Nations have long done battle with one another in different ways. These days, they spy from satellites, send viruses to corrupt government software, poach scientists and infiltrate academia. At The Guardian, Daniel Golden describes how international intelligence agencies send operatives to scientific conferences to gather intel, and how the U.S. has worked to convince foreign nuclear scientists to defect.
Scientific conferences attract people from all corners of the world and facilitate the exchange of information. Conferences are also one of the few opportunities for nuclear scientists from Iran to leave the country, so they function as what Golden calls “a modern-day underground railroad” for potential defectors. U.S. intelligence agencies routinely create their own sham conferences through an intermediary in order to isolate their targets and engage them one-on-one. The system has worked on many scientists. It’s fraught with many dangers: how to blend into a relatively small academic community and impersonate a scientist with actual scientific knowledge? How to get the target away from his guards without attracting attention? The larger question is whether this billion-dollar industry keeps the world safer.
“From the Iranian point of view, they would clearly have an interest in sending scientists to conferences about peaceful uses of nuclear power,” Ronen Bergman told me. A prominent Israeli journalist, Bergman is the author of The Secret War With Iran: The 30-Year Clandestine Struggle Against the World’s Most Dangerous Terrorist Power, and is working on a history of Israel’s central intelligence service, the Mossad. “They say, ‘Yes, we send our scientists to conferences to use civilian technology for a civilian purpose.’”
The CIA officer assigned to the case might pose as a student, a technical consultant, or an exhibitor with a booth. His first job would be to peel the guards away from the scientist. In one instance, kitchen staff recruited by the CIA poisoned the guards’ meal, leaving them incapacitated by diarrhoea and vomiting. The hope was that they would attribute their illness to aeroplane food or an unfamiliar cuisine.
With luck, the officer would catch the scientist alone for a few minutes, and pitch to him. He would have boned up on the Iranian by reading files and courting “access agents” close to him. That way, if the scientist expressed doubt that he was really dealing with the CIA, the officer could respond that he knew everything about him, even the most intimate details – and prove it. One officer told a potential defector: “I know you had testicular cancer and you lost your left nut.”
After her sought-after, five-letter Instagram handle was stolen by an Iranian hacker, professor Negar Mottahedeh opened up the door to her former homeland, striking up an unlikely friendship with the thief to learn more about a man struggling to earn a living in an economy compromised by 35 years of U.S.-led sanctions. Read the story at Backchannel.
How good of a hacker was he, really? Who were his friends? What sorts of things did he enjoy? What were he and Negar like when they were together? Not knowing him unsettled me. So I was determined to find out.
Mohamad was curious about me, too. It was odd, considering that I was much older than him. It felt like he wanted a trusted friend—someone he could use as a sounding board. He chose me.
He needed money, but more than that, he wanted to find a way out of Iran. He asked me about student visas, tourist visas, work visas; he’d send me links or screenshots with sections circled in red ink, asking me to read through them for him. He discussed his marriage options. Could he find an American girl to marry so he could stay in the US after he got there? Or could I maybe adopt him?
But by robbing me of my online identity, my hacker had unshuttered a window to life in the country of my birth. While I had been barred from my home as a young child, my new setting was chock-full of luck. With my Instagram hacker in my life, my fortuitous situation stared me in the face. Looking at myself through his eyes, my life was abundant. I felt fortunate. I wasn’t about to give up the friendship I had forged with my hacker for anything.
At Catapult, Porochista Khakpour reflects on her desire to write — about anything other than being Iranian-American. Deeply conflicted about speaking from her perspective as an Iranian-American, she says, “Remind yourself that when the performance is honest two things happen: The essay will feel like it’s killing you and the ending will not be what you thought it might be. Learn to respect more than resent those parallel planes of living and the rendering of living.”
Begin by writing about anything else. Go to the public library in your Los Angeles suburb and ask for all the great books people in New York City read, please. Wonder if the reference librarian knows a living writer and ask her what would a living writer read—and an American one, please. When she realizes you are still single digits and asks, Where are your parents, young lady? don’t answer and demand Shakespeare and take that big book home and cry because you can’t understand it. Tomorrow, go back to reading the dictionary a letter at a time and cry because you can’t learn the words. (Ask your father if you will cry daily for the rest of your life and remember his answer decades later: When you are older you will care less about things.) Pray to a god you still believe in that you will once more avoid ESL with all its teachers who look to you with the shine of love but the stench of pity: refugee, resident alien, political asylum, immigrant, foreigner the only words you know that you don’t want to know.
