Strategy Page, August 31, 2019
In early 2019 the U.S. indicted a former U.S. Air Force intelligence specialist, Monica Witt, of spying for Iran and actively assisting Iran in attempts to recruit more Americans to spy for Iran. This was a rare win for Iran, which is usually on the receiving end of foreign espionage efforts. Ever since the 1980s, when a religious dictatorship was established in Iran, there has been a steady flow of Iranians fleeing Iran to escape an increasingly oppressive, brutal and corrupt dictatorship. This made it easier for nations with well-developed intelligence capabilities to enlist Iranian exiles to aid in keeping tabs on what was going on in Iran. The U.S. and Israel have been particularly effectively at this, which is one reason why it has been a staple of Iranian foreign policy since the 1980s that the United States and Israel must be destroyed.
Monica Witt was born in Texas and joined the air force in 1997. She scored well on air force aptitude tests and was trained as an enlisted intelligence specialist. This included learning how to speak Farsi (the Iranian language) and details of Iranian culture. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq Witt served as a translator and analyst aboard a RC-135 airborne intelligence collection aircraft. These missions occur in a combat zone and can be dangerous. Witt was monitoring Iranian military communications to determine how Iran would react to British and American troops toppling Saddam Hussein, who was much hated by Iran for attacking Iran in 1980 and triggering a nine year bloodbath that cost Iran several hundred thousand dead, over half a trillion dollars and, worst of all, a military stalemate that was seen by Iran as a humiliation. Iran considered Arabs militarily inferior and saw a stalemate with Iraq as a defeat. The Iraqis declared the stalemate a victory for Arabs. While most Iranians cheered on the three week campaign that ousted Saddam, the Iranian government saw this rapid defeat of Iraq as yet another insult by the West. It was made worse by many Iranians calling for the Americans to please invade Iran and topple yet another oppressive dictatorship. The Americans declined but did use the opportunity to recruit more Iranians for intelligence work.
After Iraq Witt was transferred to OSI (the air force office of special investigations) and trained to investigate cases involving foreign (especially Iranian) espionage efforts against the United States, including the growing number of Iran-backed criminal enterprises that combined fund raising and espionage. This had become something of an Iranian specialty and the West was devoting more criminal and counterintelligence investigators to monitoring this activity. Monica Witt was less successful as a Farsi speaking counterintelligence officer and her personal life was a mess as well. She left the air force in 2008 with a rank of staff sergeant (E-6) and her top secret security clearances and intelligence background enabled her to get a better paying job with a government contractor. That did not improve her financial situation much but it did attract the attention of Iranian intelligence. That was because Witt had become interested in Islam and radical politics. For a foreign intelligence agency looking to recruit Americans, this is a known sign of a potential jackpot. By 2010 Witt quit intel work and lest her top secret clearance. At that point she was openly embracing Shia Islam and becoming openly pro-Iran. In 2012 she travelled to Iran for a conference on the destructive influence of American culture (or “hollywoodism”). The conference was also an opportunity for the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) Quds Force to check out prospective recruits from among the pro-Iran foreigners attending. Monica Witt was ready to switch sides and was already dressing as a devout Moslem woman. Witt, however, was not an ideal recruit because while in Iran she gave interviews to Iranian media where she identified herself as an air force veteran. Quds backed off when faced with this because Witt seemed too undisciplined to be an effective intelligence asset.
Apparently Quds suspected, for a while, that Witt was a clever American attempt at placing a double agent on the Quds payroll. Witt responded by approaching the Russians and that eventually convinced Quds that Witt was sincere but unreliable and difficult to manage. In 2013 Witt realized her former colleagues in U.S. intelligence had probably figured out what she was up to and it was unwise to return to the United States. So she defected to Iran. Since then she has been detected assisting Iran in trying to recruit or blackmail other intel specialists she had come into contact with during her 13 year career in intelligence. That was a serious violation of U.S. law and by 2015 the U.S. was certain that Witt was now working for Iranian intelligence. Further investigation revealed details and in 2018 the U.S. went to court to present the evidence and obtain an indictment. That was obtained and revealed in February 2019 and now Witt is sought for a long list of offensives. Witt continues to work in Iran for Iranian intelligence.
