Listening Posts on Iran Produce the Same Sort of Bad Intel as Iraqi Defectors

It seems like a bad Bush-era joke today that U.S. officials relied on information solicited from Iraqi defectors with code names like "curveball" to make their case for invading Iraq (and leaving at least 100,000 civilians dead). A significant portion of that information was funneled through the Defense Department's Office of Special Plans (OSP), created in 2002 by then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith to "find evidence of what Wolfowitz and his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, wanted to be true--that Saddam Hussein had close ties to Al Qaeda, and that Iraq had an enormous arsenal of chemical, biological, and possibly even nuclear weapons that threatened the region and, potentially, the United States". But the Wikileaks cables show that Obama Administration officials are happy to be carrying on a similar Bush-era program focused on Iran, intended to elicit and solicit information from would-be Iranian defectors and other Iranians who simply wish to travel to the United States.

In 2005--while Khatami was still President of the Islamic Republic--Bush Administration officials decided they wanted to significantly expand their operations to elicit and solicit information from would-be Iranian defectors (they didn't actually expand the operations until 2006). The idea was to establish new or fortify existing offices in countries neighboring Iran (Azerbaijan, Iraq, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and the United Arab Emirates) where U.S. embassy or consulate officials could come into contact with Iranians--a significant portion of whom would be coming into the U.S. Embassy or Consulate for a visa or to establish a relationship with a U.S. official for some other reason (e.g., to gain financial remuneration for information the U.S. official would want to hear or to punish the government of the Islamic Republic by providing derogatory information about it to its foe). The Wikileaks cables we have seen so far show that, just as happened in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. government, under the George W. Bush Administration and now under the Obama Administration, is getting what it pays for through its "Iran watchers"--information that is intensely critical of the Islamic Republic and often flat out wrong.

When asked, after the Iraq war, about the bogus information provided to the U.S. Government about Iraq's WMD programs and links to Al-Qa'ida by sources associated in the Iraqi National Congress (INC, the neoconservatives' favorite Iraqi opposition group), the INC's leader, Ahmad Chalabi, told The Daily Telegraph that "we are heroes in far as we're concerned, we've been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone, and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important."

Now, the Wikileaks documents tell us that the State Department's Iran watchers are effectively replicating, with regard to Iran, what OSP did with regard to Iraq. When the Iran watcher program was formally launched in 2006, then-Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns compared it to the "Riga station", operating at the U.S. Embassy in Latvia between the Russian Revolution in 1917 and America's recognition of the Soviet Union in 1933, with the aim of collecting information and providing analysis about developments in the Soviet Union, at a time when the United States did not have an embassy in Moscow. But the real comparison, in our judgment, is with OSP.

This is genuinely sad; we know some of the State Department officers who have served as Iran watchers since the program was launched in 2006, and think well of them as professionals and as people. But they are part of a system that is set up to draw out as many Iranian "heroes in error" as possible; this set up, in turn, guarantees that Washington policymakers will see reporting streams about Iran that are corrupted in much the same way as those produced on Iraq by OSP. And that outcome is worsened by a seemingly irreducible level of analytic mediocrity, less-than-complete competence, and overwhelming eagerness to please superiors in Washington exhibited by some of the State Department officers assigned to Iran watcher positions.

We highlight below six examples from the WikiLeaks documents to illustrate what we mean. (There is, unfortunately, a lot more material of this sort that can be gleaned from the WikiLeaks cables.)

1) The Iran watcher in Ashgabat reported on June 15, 2009--three days after the Islamic Republic's presidential election--that, according to an Iranian source who had gone to the Iranian Embassy in the Turkmen capital to cast his vote, "everyone he spoke to who was there to cast their ballot said they were voting for Mousavi." This quote is used to reinforce what was already becoming the conventional wisdom in State Department channels--that the election results must have been fraudulent. The source's story may well have been true--the official election results, which State Department sources and most Western commentators routinely disparage, show that Mousavi decisively carried the votes of Iranians living abroad. No Western commentator, to our knowledge, has ever claimed that this particular aspect of the results is also fraudulent. Nevertheless, the Iran watcher in Ashgabat used his source's anecdote to support what was rapidly becoming the conventional wisdom in State Department channels--that the official results were undoubtedly the product of fraud.

The same source also passed on to the Iran watcher in Ashgabat an assessment that, "based on calculations from Mousavi's campaign observers who were present at polling stations around the country and who witnessed the vote counts, Mousavi received approximately 26 million (or 61%) of the 42 million votes cast in Friday's election, followed by Mehdi Karroubi (10-12 million). According to [the source's] sources, Ahmadinejad received a maximum of 4-5 million votes, with the remainder going to Mohsen Rezai."

These numbers may fit with Western observers' preferred narrative--but there is no objective basis for believing them. Polling data from both Iranian and Western polling organizations gives no ground for believing that Karroubi received anything close to 10-12 million votes. Furthermore, those Mousavi supporters with whom we've spoken and who think there must have been fraud--although they've never explained how it was perpetrated--still acknowledge that Ahmadinejad received at least 10-12 million votes.

