomes rather interesting. It could represent an attempt by Washington to take full control of covert activities in Iran because of concerns over Israeli activities. Both nations have an interest in undermining the Iranian nuclear program and it appears that these media reports support the continuance of a concerted effort to do just that. That being said, the U.S. and Israel are working under different timeframes and the actions of one ally may inhibit the actions of the other. All told, the efforts to undermine Iranian nuclear efforts are continuing, but the endgame is far from certain. These recent developments are just one piece of a complex puzzle.