Saturday, March 24, 2018

IRGC and Other Iranian Cyber Activities

Earlier this week the US government publicly went after the IRGC. President Trump's Nowruz statement on Monday was mainly about the evils of the IRGC rather than the holiday itself. On Friday Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein announced indictments for a number of Iranians with the IRGC for hacking.

A third incident, the naming of John Bolton as the new national security adviser to President Trump can also be seen as an anti-IRGC move, given Bolton's belligerence towards the regime and his affinity for the Marxist cult the MeK.

Whether this is coincidental or not is hard to discern, given the chaotic and disjointed nature of the administration and so it is the hacking announcement that interests me most.

A few years back I'd noticed a series of pro-Iranian bots tweeting about the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei's "Letter to the Youth in Europe and North America". I wrote about this in detail noting how the bots and message evolved. It was not particularly sophisticated, did not gain much traction, but polluted trending and other hashtags on various social media. Another followup campaign titled "Powerful_Iran" was covered by the BBC.

The hacks and bots seem connected, and are clearly linked to the regime in some manner, but the details are unclear. The distinction between the more skilled hackers and the Twitter bots makes me curious about the Iranian cyber programs, how they are set up, who runs them, and if there are multiple organizations or factions running them. I would be surprised if the recently indicted hackers are directly responsible for the older bot networks, but I'd also not rule it out.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Obama Appeasing Iran?

The Iran Deal has been litigated to death; mostly on social media, but also in the media. Recently, Politico published a new article by Josh Meyer with new allegations about the Obama administration appeasing Iran via lenience towards Hezbollah. The article is long, but can be summed up as such: the DEA had a task force targeting Hezbollah's drug trafficking operation and related activities and there was an unwritten order from the top down (the author insinuates from the very top) to let Hezbollah off the hook as the possibility of a deal with Iran was of greater concern.

As expected, this has led to the usual suspects re-litigating the Iran Deal, and, per usual, the ratio of substantive commentary to ad hominem attacks is unfavorable. This is not worth spending much time on, as the quality of arguments from both sides tend to be limited, though it should be noted that the allegedly mighty "echo chamber" has chimed in vociferously against their usual opponents.

As I noted in the past, the "echo chamber", portrayed by the right as a well-oiled and effective machine, was most active during a period when support for the Iran Deal dropped by 50%. The focus, unfortunately, has been based on the usual tired tropes rather than anything substantive.

One argument worth mentioning is from Ilan Goldenberg. A former Obama official and pro-JCPOA intellectual, he asked Meyer a simple question: 'do you have any proof that any of this is explicitly because of the Iran Deal'. Goldenberg acknowledges flaws in the Obama approach to Iran, and that Meyer's background investigative work is great, but points to this failure to produce anything explicitly linking the two. Meyer has not yet responded.

There is in fact evidence that Obama's administration appeased Iran specifically because of the Iran Deal negotiations. We have it on the record that Secretary of State John Kerry and/or President Obama himself blocked the release of the updated Iran 1951-1954 Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) up until the inauguration of President Trump in January 2017 (it was then discreetly released in the summer) The belief is that the ongoing nuclear negotiations were sensitive and releasing more information on the 1953 coup in Iran which the United States, Britain, and various Iranians were involved in, would be a literal deal breaker. For whatever reason this appeasement continued years after the deal was signed.

While it is unclear how far the administration went to facilitate the deal, how much leeway they gave Iran, Hezbollah, and Iran's other proxies, there is at the moment, little substantial and attributable evidence of appeasement aside from the FRUS incident.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

New CIA/State Department Docs on the 1953 Iran Coup (Part 7)

This is part 7 of my series on the new CIA and State Department docs on the 1953 Iran Coup. 

So many questions still remain about the successful and unsuccessful Iranian coups in August, 1953. Many of them may never be answered, including the curious question why John Kerry's State Department delayed the release of the updated FRUS collection.

It has been established that Kerry himself, heavily involved in the Iran nuclear talks, was vehemently opposed to the release, even up to the inauguration of President Trump. President Obama may have also been involved, but this isn't clear from the record.

