Iran’s take on domestic security is increasingly reminiscent of the approach in China or North Korea, Norman Roule, a retired 34-year veteran of the CIA, told Haaretz in a conversation that echoed the fascinating analysis he recently published in the United States.
As Roule puts it, despite the U.S.-led sanctions on Iran that are badly damaging its economy, the regime of the Islamic Republic is willing to invest huge sums to stay in power, even at the cost of severely repressing dissent. The sagging economy, which is one reason for the violent riots last month, hasn’t deterred the leaders.
Iran’s government and private sector have invested about $400 million in technology for cutting the Iranian people off from the internet, Roule said. During the recent demonstrations, the regime did just that; the leaders have discussed setting up a separate Iranian internet like the one in China. The efforts at repression also include major investments to jam foreign television broadcasts, all in an attempt to isolate the country.
Roule retired in September 2017 after serving in a number of key positions at the CIA. His last post, to which he was appointed in 2008, was national intelligence manager for Iran at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which coordinates the entire U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA and FBI. Roule’s position made him “the principal intelligence community official responsible for overseeing all aspects of national intelligence policy and activities related to Iran,” as he puts it.
In other words, he had responsibility for everything U.S. intelligence knew or wanted to know about Iran. An important role was played by Israeli intelligence, whose work and leaders Roule has known well. This includes former Mossad chiefs Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo, and the current director, Yossi Cohen.
Following his retirement, Roule became an adviser to the nonprofit group United Against Nuclear Iran, which has close ties to defense officials in the United States, Germany, Israel and other Western countries. It’s chaired by former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman and boasts a bipartisan roster of former senior officials from the intelligence community, the military and the State Department.
Its stated objecting is “to prevent Iran from fulfilling its ambition to obtain nuclear weapons.” Pardo and Dagan – the latter died in 2016 – have been among the supporters of United Against Nuclear Iran, and about a year ago Mossad chief Cohen laid out his views on Iran in a speech to the group in New York.
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Undercover in Iran
This week the group disclosed that some of its members, posing as businesspeople, attended fairs and conferences in Iran on the pretense that they aimed to attract businesses to invest in the country. These “undercover agents” were actually seeking to find out which companies and businesspeople planned to invest in Iran and thus violate the sanctions regime.
People in the group called the mission a great success, saying its findings were sent to these companies and businesspeople with a warning to cease their commercial ties with Tehran. That’s certainly an unusual step for a nongovernmental organization; it’s more like the work of a spy agency.
Despite the Trump administration’s ceaseless pressure on Iran, with active Israeli assistance, Roule said it appeared that “Iran’s leaders have survived yet another challenge to their rule from an increasingly restive population.” The demonstrations in November, which were sparked by an increase in gasoline prices, were the largest in Iran since 2009. The country’s leaders, who have played down reports of unrest, have confirmed that about 200,000 people took to the streets.
It's estimated that 7,000 were arrested and at least 140 people were killed. “At no time did the regime appear to be in danger, but the scale and intensity of social discontent likely signals that episodic eruptions of rage and protest will continue,” Roule noted. “Iran’s response to this latest crisis drew from an old playbook. Regime voices blamed protests on Western powers and called for punishment of those detained.”
Ebrahim Raisi, who in March was appointed head of Iran’s judiciary, called for the execution of the demonstrators. Roule and other experts believe that Raisi appears to be the leading candidate to succeed Ali Khamenei if the supreme leader becomes incapacitated. But currently there are no signs that Khamenei, who has had prostate cancer and for years has been thought to be seriously ill, plans to resign.
The regime’s tough stance and refusal to compromise are reflected at a number of levels. Russia’s ambassador to Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, told the Iranian daily Hamshahri that uranium enrichment at Iran’s underground Fordo facility would soon be resumed.
Lebanon and Iraq
As part of Tehran’s reaction to President Donald Trump’s May 2018 decision to withdraw the United States from the Iranian nuclear agreement, and with the renewal of U.S. sanctions, Iran violated some of its obligations under the deal. But it has done this in measured steps without signaling an all-out abandonment of the accord.
One of these steps was the resumption of enrichment using the advanced centrifuges at Fordo. But operations there were eventually halted, reportedly due to Russian pressure. Now, however, the Russian ambassador is saying the cessation was due to technical reasons and enrichment will resume.
There are also no signs that Iran, through its Revolutionary Guards and the guards’ Quds force headed by Gen. Qassem Soleimani, has moderated its efforts to entrench itself in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.
Granted, demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq are forcing the Iranian regime to consider its steps carefully. At this point in Lebanon, despite the ire of Soleimani and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, the clashes are manageable. But in Iraq the demonstrations have been brutally suppressed by pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias and indiscriminate slaughter on the streets of Baghdad.
According to reports from Iraq, the leading candidate to replace Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who resigned, is Mohammed Shi’a al-Sudani, who is considered even more pro-Iranian.
In Syria as well, Soleimani isn’t being deterred by Israel’s attacks; the two sides appear equally determined. The Israel Air Force attacks whenever Israel gets updated information and the operation appears feasible. Soleimani sends weapons and members of Shi’ite militias to help establish his forces in Syria.
Recently there was also an interesting development in Yemen: Western intelligence sources cited by the French newsletter Intelligence Online have identified the commander of the Iranian Quds force in Yemen. According to the sources, Gen. Reza Shahi, a native of the Iranian city of Shiraz, commands the force of about 400 fighters, a unit of the Revolutionary Guards. It’s reinforced by experts from Hezbollah who were sent from Lebanon. According to these sources, it was Shahi who commanded the missile and drone attack on Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia about two months ago.
It’s difficult to verify the information from other sources, but the fact is, in recent weeks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said that Iran is deploying missiles in Yemen that threaten not only Saudi Arabia but also Israel.
As Roule concludes in his analysis: “The crackdown tells us what kind of country Iran hopes to be. Certainly, millions within Iran would choose a different path for their country, if they could. But it also needs to be recognized that millions of Iranians continue to support the regime. Likewise, Iran’s leadership remains unified in the belief that the Islamic Republic must be sustained. Iran’s security leadership – selected or approved by Iran’s Supreme Leader – appear unified in its endorsement of a hardline future for Iran.”