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How Does U.S. Find Out About Iranian 'Guerrillas In Suits'

A man exchanges Iranian rials against US dollars in the capital Tehran, August 8, 2018
A man exchanges Iranian rials against US dollars in the capital Tehran, August 8, 2018

Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani once called on Iranian diplomats to be "guerrillas in suits". He borrowed this expression from a former U.S. official and currently a research scholar Richard Nephew, who was involved in developing the first round of U.S. sanctions on Iran in early 2010's.

While Nephew described his colleagues, who worked on applying the sanctions "guerrillas in suits," Larijani used the same expression for Iranians who worked hard to lift or circumvent the same sanctions.

As the new sanctions came into effect on Monday, a hardliner member of the Iranian parliament, Ahmad Amirabadi Farahni asked, "Who handed this information to the enemy?" He was referring to hundreds of individuals and companies on the U.S. sanctions’ list. Farahani, who represents the religious city of Qom, called on Iranian intelligence to find out.

Meanwhile, he admitted in a tweet that "This list includes almost everyone and every organization that helped Iran to circumvent the previous rounds of sanctions."

Another MP, Jalal Mirzai responded that such comments will not help tackle the sanctions.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, opined that the list was prepared based on "blind guesses", since there were a few sanctioned entities that had long ceased to exist.

A media advisor to President Hassan Rouhani jumped on this and declared, that blind guesses have misled American officials.

But how does the US find access to information about individuals and companies who circumvent the sanctions?

Hamid Hosseini, an official at the oil products exporters' association, says part of the information about Iran's oil sales was given away by shipping companies, adding that some prospective buyers were in fact sent by US and Israel to find out about how Iran sells its oil.

Hosseini added, sometimes buyers who did not win tender bids to purchase oil from Iran disclosed information about their business rivals.

Also, one can guess that Israel has passed on some of the sanctions related information to the U.S. According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israeli industrial intelligence company Black Cube nicknamed as "the private MOSSAD" collected intelligence on the assets, banks and companies linked to those who worked with Iran to circumvent sanctions.

According to Haaretz, The Bank of Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman where Iran kept its oil revenue was one the major targets of Black Cube.

Meanwhile, former IRGC commander Hossein Alai has said that US and Israel have improved their intelligence collection from Iran as they operate an intelligence organization inside Iran.

Reports in previous years said some Iranian intelligence officials were arrested on charges of spying for Israel. Iranian activist Reza Alijani said in an interview with Radio Farda that two officials in charge of the Israel Desk at the Ministry of Intelligence and the IRGC Intelligence Organization were arrested and executed on charges of spying for Israel.

In another development, Reza Zarrab, an Iranian businessman who was active in Turkey and later arrested in U.S., is believed to have given away information to U.S. official when he cooperated with prosecutors in New York. At least once, Zarif has implicated the man in tipping off U.S. agents about activities to circumvent sanctions.

On the other hand, Iranian intelligence agencies have accused some officials who defected to the West for giving information about how Iran got away with violating US sanctions. At least one member of the Iranian nuclear negotiation team is in jail on charges of giving Iran's banking information to U.S. agents, although the Ministry of Intelligence has rejected the charges brought against the man.

In the meantime, Larijani had Richard Nephew's book, The Art of Sanctions; A View from the Field, translated into Persian and handed out to Iranian officials who have later cited the book in their speeches.

Larijani may have done this to inform state officials about how the US finds out about methods used to circumvent US sanctions, while state officials shocked by new sanctions are playing a blame game, pointing fingers at each other.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Radio Farda.
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    Ehsan Mehrabi

    Ehsan Mehrabi is an Iranian journalist and an expert on Iran's domestic politics. Mehrabi was arrested with a group of other journalists on February 7, 2010 in Iran and served a one-year prison sentence. He resides in Germany and is a contributor to Radio Farda.