The Witt indictment was something of a win for Iran, but the IRGC would have preferred keeping Witt out of the news and any scrutiny by American counterintelligence. The most valuable foreign agents are the ones your enemies do not know about. Monica Witt was always somewhat unstable but she was now with Iranian intelligence and for Iran a win is a win. This is especially important in light of the many defeats Iran has suffered lately because of Mossad (the Israeli intel agency) and, to a lesser extent, American intel agencies. Israel and Iran have, since Iran became a religious dictatorship in the 1980s, been trying to infiltrate each other with spies, assassins and saboteurs. Israel has been very successful while Iranian efforts have largely failed. The main reason for this is the large number of Iranian Jews who fled Iran since the 1980s and brought their cultural awareness and language skills with them. There were very few Israelis willing to defect to Iran and help spy against Israel. In addition to their cultural knowledge and language skills the Iranian Jews brought with them links to Iranian Moslems back in Iran who were opposed to the religious dictatorship there and willing to work against the Iranian government (without necessarily knowing they were working for Israel.) The U.S. was another matter because Americans had less personal experience with Iranian terrorism and violence. All those Iranian Jews brought first had accounts of what the Iranian religious dictatorship was really like. Many Americans have become fans of radical, anti-American, politics and were more tolerant to misbehaving Moslems. But that recruiting pool was not as deep as what Iran had among Arab Shia in the Middle East, Arabs in Europe and Arab citizens of Israel. This pool yields few promising recruits and most who do sign up end up in Israeli prisons, or a morgue somewhere.
For example in 2013 an Iranian expatriate in Belgium was arrested for trying, at the behest of Quds, to set up an espionage and sabotage network in Israel. Quds offered the guy a million dollars if he could help plan and carry out terror attacks inside Israel. This spy was arrested and insisted that he was the victim of an Iranian extortion scheme to force him to spy. Whatever the case Quds had failed again. What was interesting with this case was that the arrested man had a brother who worked for Iranian intelligence and helped arrange for Quds Force to meet and recruit his brother in Belgium. Despite many precautions, undertaken on the advice of his Quds Force handlers, the newly recruited spy was detected by Israeli counterintelligence and was observed taking photos of the main airport in Israel, the American embassy in Israel and at least one intelligence facility. Arrested in September 2013 while trying to leave Israel the Belgian-Iranian spy eventually, after prolonged interrogation, provided many details of his work for Quds Force.
Iranian efforts like this have been going on for most of the last decade. For example, back in 2007 Israel revealed an Iranian effort to recruit Israelis of Iranian origin to spy on Israel for Iran. Up until then Israel had detected at least ten Iranian attempts to recruit Israelis as spies. This was possible because, although Iran wants Israel destroyed, Iran still allowed Israelis of Iranian origin to return and visit kin in Iran. There are still about 8,000 Jews in Iran, and nearly 150,000 Israelis of Iranian origin. Since 1948 most Jewish Iranians have left Iran, most for Israel. Each year there are still some Israelis have returning to Iran to visit family. The classic method of recruitment, used by the Iranians, was to threaten kin in Iran with harm (imprisonment, torture, death) if the Iranian Jew who was now an Israeli did not supply information. Some of these Israelis reported the Iranian recruiting attempt to the Israeli government and that led to a more and more vigorous Israeli counterintelligence efforts against Iranian attempts to set up espionage and terror operations inside Israel.
It's not illegal for Israelis to travel to Iran, although it's common knowledge that Iran is not a hospitable place for Jews, Israelis or Westerners in general. Israelis usually go to the nearest Iranian embassy (usually Turkey) to take care of the paperwork. While applying for an Iranian passport, they are questioned on what they do for a living, and what they did while in the Israeli armed forces. Some Israelis have reported this to their government, and the Iranian espionage situation has been watched carefully for some time.
Because of this Israeli scrutiny Iran is now going after the many Iranians who have fled to the West in the last few decades and used threats or offers of money to recruit them as intelligence operatives. Iran seeks out expatriate Iranians who have been successful and legitimate international businessmen as this allows them to travel a lot without alerting Israeli counterintelligence.
Israel has been doing the same thing and has apparently been more successful at setting up espionage and sabotage operations in Iran. This has annoyed the Iranians a great deal, as has the Israeli skill at foiling Iranian intel and terror operations against Israel. This is a war that is far from over.