Arab Spring revs up global spy game
Arrests of secret agents. A bizarre assassination plot. A fatal explosion at a missile base with an outcome quite convenient for a nation’s sworn enemy.
The dramatic tales of espionage and covert action have flowed fast from Iran in recent weeks. They include pilotless drones controlled by a foreign power buzzing overhead, computer viruses planted to wreak havoc on volatile materials, and mysterious deaths with no one to blame.
With the Middle East in turmoil, Iran is not the only country in the region to see a surge in espionage. At times of major political, economic and social unrest, the use of agents on the ground, eyes in the sky and computerized intelligence gathering increase, experts say.
“When it comes to the Arab Spring, espionage is 100% full speed ahead,” said Loch Johnson, Regents professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia.
In Iran, the recent revelations of espionage — defined as the gathering of information, along with covert actions, designed to manipulate or cause damage to an opponent — are merely scratching the surface.
This week, an Iranian parliamentarian said his country arrested 12 Central Intelligence Agency operatives, claiming they had been working with Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, and other regional groups to damage the country’s military and nuclear program.
The news came less than a week after Lebanon-based armed Islamist group Hezbollah had reportedly rounded up dozens of spies in Iran and Lebanon.
It also followed the deaths of 17 of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, killed in a massive explosion at the Alghadir missile base in Tehran —a blast that also felled the chief architect of Iran’s missile program, Major General Hassan Moghaddam.
One theory is that an aggressive malware worm called Stuxnet, planted by Western or Israeli operatives, detonated one of the missiles.
Last month came the revelation of a strange plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. A federal court in New York has charged two men — one a member of Iran’s special foreign actions unit, the Quds Force — with conspiracy to kill.
The U.S. Justice Department says the accused tried to hire a man they thought belonged to a Mexican drug cartel to bomb Adel Al-Jubeir while he ate at his favourite restaurant in Washington.
Iran and most other countries in the oil-rich Middle East have long held the interest of Western nations, such as the United States, which has been “up to their scuppers” in espionage there for decades, Prof. Johnson said.
They also have lines into Syria, where protesters are calling for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, and Egypt, now experiencing its second uprising, this time against the military.
The United States and other countries — not the least of them Israel — want to gather enough information to gauge the eventual outcome of the unrest.
But theUnited States appears to have been selective in its covert actions.
“There’s no doubt that we used [espionage] in Libya to help overthrow [Muammar] Gaddafi, as part of the package to rid the world of him. But when it comes to Egypt, for example … I’d bet we kept our hands off,” Prof. Johnson said.
“I don’t think we’d wanted any leaks or any indication we were meddling there because that would have delegitimized their efforts,” he said.
Syria might be another story because of its rocky relationship with the United States — and its alliances with Iran and Lebanon, where the Iranian- and Syrian-funded group Hezbollah has become part of the government.
Of course, the oil-rich Middle East became a hot target long before the successful efforts to overthrow leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Western nations were alarmed by the tensions caused by the Sunni/Shia rivalry across the region, argues Daniel Mulvenna, a retired intelligence officer and lecturer on intelligence and counterterrorism based in Washington.