The XX Committee

Understanding Iran’s new spy story

Today Ha’aretz has a detailed report on the recent roll-up of an Iranian intelligence operative who two weeks ago was unmasked and detained by Israeli counterintelligence. As this revelation comes just two days after President Obama’s historic phone call with President Rouhani, his Iranian counterpart, the timing appears significant. Skeptics are already noting that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is coming to Washington, DC, this week to talk with Obama, whom he clearly dislikes, must be savoring this. But the story is more complex, and interesting, than it appears.

The case reveals quite a bit about Iranian espionage tradecraft. The detained spy, Ali Mansouri, is an operative of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC, Pasdaran to the Iranians), who was sent to Israel to conduct espionage and plot terrorism; significantly, he took a bunch of pictures of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv which, given the Revolutionary Guards’ extensive ties to terrorism, is worrisome. I’ve been tracking the Pasdaran for a long time, especially in the Balkans, and wherever they go, mayhem follows.

Significantly, Mansouri is reported to be an operative of the IRGC’s elite Qods (Jerusalem) Force, which is the formidable foreign intelligence and terrorism arm of the Iranian regime. Its leader, General Qassem Soleimani – who conveniently this week was profiled in a New Yorker piece that you shouldn’t miss – is arguably the most powerful man in Iran and is indisputably the spy-master of the Middle East.

Mansouri’s resume is interesting from an counterintelligence perspective. He left his native land in 1980, after the Iranian revolution, settling in Turkey, where he stayed for the next seventeen years. In 1997, he emigrated to Belgium, reinventing himself as “Alex Mans” and becoming a naturalized citizen before returning to Iran a decade later, marrying an Iranian woman. For the last several years Mansouri/Mans has traveled frequently between Iran, Turkey, and Belgium.

He visited Israel three times in little more than a year, in July 2012, January 2013, and again this month. He arrived in Israel on 6 September and was arrested by authorities as he was leaving the country five days later, on the 9/11 anniversary. These trips were taken on behalf of the Pasdaran, Mansouri/Mans told the Israeli Security Service (SHABAK), which recruited him in 2012 to establish front companies in Europe to obtain access to Israel. Given Israeli vigilance about any Iran-connected visitors to their country, his cover seems to have been flimsy (this is apparently one of the fronts Mansouri/Mans set up), but since SHABAK makes Israel pretty much a denied area for Iranian intelligence, any access, even if slight, beats no access from Tehran’s viewpoint.

To any counterintelligence officer, it’s obvious that Mansouri/Mans is no James Bond, rather an expendable access agent whose mission was establishing covers and making connections that would be valuable to the properly trained spies that the Qods Force possesses in considerable numbers.  Part of his task was assessing potential terrorism targets such as the U.S. Embassy, as well as Israeli security sites that SHABAK has not elaborated on. It’s safe to say that this mission was the probable precursor to some bad things.

There’s no doubt Netanyahu will mention this SHABAK success to his American counterparts this week,  probably with a sly smile. The case serves as a reminder that Iran remains a formidable espionage adversary and practitioner of state terrorism through the Pasdaran. One phone call, however historic, changes none of this.

Moreover, there’s little doubt that the Pasdaran is no fan of President Rouhani’s outreach to the “Great Satan,” and General Soleimani has tauntingly portrayed Obama’s sudden willingness to parley with Tehran as a sign of American weakness emanating from the “total failure” of U.S. policies in the Greater Middle East.

The larger point is that the United States and the West ought not deceive themselves about decison-making in Iran. President Rouhani is one actor among many in Tehran, and far from the most powerful one. Whatever the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) says, it must always be kept in mind that the IRGC, which is really a secret state within a state, is a mightier actor in the crafting of Iranian foreign policy than Tehran’s diplomats are. Attention ought to be paid to what Soleimani and his cadres say and do, rather than focusing solely on pleasant pronouncements from public faces of the revolutionary regime.

During the Cold War, most Western experts in government and academia focused heavily on what the Soviet MFA was up to, parsing the statements of even low-ranking diplomats for hidden meanings. Unfortunately for such analysis, the KGB was a far more important player in most Soviet foreign policy than the MFA ever was, as post-Cold War scholarship has conclusively demonstrated. As a result, most Sovietologists missed the boat on what really drove Moscow’s policies abroad. Let’s not repeat that mistake with Iran now.

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