Unfortunately, Obama Administration officials--just like their Bush era predecessors--like hearing what they want to hear, regardless of whether that relates to reality. A cable from the State Department on June 19, 2009, from Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeff Feltman--who previously distinguished himself by blowing virtually every major call about the direction of Lebanese domestic politics during his tenure as the U.S. ambassador in Beirut--commended this officer and Embassy Ashgebat for "its excellent reporting on the Iranian elections". Assistant Secretary Feltman noted that "Embassy insights were extremely useful for their timeliness and for the helpful view from 'man on the street' Iranians." (Never mind that the embassy officer is prohibited by the U.S. government from entering Iran and must, instead, report the views of "man on the street Iranians" who are not in Iran but in Ashgabat). "This excellent reporting provided key insights to 7th-floor principals and [the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs]...This crucial information has helped [the Bureau] and key principals in deciphering the maze of Iranian electoral politics...You have set a high standard for your colleagues here in Washington and elsewhere."

2) The Iran watcher in Baku reported in September 2009 that one of his Iranian sources said that "almost everyone he knew voted for Mousavi, and was angered by the fabricated result." It may well be true that "almost everyone" the source knows voted by Mousavi. But this is roughly comparable to the analytic line of a resident of Manhattan's Upper West Side we know, who still thinks George W. Bush's re-election victory in 2004 must have been the product of fraud because no one she knows voted for Bush. On this point, we should give at least some credit to the Baku Iran watcher's source--while everyone he knew allegedly voted for Mousavi, he acknowledged that most Iranians saw the post-election fallout as "an issue for Tehranis".

3) While this particular item does not relate to the Iran watchers' Iranian sources, we think it is worth highlighting all the same. Iran watchers in Dubai reported in August 2009 that controversy over the Islamic Republic's June 12, 2009 presidential election had undermined Ahmadinejad's "standing among moderate Arabs, who have come to view Ahmadinejad's administration as oppressive, unpopular, and undemocratic". The evidence for this? A handful of commentaries on the Dubai-based, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiyya; some data-free, opinion-laden statements by Al-Arabiyya executives; similar sorts of statements by individual Lebanese and Saudi "commentators"; and the observations of a Syrian-born "journalist and blogger" based in Dubai. In contrast to these anecdotal, idiosyncratic, and completely unsubstantiated observations, reputable polls conducted by Western polling organizations and scholars show that Iran's "soft power" on the Arab street remains fundamentally undiminished.

4) In the run-up to the February 11 (22 Bahman), 2010 celebration of the anniversary of the Islamic Republic's founding, the Iran watcher in Baku breathlessly reported that "more than a dozen Iranian contacts...including several Iran-based interviewees", predicted "massive demonstrations in Tehran, and significant protests in Tabriz, Mashad, Isfahan, and some smaller cities. Many asserted that pre-demonstration planning, propaganda, and organization activities by opposition supporters (especially students) is far more noticeable and fractionalized compared to previous demonstrations. Several commentators claimed that while pro-Mousavi and pro-Karroubi websites are still important sources of information and encouragement, they are no longer the only or even main reference points for determined oppositionists. 'Neither Moussavi nor Karroubi can stop this (opposition protests) now,' one social activist contended."

It is unfortunate that the Iran-watcher in Baku chose to rely on "more than a dozen" agenda-driven sources to hype the anticipated anti-Islamic Republic turnout on the 22 Bahman anniversary. Instead--as we predicted--the anniversary produced huge demonstrations in support of the Islamic Republic, and was a colossal bust for the Green movement.

5) The Iran watcher in Baku also reported in February 2010, citing an Iranian source described as a "former non-Marxist revolutionary activist", that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had so infuriated Revolutionary Guard Chief of Staff Mohammed Ali Jafari at a recent meeting of the Supreme National Security Council in Tehran that Jafari "slapped Ahmadinejad in the face, causing an uproar and an immediate call for a break in the meeting, which was never resumed...[the Supreme National Security Council] did not meet again for another two weeks, after Ayatollah Janati successfully acted as a 'peacemaker' between Jafari and Ahmadinejad. Source added that the break in the [Supreme National Security Council] meeting, but not the slap that caused it, has made its way on to some Iranian blogs."

Along with other weaknesses in the plausibility of this story, we have to ask--how would a "former non-Marxist revolutionary activist" have anything like the level of access to make him an even marginally credible source for a story like the one recounted in the Iran watcher's cable?

6) Again, we should give credit where credit is due. One Iran watcher--in Dubai--wrote in a January 2010 cable that "at this point, the Green Path Opposition is more of a persistent problem for the regime than an existential threat, and it is unrealistic to assume that the GPO will be able to effect any 'regime change' in the short-term. This officer systematically laid out why the Green Movement was in no way comparable to the revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1978-1979.

But this officer also blithely asserted around the same time that, "While we don't know nor might not ever know the real June 12 vote count, it is clear that the turnout was at record high levels and that there was systematic vote count fraud (if in fact the votes were even counted) to ensure that Ahmadinejad 'won big' in the first round." There is no sourcing of any sort for these statements. Also note the nearly complete lack of specification as to how the "fix" was done. It might have been "systematic vote count fraud"; we assume that means actually altering or replacing ballots in order to produce a desired result. But, perhaps the votes weren't even counted.

Someone who charges fraud in a foreign country's election--particularly a State Department officer reporting to Washington in an official cable--ought to be able to explain how the alleged fraud took place. But, we have seen what happens when reporting officers are relying primarily on sources with overriding political and personal agendas regarding an issue of high importance for American foreign policy.

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