Iran Rattled by Spy Wars

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U.S. intelligence is poised to reap big rewards from Iran's continuing political turmoil.

Already the CIA has harvested at least two important defectors from the regime.

In an episode worthy of cold war spy thrillers, Ali-Reza Asgari, a former deputy defense who ran Iran's Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon in the 1980s, surreptitiously defected to the U.S. in Turkey in 2007 with briefcases of material on Tehran's nuclear program.

According to some reports, Asgari, now living under a new identity in Texas, had been a CIA mole since 2003.

Similarly last summer, Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri disappeared during a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia,.

Iran's none-too-happy foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki said in October that Tehran had "evidence of a U.S. role in the disappearance of the Iranian national ... in Saudi Arabia."

The CIA, of course, is not talking about it. A State Department spokesman said only that the U.S. was "aware" of the Iranian allegations, but otherwise had no information on the case.

Defectors like Amiri and Asgari, of course, can provide the CIA and FBI with the names of other Iranian officials who might be amenable to recruitment pitches.

But the Tehran regime, evidently rattled by the force and breadth of internal dissent since Iran's disputed presidential election six months ago, recently presented the West, if not the CIA, with a whole new pool of possible recruits.

In September the regime ordered home 40 ambassadors who had voiced support for "rioters" protesting the election results, according to Iran's semi-official Fars news agency.

Odds are that a number of them, figuring their careers -- and privileges (if not their lives) -- may be at risk, have already sought out U.S. diplomats with the pleas to defect.

During the cold war, nothing pushed Russian diplomats and spies into the arms of the FBI and CIA faster than an order from the Kremlin to return home.

"I think this is looking more like the old Cold War intelligence confrontation when dissidents would cross to the West under any reason, fearing suppression," says Walid Phares, author of The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad, who noted that a million Iranians make the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia every year.

"Since last June, it is natural that U.S. and Western, but also Arab intelligence are receiving unprecedented information on Iran's defense, military and political crises simply because thousands of Iranian citizens have turned against their regime after the demonstrations following the elections and the repression on the streets," said Phares, an advisor to the House Caucus on Counter Terrorism who also teaches Global Strategies at the National Defense University. "The dissident movement inside Iran is much larger than it was before. That explains the rise of defection."

Likewise, Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said the Tehran protests has "caused many Iranian at odds with Ahmadinejad to seek refuge outside of Iran."

"Whether some of them, either voluntarily, or due to a sense that it's their only ticket to get asylum, chose to collaborate with Western intelligence agencies is of course fully possible," said Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States. "I haven't seen any data though."

In 2005, the CIA launched a secret program to persuade key Iranian nuclear scientists to defect, according to the Los Angles Times. Two years later it had resulted in a "handful" of significant departures, current and former U.S. intelligence officials told reporter Greg Miller.

Defectors can also hand the FBI the names of Iran's secret agents in the West.

One such case surfaced just last week, when unsealed court documents revealed the arrest in former Soviet Georgia two years ago of Iranian arms dealer Amir Hossein Ardebili.

Ardebili, videotaped discussing the purchase of sensitive electronics for Iranian missiles with U.S. undercover agents, pled guilty to charges that he violated the Arms Export Control Act, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, smuggling conspiracy and money laundering, it was announced Dec. 2.

Ardebili has no doubt coughed up more names for U.S. intelligence.