In 2014 the delay was credited to the sensitivity of the ongoing nuclear talks, yet through 2017, almost two years after the nuclear agreement was finalized, they still worked to keep it from being released. What were they concerned about?

Others have theorized that this was because of the hidden British role in the 1953 coup attempts, or perhaps details over the United States role. I have argued that this doesn't make sense as (despite the reporting on this release) the role of the United States, and the UK has been well-known for decades. Two different American presidencies admitted a role (Clinton, and Obama), and the CIA formally acknowledged its role in 2013.

I asked:
What would be more infuriating for the regime, to show that the US was involved (which is what they are already furious about), or that major regime figures, or their direct influences played a role in fomenting the coup?

As the evidence shows, the role of Ayatollah Kashani, was exactly as I theorized, and perhaps even more damning than I expected. His work collaborating with key coup figures like Zahedi, encouraging quietist clerics to back the Shah, working to make his own coup as early as September 1952, hints that this is what Kerry (and Obama?) hoped to keep hidden from the Iranian public. There was backlash on Twitter especially from Iranian reformists who tweeted about the "Kashani Coup", demanding removing his name from a Tehrani street.

Others may still argue that the details of role of the United States and Britain are the reason why Kerry was so concerned about the release. However, the documents are still classified in key points, so these details are obscured. Additionally, the declassification review was completed in 2014, so there were no changes made to this latest edition. It would not have been the case that Kerry personally went in and classified British or American involvement in the coup.

Did Kerry not know what was in the documents? Was he mistaken in thinking parts that remain classified were to be released? Or was he protecting the Iranian regime, trying to keep them from being insulted by proving a direct connection to the coup which the regime and its apologists point to as the source of Iranian/American animosity?

There will be a part 8 and probably 9, but they won't happen until I thoroughly read sections 1, 2 and 4. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

New CIA/State Department Docs on the 1953 Iran Coup (Part 6)

This is part 6 of my series on the new CIA and State Department docs on the 1953 Iran Coup. 

One of the problems I noticed when I was writing a term paper on Mossadeq and relations with the United States during my MA was how incomplete the record was. There were massive gaps at key moments, leaving so many questions unanswered. There were times when the FRUS collection skipped hundreds of cables, for example 3898 (April 4, 1953), to 4027 (April 15, 1953). It would be inconceivable for there to have been zero communications for 11 days, and the gap of 127 in the cable order seems to indicate that there were in fact a ton missing. 

When I visited the National Archives I was able to find a few important ones, yet still many gaps were left. The release fills more of the gaps, yet most of the relevant documents I found at the Archives are not included in the new release. There is one exception, cable #348, dated August 16. I wrote about it at the time, identifying it as the most interesting cable of those that I had found at Archives that weren't in FRUS. 

The number of documents withheld makes it nearly impossible to determine the precise nature of the events leading up to the coup. While we have a rough estimate, we do not know why the decision was made, how they did it, what else happened between the 16th and 19th of August, which third parties were involved and how involved they were.

The decision to overthrow Mossadeq appears to have been made April 2, 1953. Unfortunately there is no record of the meeting between Roosevelt and Dulles of this, yet an April 4th memo references the meeting. 

Moving forward, there are documents "released" yet entirely classified, namely those detailing the coup plans. The June 1st "Summary of Operational Plan" for example is completely classified, and no details are provided other than the date, location, classification, and where the copy of the file is located.

Other documents like monthly reports are also mostly redacted, 64 years after the fact.

Important files from the CIA have been published, yet we know there are also important pieces missing. The best example is as follows. Document 285, and 286, both dated 19 August, 1953. The file number for 285 is TEHE 737.1 and 286 is TEHE 742.1. The order again is sequential so TEHE 738-741 are not public. What is striking here is that the first one is almost despondent and scrambling to salvage the situation. The second is short and victorious. What happened between the two telegrams? 

Even the rundown of what happened after the coup is littered with classified material that hasn't been released. 

These details are vitally important, and yet still the full truth is withheld. The likelihood that the relevant parties are alive today is slim, why do they still wish to keep this information secret?

