Iran's claim last week to have arrested 12 spies working for the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is potentially a major blow to American intelligence-gathering efforts in Iran and to American intelligence generally. The arrests come on the heels of the arrest of 30 alleged CIA spies in late May and are indicative of steadily improving counter-intelligence capabilities.
The recent success is reinforced by the unraveling of a CIA spy ring in Lebanon operating within the Hezbollah organization. These reports have been grudgingly confirmed by current and former US intelligence officials, which is suggestive of a major American intelligence defeat, if not a full-blown disaster.
Recent Hezbollah counter-intelligence successes against Israel and the US (in June, Hezbollah arrested two CIA spies operating inside the organization) are at least in part due to increased counter-intelligence assistance from Iran.
Asia Times Online sources in Tehran claim that Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) has been more willing in recent years to transfer sensitive counter-espionage know-how and techniques to both Hezbollah and the official Lebanese intelligence services.
Regarding the arrest of 12 alleged CIA spies by Iran, aside from the clear indication of escalating American intelligence operations, there are two outstanding observations. First, the CIA is operating a lower threshold of quality control in terms of agent recruitment and management. Second, there are signs that the MOIS is moving steadily in the direction of making Iran a forbidding space for hostile foreign intelligence services.
Information from a wide range of Iranian media - and corroborated by ATol sources in Tehran - is suggestive of a scatter-gun approach by the CIA inasmuch as the agency is targeting virtually any Iranian citizen it believes could potentially provide useful information on the CIA's target set.
While there were media reports that some government "managers" were amongst the suspected CIA spies arrested in May, this time around Iran's intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, told local journalists on Sunday that there were no government officials amongst the 12 suspected spies.
Speaking on the fringes of the government's weekly cabinet meeting, Moslehi gave strong indications that most, if not all, of the latest arrested suspected spies were either junior Iranian scientists or students who frequently travelled overseas as part of their studies or official scientific work.
Information gleaned from a wide range of Iranian media over the past six months - and confirmed by ATol sources in Tehran - appears to indicate that besides the high-value targets such as the nuclear program and the country's defense establishment, the CIA's target set includes Iran's banking and financial sector; logistics and transportation networks (particularly air transportation); town planning; the oil and gas sector; and the software industry, particularly private companies that design and operate specialist software for the Iranian government.
More specifically, the CIA appears to be focussed on how Iran is defeating international and unilateral US and European sanctions; how and to what extent Iran is using the international financial system to advance its critical projects as well as its ordinary day-to-day business; the vulnerabilities of Iran's transportation and logistics network; the level of preparedness by Iranian emergency and humanitarian relief organizations; and more generally the resilience of critical Iranian infrastructure in the face of a major disaster or a prolonged period of national stress, such as a military conflict.
To achieve its objectives, the CIA's National Clandestine Service (NCS) has set up a dedicated team of operatives and analysts who operate primarily from countries bordering Iran, but also further afield, particularly in countries with sizeable numbers of Iranian students, such as Malaysia.
This dedicated network is exceptionally well-trained, for example all the operatives and analysts possess a masterful command of the Persian language and display high levels of inter-cultural competence.
Early indications appear to suggest that the CIA started to develop this dedicated network in 2003 and that most of the elements were in place by the middle of 2008. This makes the MOIS' recent counter-intelligence success an even more remarkable achievement, in so far as Iranian counter-intelligence may have doomed the CIA's vast investment almost from the outset.
In the course of its investigations and specialized counter-espionage work, the MOIS claims to have identified 42 officers of the CIA's NCS operating in several countries and collected detailed information on the scope and nature of their activities.
The dedicated NCS team appears to be embedded within numerous official and unofficial American organizations, including US embassies, multinational corporations, medium-sized commercial organizations, recruitment consultancies, immigration and wider legal services, academic and quasi-academic institutions and reputable (ie longstanding) as well as newly set up thinktanks.
If accounts on online Iranian media are to be believed the focus on Iranian scientists and students may have been this dedicated team's downfall. It has been suggested that the 30-person network(s) unraveled earlier this year (and announced in late May) was initially brought to the attention of the MOIS by a patriotic Iranian student who had been approached by a quasi-academic institution (offering grants and scholarships as a means of entrapment) in Malaysia.
The MOIS subsequently investigated the Malaysia-based institution and was able to establish a clear CIA link, which in turn widened the scope of the investigation and eventually netted 30 suspected spies.
It has been reported that 75% of the suspected spies detained this year had higher education qualifications. At one level, this is suggestive of an innovative CIA approach to entrap and recruit gifted Iranian scientists and students with a view to collecting information on the target set in a short to medium time frame.
However, the relative dearth of government officials - or in fact anyone with access to classified or sensitive information - indicates a degree of CIA desperation and an acceptance by the agency that it has to make do with lower quality recruits and manage them to a shorter life span, in view of the agents' lack of ready access to classified materials and the expectation that the MOIS would catch up with them sooner rather than later.
It is also an indication that the most sensitive Iranian organizations (or at least the higher reaches of these organizations) including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the wider defense establishment, are now either free of American spies or at least more secure than before in the face of determined American espionage efforts.
Furthermore, it can be argued that as the CIA widens and intensifies its agent recruitment efforts it runs the long-term risk of making it more and more difficult to operate inside Iran, in view of the MOIS' proven prowess at penetrating American intelligence networks and learning the key secrets at the heart of these conspiracies at a relatively early stage.
In summary, there appears to be a disparity between escalating CIA espionage and the MOIS' growing counter-espionage resilience, with the latter steadily gaining the upper hand.
But despite clear improvements in counter-espionage capabilities and protective security measures, Iran is still some way away from making it prohibitively costly for Western agencies to operate inside the country. Indeed, all the major West European, North American and Israeli intelligence services are either active inside Iran or work closely with some elements of the Iranian diaspora.
Nevertheless, there are clear signs that in the pure intelligence war (as opposed to sabotage) Iran is beginning to turn the tide.
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)