The dilemma for western intelligence centres on the impotence of any outsiders to influence events inside the theocracy.
The frustrating dilemma for western intelligence agencies as the demonstrations in Tehran continue centres on the inevitable impotence of any outsiders to influence events inside the theocracy.
In the past, and in particular during the joint operation codenamed AJAX and BOOT which plotted to overthrow the Mossadeq regime in 1953, the CIA and SIS have been able to recruit local sources, put demonstrators on the street, bribe senior police officials, pay off army generals and rely on a mole inside the Shah’s immediate entourage.
In the absence of a local CIA station in Tehran since the revolutionary students occupied the U.S. embassy in 1979, the CIA has been hamstrung in its attempts to develop access to the mullahs’ circle and to scientists engaged in atomic research.
All the usual tactics of approaching émigrés and other likely prospects while they are traveling in third countries, have been tried, but the Iranian target poses an usually difficult problem, perhaps only matched by North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Not only are the generally very young inhabitants familiar with the details of the Mossadeq coup, as if it happened much more recently than over half a century ago, but they are all deeply suspicious of foreign intervention. On top of this foundation of paranoia, the regime enjoys many totalitanian characteristics.
The CIA, conscious that it has no local access and few officers with Farsi language skills, knows that any attempt to fund the opposition or use the internet to influence the demonstrators could prove catastrophically counter-productive.
The regime is already convinced British and American agents are behind the discontent and some tangible proof, perhaps in the form of confessions extracted from British embassy employees, would be regarded as hugely advantageous.
Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards are aware that the U.S. Congress has appropriated huge sums for a destabilization programme which, thus far, has been directed from Iraq by the Defence Intelligence Agency and proved ineffective because of the operational limits placed on the planners.
In a country with a disastrous economy, appalling levels of unemployment, social deprivation, widespread government corruption, and even fuel rationing, it is astonishing that a well-funded covert action could not topple the unpopular mullahs who are anyway squabbling among themselves.
The paramilitaries, ready to sabotage what little fuel is available for local distribution, could plunge the country into even greater chaos, but the problem is that there is no evidence of a liberal alternative ready to fill a vacuum.
In comparable situations the west’s intelligence agencies would fund the protestors, assist with their communications, print underground subversive literature and provoke a confrontation that would alienate moderates from the regime, but in Tehran the challenge is all the greater because the opposition is not short of cash and cellphones and the internet provide a faster means of contacting and organizing disaffected groups than anything the CIA could manage.
Absent from the stage is a single charismatic figure who would end the development of an atomic weapon, limit the power of the supreme leader, change the constitution, dismantle the Revolutionary Guard, respect human rights and introduce a transparent democracy.
Such an individual would be very attractive to the west but he simply does not exist, and until he emerges the only option for the west is to play the role of the frustrated spectator as a hideously dysfunctional government slowly self-destructs. Even a hint that SIS and the CIA are up to mischief again could play very conveniently into the mullahs’ hands.