Amid increasing U.S. pressure, Iranian intel head brags of uncovering network of Western spies

Jenna McLaughlin
National Security and Investigations Reporter
Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi answers questions from lawmakers in an open session of parliament in Tehran, Iran, in 2016. (Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

WASHINGTON — Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi boasted last week, without details, that his department had uncovered nearly 300 “CIA agents” and other Western spies around the world in an ongoing mole hunt, as well as disrupted violent terror cells and anti-revolutionary groups, according to reporting from Iranian media outlets.

Alavi, a midranking conservative cleric, was appointed to his role in Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security in 2013 following the swearing in of President Hassan Rouhani. His remarks, likely intended to boost the role of the Intelligence Ministry within Iran, came on the heels of increasing U.S. pressure on the Islamic regime, including the State Department’s recent designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an arm of the Iranian government, as a terrorist group, as well as recent additional sanctions. He told observers during Friday prayers that his ministry had discovered agents working for both the CIA and British foreign intelligence agency MI6.

Meanwhile, Iran’s military appeared to be experiencing its own period of turmoil. On Wednesday, the website for the Islamic State of Iran Crime Research Center, an anti-regime Washington-based nonprofit, published an article claiming IRGC commander Brig. Gen. Ali Nasiri had defected and escaped Iran. A website affiliated with Lebanese militia group Hezbollah reportedly first posted — and then removed — news of Nasiri’s defection.

The Trump administration has ratcheted up pressure on Iran over the past year, including pulling out of the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency has said Tehran was complying with the agreement, which was designed to limit the regime’s nuclear development.

Critics of the nuclear deal say it is already effectively dead, and argue Tehran was ramping up missile testing and supporting violent proxy forces abroad long before President Trump pulled out of the agreement.

“Iran has only grown more belligerent,” wrote the editorial board of Bloomberg News on Wednesday. “If an agreement limited to nuclear weapons was too narrow in 2015, Iran’s actions since have made such a deal entirely insufficient.”

It’s unclear how what appears to be internal rivalry between Iran’s Intelligence Ministry and the IRGC will proceed. According to a research study conducted by the Congressional Research Service, primarily conducted through Farsi and English blogs in Iran, the IRGC is required to report its activities to the Ministry of Intelligence, which is the “highest intelligence authority” in Iran. But the IRGC, along with the Intelligence Ministry, both report directly to Iran’s supreme leader.

In announcing Iran’s latest arrest of alleged spies, Alavi, the intelligence minister, cited a Yahoo News investigation revealing that a global network of CIA-recruited agents had been discovered. However, he appeared to inflate the number of supposed agents identified tenfold, from around 30 to nearly 300 — and implied that the compromise was an ongoing problem for the United States and its recruits.

While former intelligence officials told Yahoo News last year that the compromised system is still not completely fixed, the extent to Alavi’s claims are true, or has resulted in more arrests or deaths, is unclear.

The CIA did not respond to request for comment, and the State Department told Yahoo News it declined to comment on intelligence matters.

However, this is not the first time Alavi has boasted about a roll-up of spies within Iran’s ranks. In August 2018, just months after Trump decided to withdraw from the Iran deal and reimpose sanctions, Alavi claimed that his ministry had locked up “tens of spies” inside Iranian government agencies. The IRGC, according to reports, also charged many “dual-nationals” inside its ranks with espionage in recent years.

Experts on Iran and its national security apparatus point out that Iran has a history of exaggerating its intelligence triumphs. One former intelligence official familiar with the compromise uncovered by Yahoo News in 2018 told Yahoo that the new statements made by Alavi were not in line with the facts.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who focuses on Iranian security and politics, agreed with this assessment, noting Iran “has a long history of inventing spies and conflating criminal and national security charges.”

The increasing U.S. pressure through sanctions gives Iran even more incentive to “misrepresent” its capabilities, Ben Taleblu argued.

“A closer look reveals that beyond rhetoric, Iran is having a hard time … signaling that it can respond to America with threats of its own,” he continued. “Manufactured political and legal charges could be just what the Ayatollah ordered to bolster Iranian deterrence.”

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