Chanting “death to England,” they burned the Union Jack, looted offices and smashed a picture of the Queen. It could scarcely have been a more symbolic protest. Outside the British embassy in Iran’s capital city, Tehran, a furious crowd gathered last week to demand the UK’s diplomats leave the country immediately. “Britain should wait for the coming moves of the great Iranian nation, which intends to settle an old score with Britain for years of plotting against Iran,” said the protesters, who some claimed had been put up to the task by their government. “We will not come short of our righteous demands.”
The story that led up to the incident reads like the plot of an elaborate spy thriller. Rooted in fear and intense diplomatic wrangling around the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions, it is a murky world of assassination plots, secret agents and covert operations that many believe could be a prelude to military strikes.
Ever since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which saw the authoritarian, American-backed ruler Mohammad Reza Pahlavi overthrown as part of a popular uprising, relations between the west and Iran have been fraught. Pahlavi had been installed in 1953, historic documents show, as part of a coup involving UK and US secret intelligence operatives amid the Cold War.
Once the new regime came in to power after Pahlavi’s departure, Iran, a newly crowned Islamic state, became increasingly isolated. Western nations imposed severe economic sanctions on the country over allegations that it was funding terrorist groups, with billions of dollars worth of assets frozen. A series of conflicts in the region throughout the 1980s saw Britain and America supply weapons – some chemical and biological – to Saddam Hussein’s regime during the Iran-Iraq war, and during the same period the US shot down an Iranian passenger plane, killing 290 civilians.
In recent years, the bitterness between the west and Iran has reached a new and unprecedented level. A pivotal moment came in 2002 – the same year George W. Bush famously declared Iran was a key player in his “Axis of Evil” – when an Iranian dissident revealed the existence of a secret underground uranium enrichment facility, leading to claims the country was attempting to develop nuclear weapons.
This was followed last month by a significant new report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog. Listing a large appendix of previously unpublished evidence sourced from ten international intelligence agencies, the report concluded there were “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear programme, which it said caused "deep concern."
Some have doubted the credibility of the findings, with the “dodgy dossier” used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003 still a fresh memory. But Emily Landau, an Iran expert at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, believes this time the threat is real.
“There is serious incriminating evidence that makes it clear we’re talking about a virtual smoking gun with regards to Iran’s military programme,” she says. “Once Iran becomes a nuclear state, it will become almost invulnerable to attack. And it will be able to stir up a lot of trouble in the Gulf region. It will try to expand its clutch very soon.”
Iran has repeatedly denied claims it is trying to build a nuclear bomb, with its president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, saying it is an “inhumane weapon” that is against the Islamic religion. According to Landau, however, the regime’s words cannot be trusted.
“For 20 years Iran was cheating, lying and deceiving the international community, working on a nuclear programme while it was a member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty,” she says. “There is evidence that they were working on a military programme, under government direction, until 2003.”
A major concern for western governments is that, if Iran was to develop nuclear weapons, it would be able to assert domineering power across the Middle East and beyond, ramping up instability and heightening the potential threat of war. This fear is in part fuelled by a speech made by Ahmedinejad in 2005, in which he said Israel “must be wiped off the map.”
Attempting to address the problem, and due in part to Iran’s apparent lack of cooperation, a coalition of nations, led by the US, Britain and Israel, are believed to have intensified secret intelligence operations in the country. In September 2010 it was revealed that a virus called Stuxnet, reportedly created by western powers in collaboration with Israel, was used to attack and spy on Iranian computer systems. One month later, John Sawers, the head of Britain’s foreign spy agency MI6, said in a rare public speech that “intelligence-led” operations were needed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
More recently, a series of explosions have been reported at Iranian nuclear plants, sparking rumours of sabotage, while a number of Iranian nuclear scientists have also been assassinated. 40-year-old Majid Shahriari, a top scientist described by Time magazine as the “senior manager of Iran's nuclear effort,” was killed last November after a death squad on motorbikes attached a bomb to his car and detonated it as he drove away. Similar attacks have occurred since, all of which the Iranians claim were orchestrated by MI6 in collaboration with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Israel’s secret service, the Mossad. UK officials have refused to comment, saying only: “We never discuss intelligence matters.”
Though current intelligence missions remain a tight-lipped secret, David Steele is well equipped to offer an insight into the realities of espionage. The 59-year-old former US spy worked for the CIA during the 1980s as a clandestine case officer, “chasing terrorists” around Latin America. His role in the CIA led him to feel he was the “Cold War equivalent of a Jesuit priest”; however, today his view of the agency, especially its alleged involvement in Iran, is highly critical.
“The president [Barack Obama] would have signed an authorisation for covert action [in Iran] but there are also rumours that the CIA is out of control on the drone program and it might be out of control in other areas,” he says. “Israel has had much too much influence on the US government, often using lies, agents of influence including dual US – Israeli citizens in top policy positions with top secret clearances, and false flag operations. Israel is paranoid and out of control. It wants nothing more than to get the US to do to Iran what Iran got the US to do to Iraq.”
Steele believes allegations of UK and US involvement in assassination plots are “absolutely credible.” He does not deny Iran could be developing a military nuclear programme, but he questions how much of a threat it poses.
“It does not justify the actions that Israel and the west are taking,” he says. “On this issue I believe that Brazil, Turkey, China, and Russia are vastly more intelligent, and have more integrity, than the US government.”
Regardless of whether the nuclear threat posed by Iran is realistic, the situation continues to move in the direction of a military standoff. Last week, just hours after protesters angry about the assassinations and economic sanctions stormed the British Embassy in Tehran, foreign secretary William Hague shut down Iran’s London embassy. “We will discuss these events and further action which needs to be taken in the light of Iran's continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons programme," he said.
Ahmedinejad has since responded by saying he is open to negotiations with the international community over Iran’s nuclear programme. But the country’s supreme leader, 72-year-old Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate control over Iran and its military ambitions, has remained at all times defiant, casting a worrying cloud of uncertainty over the future.
“Iran has stood up against the will of the biggest arrogant and colonialist powers alone and shattered their resolve," Khamenei said in a statement. “With the awakening of different nations, the puppets of the arrogant powers will leave the scene one after the other and the glory and power of Islam will increase on a daily basis."
This article first appeared in issue no.905 of The Big Issue in the North.
Becoming a spy
Though Britain’s intelligence agencies have been stung by recent budget cuts, they are still looking for new talent. MI6, the secret intelligence service made famous by James Bond, is currently recruiting “operational officers” who will be involved in “planning, carrying out and reporting on covert intelligence gathering operations overseas will put you at the heart of world events.” The MI6 website says agents could be deployed on “counter proliferation” missions to secretly monitor countries – possibly including Iran – where nuclear weapons programs are of concern to the UK. Candidates are expected to be “intellectually robust,” have strong awareness of global politics, and be “adaptable, flexible and intuitive.”
Asked about Iran during an interview earlier this year, former prime minister Tony Blair said military action should be considered to stop the country developing a military nuclear programme. “I don't think it would include invasion but I think you cannot rule out the use of military force," he said. In November, foreign secretary William Hague said “all options are on the table” but stressed: “We are not advocating military action against Iran. We are calling for peaceful, legitimate pressure.”