Write about it and make sure you keep writing about it. Plan out three more books and call it the end; each and every one is about Iranian-America. Write all the secrets like every essay is a suicide note: one that reveals your Zoroastrian name is a fraud and you are a Muslim and watch everyone applaud it, from all sorts of people online to your own father who gave you your name. Wonder if anyone is reading properly. Put “Iranian American refugee” in your Twitter profile, the way all the other refugees are doing. Question if this is empowering. Imagine you’ve been throwing yourself off a cliff every time you’ve been writing, but it’s hard to know if you are killing yourself or trying to fly. Wonder if a cliché like that is all you’ve got. Wonder if the death you’ve been imagining is just you becoming a bad writer.
In Iran, dizi is more than a dish. It is a ritual, one with its own history and rites. There are photos of early twentieth century Iranian teahouses with men sitting around dizi pots, stuffing themselves. A sense of camaraderie and openness is associated with dizi, unparalleled in Iranian cuisine. It is the food of laborers and commoners, and it is valued for being a dish to share and enjoy in the company of others. This imagery is reflected in the artwork that adorns dizi houses. Larger than life warriors like Rostam from the Book of Kings, or dervishes—those who submit to a life of truth-seeking and worship—are portrayed in colorful scenes.
Today, dizi is a common restaurant food, most famously served at Iranshahr Dizi House, a restaurant in downtown Tehran. But in the past, it was most often served at teahouses and corner stores, where it fed tired men finishing a hard day’s work.
A historic Iran nuclear accord has been reached, promising to lift sanctions in exchange for the country reducing its nuclear ability. The agreement is expected to be published in the next few days and include the crucial mechanics related to nuclear inspectors’ access to sites. Scott Ritter, a former intelligence officer with the United States Marine Corps and Chief Inspector for the United Nations in Iraq from 1991 to 1998, argued against “no notice” inspections in Iran in his recent London Review of Books essay:
My first experience as a weapons inspector was in implementing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the US and the former Soviet Union, and I’m a firm believer that on-site inspections should be part of any arms control agreement. As a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, I worked closely with the IAEA to investigate Iraq’s past nuclear weapons programme, and I have confidence in the IAEA’s ability to implement the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The provisions of the NPT are at the heart of the framework agreement with Iran, and the measures contained in it – which include sophisticated remote monitoring, and environmental sampling at undeclared facilities – should be more than adequate to establish whether or not it has diverted any nuclear material to a weapons programme. The framework agreement also calls for a range of verification measures beyond those required by the NPT. These cover centrifuge production and aspects of the uranium fuel cycle such as mining and processing, and are needed to verify that Iran isn’t engaged in covert uranium enrichment using a secret cache of centrifuges and unaccounted-for stocks of uranium ore. No notice inspections to investigate ‘possible military dimensions’, however, go far beyond anything required by the NPT. The question is whether such an intrusive measure is warranted or whether, as Iran argues, the inspections would infringe its legitimate security interests.
The facts appear to support Iran’s position. Countries subjected to intrusive no notice inspections have to be confident that the process isn’t actually an intelligence-led operation aimed at undermining their legitimate interests. The nuclear framework agreement with Iran doesn’t require the IAEA to accept anything Iran declares at face value, but none of its protocols justifies no notice inspections of military sites. Iran signed the Joint Plan of Action in 2013, and has abided by the verification conditions it required without incident. This track record should count in its favour, especially when you consider the dubious results of no notice inspections since they were first carried out in 1991.
The history of no notice inspections in Iraq does not bode well for their use in Iran. Such inspections are intelligence-based exercises. The bulk of the intelligence underpinning the US concerns over ‘possible military dimensions’ comes from the ‘alleged studies’ documents – a series of files the IAEA obtained in 2008 which appear to show that Iran had conducted some nuclear weapons development in 2002 and 2003. Their credibility has often been called into question and the Iranians declare they are fake. There’s good cause, too, to believe that much of the remaining intelligence buttressing the CIA’s case against Iran is flawed. The strange tale of the Iranian physicist Shahram Amiri, whose defection the CIA facilitated in the spring of 2009, serves as a case in point. Amiri was for several years before his defection an American agent-in-place whose reporting was used by the CIA in formulating its assessments on Iran. But his re-defection to Iran in 2010 suggests that he may have been a double agent, calling into question all his reporting to the CIA, before and after his defection. Operation Merlin, in which the CIA attempted to pass on to Iran flawed designs for a nuclear weapon, further undermines the CIA’s credibility as a source of information about an alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme.
