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The Iranian Spy Empire

Lee Smith

Vienna

The Kurdish opposition was marching through one of the main streets and chanting anti-Iranian regime slogans. He followed me from the protest down a back street and called out. I stopped and he showed me a map and asked if I knew how to get to the destination he had circled. Weird he didn’t have Google Maps like almost everyone else in the city, I thought. It was only a matter of time before the city elders would carve out a separate pedestrian lane for tourists whose eyes were fixed on their phones.

I explained to him I didn’t know how to get to where he wanted to go. I wasn’t from here. “Where are you from?” he asked. “America,” I said, wished him luck and was on my way. He called out again and caught up alongside me. “Where are you from?” he asked again. “Argentina?” I walked off without answering him, eyeing my way back to the main road.

The next time a voice rang out behind me it belonged to an undercover cop who had the tourist by his shoulder. “Excuse me,” he asked. “What did this guy want from you?” “Just directions,” I said.

The policeman’s presence was sufficient evidence that my new friend was not, as I briefly suspected, an Iranian intelligence officer. Had he really been with the Ministry of Intelligence or the IRGC, there is no chance he would’ve been stopped by the Vienna police since Iranian intelligence works in the Austrian capital with impunity.

Ever since I arrived for the P5+1 and Iran nuclear talks earlier in the week, colleagues warned that Iranian intelligence officers were watching everyone and recording everything. “They’re shameless,” one pro-democracy advocate in town for the talks told me. “They come right up to you, stick a camera in your face and ask where you’re from. Last time I was here, I told a journalist to watch out and sure enough his picture was up on the Fars site within two hours.”

And it’s not just the American and other Western journalists they’re watching. In fact, the people they’re watching most closely are other Iranians, including the families of Iranian-Americans held hostage by the clerical regime like Amir Hekmati, whose sister and brother-in-law I met in the Marriott lobby, adjacent to where the P5+1 talks are being held.

Iranian dissidents and Iranian journalists based outside Iran are other popular targets. One European-based reporter who asked not to be named was convinced he was under constant surveillance and was indeed being watched as we spoke in the hotel. It seems that the main point the Iranian intelligence services want to drive home is not just that they want you to know they’re watching. They want you to think they’re always watching.

It’s curious that the White House has not said anything about the brazenly open activities of Iranian intelligence. After all, in March, the Obama administration accused Israel of spying on the American side involved in the nuclear negotiations. Israel denied targeting its superpower patron but was not shy to admit that it certainly does conduct surveillance of the Iranian side. And the latter are spying on everyone—even if the White House won’t say anything about it. Nor are Western journalists, even if they are among the key targets for MOIS and IRGC operations. 

“The Iranians are clearly at home because they turned Vienna into a police state,” said someone familiar with Iranian security tactics. “They track and document the movements and interactions of journalists, analysts and politicians alike. Iranian reporters and delegates will certainly be held to account for any interactions with Westerners, whether they are journalists, analysts, U.S. government officials or strippers at Vienna’s ubiquitous nightclubs.”

“Vienna,” said one Iranian dissident I met at the Marriott, “is the center of Iranian intelligence operations in Europe.”

It’s hardly surprising that Vienna is still a playground for foreign intelligence services. During the Cold War, Austria’s declared neutrality made the capital an inviting place for the American intelligence community and U.S. allies to contest Soviet-bloc services. That Vienna—Cold War, shadow-war, Vienna—was first, and perhaps best, captured in the 1949 film, “The Third Man,” the screenplay written by Graham Greene. Thin, needy, and scarred from its role in Hitler’s war, that Vienna was capable of nearly anything just to get by.

Vienna 2015 is a world capital, and home to international organizations, like OPEC and the IAEA. The irony is that this is partly how the Iranians manage to get so many spies in to Vienna. According to the Iranian dissident, a Vienna resident for over a decade, the Iranians fill their delegations to those organizations and others with intelligence officers. The Austrians don’t make a very big deal about it because, for among other reasons, they want to do business with the Islamic Republic—indeed, the Austrians are so eager to see Iran open again that Austrian industries have occasionally skirted sanctions.

Austria has often been lax in maintaining and enforcing sanctions, as Simone Dinah Hartmann, head of the Vienna-based anti-Iranian regime organization Stop the Bomb, has told me. “We’ve smuggled people into chamber of commerce meetings where they tell businesses how to get around sanctions,” said Hartmann.

There’s also some history—some of it unpleasant—between the Austrian government and the clerical regime in Tehran. The Austrian foreign minister was the first western foreign minister to visit Iran after the Islamic revolution. In 1991 then-President and former Nazi officer Kurt Waldheim, was the first Western leader to visit Tehran, where he was praised by then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani for his “anti-Americanism” and “anti-Zionism.” And then there was the 1989 assassination of a Kurdish opposition leader and his two colleagues in Vienna, an operation typically attributed to Iranian intelligence.

Iranian diplomats, like foreign minister Javad Zarif, have impressed their American counterparts and the Western press corps with their manners and sophistication. The reality is that their diplomatic efforts wouldn’t be half as meaningful if it weren’t for the Iranian intelligence officers swarming in the Marriott lobby and elsewhere like cockroaches. They’re here to remind Western officials, even the Austrian government, how Iran enforces agreements—not through international organizations like the IAEA. No, that’s simply a cover for Iranian spies. The way Tehran does it is through threats—backed by force of arms. Guns and bombs—yes, even in European cities.

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