Classified State Department cables from several U.S. embassies around the world show that U.S. diplomats known as “Iran watchers” have been in regular contact with sources inside Iran, including Iranian government officials.
The cables, most of which are classified as “Secret/No FORN,” have been released through WikiLeaks, a website that claims to have acquired a cache of nearly 250,000 State Department documents from the SIPRNET, the U.S. government’s classified version of the Internet.
Despite urging from Congress, the Obama Justice Department has been reluctant to launch an investigation into WikiLeaks, despite the site’s previous security breaches, itself, and website founder Julian Assange is hiding in plain sight in Great Britain, where he has given his address and phone number to the local authorities.
Iran watchers report to a special Iran Affairs office at the State Department. The office was created in early 2006, with the goal of making contact with Iranians and improving the U.S. government’s institutional knowledge of Iran.
Its first overseas hub was in Dubai, just across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran.
In describing the new office in 2006, then-Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told The New York Times that he wanted young U.S. diplomats to “interview every Iranian you can find, get to know them — all the Iranians who come out and do their banking there and do their weekends there — and you tell us how we should understand Iran."
Some of what they learned is in the leaked State Department cables. Although sometimes tantalizing, the cables often rely on what journalists and lawyers would call hearsay.
In a March 3, 2009, cable, the Iran watcher at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, reported on the failure of an early Obama administration effort to make nice to the Iranian regime by sending a women’s badminton team to Tehran.
Citing “a trusted contact” who had visited Tehran recently and was in touch with an aide to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the cable claimed that Ahmadinejad had urged Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to allow the team to visit and was thus a potential partner for the United States.
“Ahmadinejad believed this represented an important early gesture by the new administration to build confidence and show respect, and therefore a ‘first test’ whether Iran could work effectively with the Obama administration,” the cable reported.
The source claimed that Ahmadinejad’s aide told him the United States erred in announcing the visit prematurely when the badminton team was still in Dubai, awaiting visas to Iran. The announcement gave rise to fears among regime leaders that the U.S. government was trying to stage a repeat of the U.S. wrestling team’s 1998 visit to Iran, which embarrassed the regime.
At that time, “Iranian and international press broadcast scenes of Iranian crowds cheering wildly as the U.S. team entered the arena carrying an American flag and continued to cheer the U.S. team during its matches, sometimes even waving American flags in support,” the cable explained.
“Khamenei demanded that there be no possible repeat of such a scene within Iran” and an embargo of any press coverage until the American women arrived in Iran.
The State Department’s premature announcement of the friendly sports match made the Iranians feel they had been “burned,” the cable said.
A few days later, the Iran watcher in Baku, Azerbaijan, named a dozen front companies and individuals suspected of money-laundering, sanctions-busting, and illicit technology purchases for Tehran.
The Baku Iran watcher based the allegations on conversations with “Baku-based Iranian students, business figures, and human rights activists; a Tehran-based Iranian exporter; a prominent businessman working in Iran; the Executive Director of the [American Chamber of Commerce] in Azerbaijan; an Azerbaijani oil company executive; and a local partner in a leading international management consulting firm.”
None of the sources are named in the cable, but the suspects include a former colleague of Ahmadinejad from Tehran, a Bank Melli manager now working as a currency trader in Baku, and a Revolutionary Guards general doing business with Azerbaijan Transportation Minister Ziya Mammedov.
“Mammedov's immediate family owns Azerbaijan's largest commercial development company, and he is notoriously corrupt even for Azerbaijan. Iran watcher has heard many allegations from Azerbaijani contacts of creative corrupt practices involving highway construction here,” the cable noted.
The Iranian currency dealer reportedly brought $5 million in cash from Iran and deposited it off books with the Bank of Baku, an institution that Iranians living in Azerbaijan favor, the cable alleged.
Jamsheed "Jushkar" Mahmudoglu, described as a Turk whose family originally came from Tabriz, Iran, before the 1979 revolution, was a shareholder in the bank “and allegedly does favors for Iranian government personnel, including facilitating of desired foreign items and money laundering,” the cable claimed.
But the diplomat’s allegations were dead wrong, according to the Bank of Baku.