(I also highlighted the line about Communism. The Foreign Policy piece tried to make a big deal about the oil angle, yet as this document clearly shows, the Americans WERE interested in ideology. Whether what Roosevelt said is true or not, it is clear that Dulles/Roosevelt/etc wanted to hear about how this saved Iran from Communism.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

New CIA/State Department Docs on the 1953 Iran Coup (Part 5)

This is part 5 of my series on the new CIA and State Department docs on the 1953 Iran Coup. 

The role of clerics in the 1953 Iranian coup is both difficult to determine, and a sensitive topic. The regime has ties back to the Iranian clerics, and one of the myths they work to perpetuate is that foreigners meddled in Iranian affairs. This is helped by American (read CIA) incentives to claim omnipotence and competence in masterminding a coup. Both parties have reasons to minimize clerical involvement. While the events between 15 and 19 of August 1953 are difficult to determine for reasons I will discuss later, there are several important events involving clerics that bear mentioning.

Of the clerical elements, Ayatollah Kashani is the most relevant. He was the speaker of the Iranian Majles (parliament), and for a time an ally of Mohammad Mossadeq, before becoming a bitter enemy. His worldview bears striking similarities to Ayatollah Khomeini as I pointed out in part 3 of my series.

Behbehani. Boroujerdi was Ayatollah Khomeini's teacher, and forbade him or any others from political activities. This memo notes an "understanding" that they would "bolster the shah". While this sounds overtly political in nature, the difference is that historically the clergy had supported the monarchy, and in turn received protection. While it is a bit of a departure from the normal, it is more of an affirmation of the perceived threat to the Shah that Mossadeq posed.

Interestingly the documents leading up to the coup after April make less mention of Kashani. At the same time, key pieces are redacted or not included so there is no way to know how involved he would have been in the plans. It is entirely possible that he was a key piece, or that he was uninvolved.

Part 6 will be about the events leading up to the coup in August, and the problems resulting from incomplete records from both the State Department and CIA.

Monday, June 19, 2017

New CIA/State Department Docs on the 1953 Iran Coup (Part 4)

This is part 4 of my series on the new CIA and State Department docs on the 1953 Iran Coup. 

One of the most curious and difficult aspects of the Iran coup of 1953 is determining which parties were involved in the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadeq, and to what extent they bear responsibility. The roles of the United States and Britain are undeniable, yet there are still inconsistencies and unknowns; primarily what happened between the first and second coup attempts, and when exactly they decided to try a coup. The following documents shed some light, but still many questions remain.

As I have previously noted (Myth 6), there were multiple contacts by IRANIANS in the months before the coup, trying to gauge the American interest in a coup. We know of at least two contacts made during March 1953, and perhaps as many as four. One referenced by Donald Wilber in his "Wilber Report" notes a General (name redacted), had contacted the "assistant military attache" and "requested Ambassador Henderson's views as to whether or nor the US government was interested in covertly supporting an Iranian military effort to oust Premier Mossadeq".
This is quite significant, as it establishes a precedent of Iranians approaching the United States to ask about a coup BEFORE the United States had decided to overthrow Mossadeq.

A previously released document (cable 3853 from Amb Henderson to Dulles dated March 31 and referring to a conversation from March 30th) has a record of former prime minister Hossein Ala' inquiring about the possibility of an American coup. Ala' was never a general so it is not possible that this request is from the same person. Henderson makes it quite clear to Ala' that the United States will not take a regime change policy, and will accept as head of the government whomever has the firman (edict) from the Shah establishing the individual as prime minister. 

A new CIA document dated March 31 indicates that Majles Deputy Haerizadeh, General Batmangelitch, and retired Generals Garzan, Bahadori, and Zahedi were planning a coup to take place within a few weeks. It also says that they claim that the US embassy approves (the footnote indicates that this appears to be "wishful thinking"). 

There may be overlap here, but it is quite clear that there were at least 3 instances in March 1953 of Iranians contacting United States officials about a coup. 

