Moscow’s close rapport with the Islamic regime of Tehran is not just grounded in the vast volume of their trade and joint projects, estimated at $18bn, or even Iran’s usefulness as a buttress for Russia’s claim to world power status. Much of the cement is supplied by the exceptional intelligence services Iran performs for the Russians, notably against the United States and the European community.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources report that Iranian agents regularly relay to Moscow a prolific crop of data on US military movements in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf and the republics of Central Asia.
The Iranian agencies involved in the trade are the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Department – RIGID and the Intelligence Ministry – MOI. They are in direct contact with Russia’s foreign intelligence arm – SVR and military intelligence – GRU.
As part of Moscow’s quid quo pro in the trade, a mission of 1,500 Russian intelligence officers and experts is maintained in Iran to advise, assist and overhaul the various units and departments of Iran’s intelligence network and hone their overall skills for undercover work in the Middle East, East Africa, Central Asia and West Europe.
Target: The US army in Iraq
Under a series of secret pacts, Iran is committed to gather and pass on to Russia detailed data on the locations of American military forces, camps and air bases in Iraq, as well as the structure of the New Iraqi Army, the types and quantities of weapons in American use, the US army’s weak points, the British army’s deployments in the south, and any military item bearing on Iraq’s disposition.
Since Tehran maintains tens of thousands of agents in Iraq, many of them native-born, they are in a position to round up information of the greatest possible value to the Russians for assessing the situation in Iraq. Like other intelligence agencies, the Iranians keep back the most sensitive data and inject an item or two of disinformation in the mix fed to the Russians.
Targets: Dubai and Qatar
Russian intelligence also uses its Iranian sources to collect economic data on the flourishing financial hubs of Dubai and Qatar. Dubai is of special interest as a key world trading center and Iran is the perfect source.
Having sunk $20bn over several years in Dubai’s building boom, the Iranians have also built up an extensive intelligence-gathering center there for the entire Gulf region. It is run by the two services, MOI and RIGID. Spying operations go forward behind the fronts of legitimate business enterprises. The network’s chiefs control the work of its assets and decide how the harvest is to be shared out between Tehran and Moscow. They also undertake special commissions on behalf of the Russians.
Moscow’s interest in Qatar is of a different kind.
The ruling Khalifah al-Thani family has a liberal approach to militant and radical elements, including anti-American and anti-Saudi groups, who are allowed free rein in the emirate. The Al Jazeera TV station, owned by the ruling family, toes this line. For the Russians, therefore, Qatar is a convenient venue for contacting Islamic extremists, as well as an observation post for the Islamic forces involved in the anti-Russian insurgency in Chechnya.
But in Qatar, Moscow prefers not to operate in the open, or even through its undercover agents – certainly not in contacts with the Islamic radicals associated with the Chechen rebellion. So, while maintaining an intelligence team in the emirate, the Russians leave the fieldwork to Iranian front-men
From them Moscow obtains a good picture of clandestine movements in the Gulf region, including Chechen rebel fund-raising activities in the Middle East, chiefly Saudi Arabia and the oil emirates. Most of the money comes from private foundations, businessmen and donations by the faithful in the mosques. Getting this sort of information is a cinch for Iranian agents in the field. It is eked out from the heavy sprinkling of Iranian undercover operatives across Europe, some of whom live in the guise of exiled Iranian dissidents.
Target: Pakistan and operations against al Qaeda and Taliban
Russia and Iran cooperate closely in Pakistan.
Here, Iranian intelligence rounds up for the Russians data on the campaigns conducted in pursuit of al Qaeda and the Taliban, and on the military and intelligence collaboration between Pakistan and the United States. Over the years, Tehran has built up several undercover networks in Pakistan with the help of fundamentalist members of the Shiite community, which comprises 40% of the general population and is under Iran’s influence.
From Pakistan, too, Iranian spies are able to draw a picture of American and NATO activities in Afghanistan. The two million Afghan refugees who spent years in Iran were rife for recruitment by Iranian intelligence. Thousands were sent back into Afghanistan as spies for Tehran.
Targets: Iraqi insurgents, the Levant
One of the key functions of the collaboration between Russian military intelligence and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards agency is information-gathering on the Iraqi guerilla insurgency.
Iran’s operatives collect whatever they can on their methods of operation, organization structure, numbers, identities, ideologies, weapons suppliers, fighters and finances.
Here, RIGID is a lot less forthcoming to GRU than in other fields of cooperation. They hold back information on guerrilla groups in which Iran has a stake, or else hand the Russians phony data. In contrast, the information gathered on the foreign armies fighting in Iraq is almost complete and credible.
RIGID has a thorough, ongoing picture of events in Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories and the Palestinian terrorist groups in those countries.
In Lebanon, Hizballah is its primary source.
In Syria, the input is funneled to the Iranian embassy in Damascus. Iranian intelligence uses the Zeinab Mausoleum on its outskirts as an operations center. Most of the staff at the site, the burial place of the daughter of the foremost Shiite saint, Imam Ali, are Iranian agents, including the security guards. They are rotated unnoticed by replacements planted in the crowds of tens of thousands of pilgrims flown in on direct flights from the main Iranian cities. The mausoleum’s outlying buildings house Iranian intelligence communications systems.
The data Iran forwards to the Russians from Syria is slanted to boost president Beshar Assad as a key regional power and encourage the Russians to continue to sell him arms.
Targets: Palestinians, Egypt
Both the Russians and the Revolutionary Guards RIGID maintain active networks in the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
Tehran has the advantage in the Palestinian areas. Iran founded and finances the Palestinian Jihad Islami; its leader Abdallah Ramadan Shalah calls frequently in the Iranian capital and meets Iranian intelligence chiefs; Iran’s leaders are also close to Hamas and its supreme chief, Khaled Meshaal, as well as maintaining a flock of agents among Israeli Arabs.
The Russians are outclassed here, although they have maintained a Russian intelligence mission in Gaza for more than a year. They are therefore eager for the Iranians to top up their knowledge, however selectively.
Among the many other countries in which Russia uses the services of Iranian agents, Sudan is worth mentioning because Iran’s ties with the Khartoum government open windows to Darfur and Chad in which Moscow is interested, as it is in Uganda.
In Egypt, MOI and RIGID work together. Here, Moscow keeps an eye on the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamic groups. Both agencies are not averse to dipping into subversion to weaken a regime which they regard as overly friendly to Washington and a collaborationist of Israel.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iran experts note that while Tehran and Moscow share common strategic interests, Iran’s intelligence services are not a one-way street.
The Revolutionary Guards have obtained Russian missile technology, war materiel and designs for new weapons. All the advanced weaponry exhibited in Iran’s recent war games in the Persian Gulf are based on Russian systems.
Like Saddam Hussein in the past, the Islamic regime in Tehran is well supplied by Moscow with sensitive information on the activities of US and NATO forces around its borders, as well as the state of affairs in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
Equally important, Russian agents keep Iran abreast of the activities of Iranian opposition groups in Europe and the United States.