“Bank of Baku officially denies information published on 29 November 2010 by Internet resource WikiLeaks regarding its involvement in ‘money laundering’ activities,” according to a statement on its website.
“Bank of Baku also denies information that someone by the name Jamsheed Jushkar Mahmudoglu is a large shareholder of the bank . . . In addition, Bank of Baku has never been involved in any illegal money transfers or any other unlawful activities and person named Adil Sharibiani [the alleged Iranian currency dealer] never been a client of our bank.”
The lessons from this incident should be clear. What diplomats can whisper behind closed doors can’t always be repeated in public — at least not without further proof. And that is precisely why the cables were properly classified.
The cables show that the Iran watchers are aware that some of their sources may be trying to play them, and that they make efforts to corroborate the information they are reporting to Washington.
However, if they reported only fully corroborated information, the State Department Iran watchers would be little more than reporters for the evening news, not diplomats whose mission is to acquire information from confidential sources.
For example, in another cable from Baku also dated March 6, 2009, the Iran watcher quotes a “well-connected Iranian businessman who owns a Baku-based oil services company,” who told him that a company named “Insultek” allegedly had sold nuclear-related material to Iran.
Insultek was owned by U.K. citizens of Indian origin, and disguised the shipments in “falsely labeled containers,” according to the source.
“Perhaps more disturbingly, the source [who had just returned from ten days in Dubai] said that he had been informed by an Iranian friend who had collaborated in the activity that INSULTEC recently helped facilitate a shipment from the UAE to Iran consisting of twelve containers [possibly labeled ‘insulation’] of unknown material” bound for Iran’s nuclear power plant at Busheir.
The Iran watcher pointed out that his source’s oil services company had an insulation division “that may be in competition with INSULTEC.” Nevertheless, his source had “provided inside information on many other Iranian issues . . . that does not relate to his private interests in any way.”
Another intriguing glance into the State Department’s efforts to gaze into Iran from afar is a series of reports about the June 2009 presidential elections in Iran. U.S. missions around the world were tasked to speak with Iranians who had just come from Iran to get a flavor for what was happening on the streets and behind the scenes.
In a report from Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, just one week after the election, the local Iran watcher spoke to an Iranian source who claimed that Ahmadinejad received at most 4 million to 5 million votes, not 24 million. The overwhelming majority of the votes had gone to former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi, he claimed.
The source told the Iran watcher, “Iranians are puzzled by the muted reaction thus far of the U.S. and EU governments,” as well as “very disappointed” by the number of Arab rulers who have sent messages to Ahmadinejad congratulating him on his “victory.”
“He said that the international community should acknowledge the illegitimacy of the election and demand that the Iranian authorities release and account for the results from each precinct,” the cable reported.
And yet, the Obama administration ignored these reports and declined to utter a single word of disapproval during the crucial two weeks after the elections, when an estimated 3 million Iranians took to the streets to protest what some were calling a “coup d’état” by Ahmadinejad and hard-liners within the Revolutionary Guard.
The Iran watcher in Istanbul reported in August 2009 on a lengthy conversation with a business associate of former Iranian President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who was widely believed to have financed Mousavi’s presidential campaign and who remains a bitter enemy of Ahmadinejad.
The cable is routed to Iran watchers at the embassies in London, Berlin, Baku, Ashgabat, Baghdad, and Dubai.
The businessman “claimed Rafsanjani told him that Supreme Leader Khamenei has terminal leukemia and is expected to die in months. As a result, Rafsanjani decided to stop challenging Khamenei, and instead is preparing the ground to have himself appointed Khamenei's successor,” the cable states.
The businessman was a “strong Mousavi supporter,” who called the results of the June 12 election “a massive fraud.” He correctly foretold Rafsanjani’s strategic gambit to become supreme leader, an effort that failed when the Assembly of Experts denied his bid to be elected its chairman \that year.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the outgoing ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, has blasted the State Department for refusing to provide him with information that is now out in the public domain through WikiLeaks.
Congress has pledged to conduct hearings to examine the damage that the release of the classified cables has inflicted upon U.S. national security.
But they also should try to evaluate the cables themselves. How valuable were the insights they provided? And did the political leadership of the Obama administration put the work of its diplomats to best use?
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