One of the next new documents is dated April 4th, and references an April 2nd conversation between Roosevelt and Dulles about initial plans to start TPAJAX (the code name of the coup attempt). It is unclear if these multiple attempts by Iranians to get the Americans on board for a coup had an effect, but given the proximity it seems as though there must be a connection of some sort. Also of note is the fact that TP AJAX was hand-written, as if it was either forgotten, or this is when they decided to name it. 

These documents are significant in establishing an Iranian interest in a coup before the United States had seriously considered regime change, and perhaps helps understand how the various American figures came to decide that a coup was worth exploring. Unfortunately there is not record of the April 2nd conversation, which would be much more useful in determining what motivated the change in policy. Kermit Roosevelt's "memoir" Countercoup—which is just as helpful as it is harmful—makes no note of this conversation, yet he mentions an additional meeting with an Iranian general who also wished to collaborate with the Americans on a coup. Again, because the name is redacted and other information is missing, we cannot be sure who exactly this was and if it was another Iranian who wished to overthrow Mossadeq, or the same one asking two different Americans the same thing.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

New CIA/State Department Docs on the 1953 Iran Coup (Part 3)

This is part 3 of my series on the new CIA and State Department docs on the 1953 Iran Coup. 

One of the most interesting and substantial documents newly released is an analysis of the nature of a potential Ayatollah Kashani run Iranian government by the Office of Intelligence and Research.

Kashani had been an ally of Mossadeq, before breaking with him and his National Front in early 1953. Kashani's role in Mossadeq's ouster has been downplayed in the traditional narrative of the events (which places most of the blame on the Americans), yet revisionists have noticed the extent of Kashani's influence, and how important he was in fomenting unrest against Mossadeq in the months leading up to the coup.

What is most striking about the document is how Kashani is described. If you took out his name, and other identifying information one might think that the authors are describing Ayatollah Khomeini or Khamenei. Kashani's sees "contemporary problems from a narrowly Moslem outlook, severely warped by many years of bitter conflict with British authority".

Mossadeq at the time had significant support and the authors deemed it unlikely that he would be replaced by Kashani, but they also note Kashani's influence, as the second largest bloc in the Majles (Iranian parliament). 
The authors point to a handful of negative characteristics of Kashani, ranging from conceit and ambition, to unscrupulousness and support of bigoted practices, and a lack of business and executive experience. 

Kashani was vehemently anti-British based upon his past experiences, he had experienced foreign meddling. This he shared with Mossadeq, though their motivations and approaches to addressing foreign interference was very different. 

The authors blame Kashani (like Mossadeq) for taking credit of others work to forward his own ambitions. He is likened to a "ward boss" and "gangster". His supporters are considered to be from a similar social class as Mossadeq (most appropriately described as middle-class), though with a distinct religious inclination.

Kashani, had disagreements with the Shah, the army, and starting in early 1953 Mossadeq as well. Shia clergy in Iran had historically been quietist, subservient to the monarchy. Kashani was outspoken, a break from tradition. He disapproved of the late Shah's work to sideline the clergy, and to uphold the mantle of Shiism, when the Shah wasn't even a theologian. This is virtually identical to Khomeini's approach years later. 

The authors noted that Kashani's relatively lower popularity and all of the enemies he had limited the prospects for a theocratic state. That they were considering it as a possibility is still quite telling.

Again the parallels to Khomeini, and even Khamenei here are striking. They believe that the West is engaging in plots to control weaker nations. He also is credited with having a disparaging attitude towards oil, and wanted to diversify the economy to create self-sufficiency and limit dependence.

The last section is also eerily reminiscent of Khomeini. It is acknowledged that Kashani wouldn't want to accept foreign funds because it would undermine him. The authors note that this makes cooperation with Kashani difficult, but they didn't rule it out. The last paragraph is also interesting as it directly points to a policy of neutrality from the Iranian government. The Dulles brothers in particular speak repetitively about the dangers of communism taking over, yet this memo, just months ahead of the coup explicitly notes neutrality as the Iranian government policy.

This analysis of Kashani is fascinating and apt and as I mentioned throughout, the similarities to Khomeini are significant.