(May 13, 2021 / Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies) The history of intelligence and counterintelligence (I&C) is riddled with failures, some of which have had horrendous consequences. There is, however, a major difference between an I&C failure and a compromised I&C community. In the past year alone, the Islamic Republic of Iran has suffered multiple serious I&C failures: the July 2020 attack on the Natanz nuclear facility, the assassination on Iranian soil in August 2020 of Al-Qaeda No. 2 Abu Muhammad al-Masri, the November 2020 assassination near Tehran of Brig. Gen. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and, most recently, the April 2021 attack (once again) on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility.
One of the most damaging I&C failures to have ever occurred in Iran was connected to the country’s clandestine pursuit of nuclear weapons. In 2018, Israeli operatives managed to raid a closely protected warehouse in Tehran, stealing more than 100,000 documents, images and videos related to Iranian nuclear plans. As I noted in an earlier article, “This was a fiasco for Iranian counterintelligence. Because of their access to those documents, Israel and (most likely) US intelligence were able first to identify sensitive locations related to Iran’s nuclear program and the IRGC’s missile program and then attack those locations” in 2020, during which year there were several mysterious explosions in Iran.
Up to this point, the Islamic regime has consistently denied that the warehouse was targeted and that any documents related to the Iranian nuclear program were stolen. In support of the regime’s claim, the former head of the National Iranian American Council, Trita Parsi, tweeted, “Netanyahu’s claims of a Mossad raid in Iran is being questioned by Israeli journalists… As others have suggested, seems like Mossad raided the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and not Tehran.” According to Commentary, Tommy Vietor, spokesman for then-President Barack Obama’s National Security Council, “accused the US and Israel of ‘cooking up intel’ to justify the abrogation of the JCPOA.”
The regime has apparently decided to come clean, to an extent. In an interview with Iran’s Mehr News Agency on April 14, 2021, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. (IRGC) Maj. Gen. Mohsen Rezaee, who formerly and who serves as the secretary of the country’s powerful Expediency Discernment Council, is quoted as having said: “The country is experiencing a widespread security pollution, as exemplified by the fact that three security incidents have occurred in less than a year: two explosions and one assassination. Prior to that, they attempted to steal some of our top-secret nuclear documents …. ”
However, Rezaee’s actual statement differed from the version published by Mehr. In the interview, which was conducted on camera, Rezaee, who has previously served as both the head of the IRGC’s intelligence division and of the IRGC itself, says not that Israel “attempted” to steal the top-secret nuclear documents, but that “they stole” the documents. He also said the operatives “conducted these operations successfully and then left,” a line that does not appear in the version published by Mehr.
The Mehr News Agency is owned by the Islamic Development Organization, which has the objective of promoting the ideology of the regime. Thus it is no surprise that it would censor Rezaee’s admission that the Israeli raid had been successful. Had Mehr revealed the truth, it would have constituted an admission that the regime had not managed to arrest the culprits, a claim Tehran makes after every attack.
Rezaee’s statement is notable, as it marks the first time in the regime’s history that a high-ranking official of the Islamic Republic has admitted that the country was the victim of an act of sabotage that had been previously denied by both the regime and its apologists in the West. His statement is also significant because it suggests that recent sabotage and assassinations inside Iran were not purely intelligence failures but signs that the Iranian intelligence community has been seriously compromised.
The assassination of Brig. Gen. Fakhrizadeh, the architect of the Islamic regime’s nuclear program, seemed to indicate that individuals inside Iran’s intelligence organizations were feeding information to opponents of the regime. Rezaee confirmed this suspicion and is recommending a “purge” of the intelligence community of the Islamic Republic. This could mean there will be a flight of Iranian intelligence officers from Iran, or possibly even a spate of “accidents” claiming the lives of some of those officers.
Ardavan Khoshnood, a non-resident Associate at the BESA Center, is a criminologist and political scientist with a degree in intelligence analysis. He is also an Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at Lund University in Sweden.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
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