One morning in March 2014, shortly after returning to his home in Iran, sculptor Parviz Tanavoli awoke to the sound of his daughter’s screams. About twenty men had broken the locks on his front door and entered his house. It looked like the clumsiest art heist in history, but this ragtag group worked for the municipality of Tehran. They were there on strict orders to confiscate Tanavoli’s artwork. Read more…
In 1953 the United States was still new to Iran. Many Iranians thought of Americans as friends, supporters of the fragile democracy they had spent half a century trying to build. It was Britain, not the United States, that they demonized as the colonialist oppressor that exploited them.
Since the early years of the twentieth century a British company, owned mainly by the British government, had enjoyed a fantastically lucrative monopoly on the production and sale of Iranian oil. The wealth that flowed from beneath Iran’s soil played a decisive role in maintaining Britain at the pinnacle of world power while most Iranians lived in poverty. Iranians chafed bitterly under this injustice. Finally, in 1951, they turned to Mossadegh, who more than any other political leader personified their anger at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). He pledged to throw the company out of Iran, reclaim the country’s vast petroleum reserves, and free Iran from subjection to foreign power.
Prime Minister Mossadegh carried out his pledges with single-minded zeal. To the ecstatic cheers of his people, he nationalized Anglo-Iranian, the most profitable British business in the world. Soon afterward, Iranians took control of the company’s giant refinery at Abadan on the Persian Gulf.
British agents began conspiring to overthrow Mossadegh soon after he nationalized the oil company. They were too eager and aggressive for their own good. Mossadegh learned of their plotting, and in October 1952 he ordered the British embassy shut. All British diplomats in Iran, including clandestine agents working under diplomatic cover, had to leave the country. No one was left to stage the coup.
Immediately, the British asked President Truman for help. Truman, however, sympathized viscerally with nationalist movements like the one Mossadegh led. He had nothing but contempt for old-style imperialists like those who ran Anglo-Iranian. Besides, the CIA had never overthrown a government, and Truman did not wish to set the precedent.
—From journalist and author Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men, the history of the CIA’s 1953 coup in Iran, which deposed the only democratic government the country ever had. Earlier this month, negotiators announced an accord to restrict Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. The deadline for a final deal is June 30.
“Our conversation turns to the movie Shrek. Nahal loves Shrek so much that she’s seen the first installment of the DreamWorks trilogy ‘at least thirty-six or thirty-seven times.’ Her obsession is, apparently, shared by many Iranians. The image of Shrek appears everywhere throughout Tehran: painted on the walls of DVD and electronics shops, featured in an elaborate mural in the children’s play area of the food court at the Jaam-e Jam mall. Once, from a car, I passed a five-foot-tall Shrek mannequin on the sidewalk; like his fellow pedestrians, he wore a surgical face mask to protect him from the smog.
“Nahal explains: ‘You know, it’s not really the original Shrek that we love so much here. It’s really the dubbing. It’s really more the Iranian Shrek that interests us.’
“The Iranian film industry has a long and illustrious tradition of high-quality dubbings. In the post-Revolution era, and the ensuing rise of censorship, dubbing has evolved to become a form of underground art, as well as a meta-commentary on Iranians’ attempt to adapt, and in some way lay claim to, the products of Western culture. A single American film like Shrek inspires multiple dubbed versions—some illegal, some not—causing Iranians to discuss and debate which of the many Farsi Shreks is superior. In some versions (since withdrawn from official circulation), various regional and ethnic accents are paired with the diverse characters of Shrek, the stereotypes associated with each accent adding an additional layer of humor for Iranians. In the more risqué bootlegs, obscene or off-topic conversations are transposed over Shrek’s fairy-tale shenanigans.”
“They described what amounts to a methodical moneymaking scheme in which Setad obtains court orders under false pretenses to seize properties, and later pressures owners to buy them back or pay huge fees to recover them.
“‘The people who request the confiscation … introduce themselves as on the side of the Islamic Republic, and try to portray the person whose property they want confiscated as a bad person, someone who is against the revolution, someone who was tied to the old regime,’ said Hossein Raeesi, a human-rights attorney who practiced in Iran for 20 years and handled some property confiscation cases. ‘The atmosphere there is not fair.’
“Ross K. Reghabi, an Iranian lawyer in Beverly Hills, California, said the only hope to recover anything is to pay off well-connected agents in Iran. ‘By the time you pay off everybody, it comes to 50 percent’ of the property’s value, said Reghabi, who says he has handled 11 property confiscation cases involving Setad.”