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Spy Cables: South African spies wary of Iran operations

Leaked documents describe Tehran working to counter sanctions by using front companies and official channels.

Rahul Radhakrishnan, Will Jordan

Iran's efforts to use official and unofficial channels in South Africa to beat western-imposed sanctions have raised concerns within South African security services, according to leaked intelligence documents obtained by Al Jazeera.

The Spy Cables provide a detailed account of Tehran allegedly using secret front companies, as well as open diplomatic channels, in its efforts to work around trade restrictions in order to obtain materials for both arms manufacture and other industries.

A 128-page "Operational Target Analysis," written by South African spies, profiles dozens of alleged Iranian operatives, listing their names, cover stories, families, addresses and phone numbers.

Going so far as to name the gardeners and drivers at its embassy, the report pieces together Iran's intricate network of individuals, businesses and cultural groups, which it says are being used by Tehran to pursue its interests and expand its influence.

Another South African intelligence document reveals Iranian officials carried out "a clean-up" of several diplomats at the Iranian embassy whose loyalty to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was questioned.

It also noted that one Iranian diplomat had "a gambling problem and is closely watched". The official in charge of the "clean-up" also planned to send this diplomat home "but because of [his] political contacts, he could not."

Al Jazeera has redacted the papers to protect individual identities.

Mbeki and Rouhani

The intelligence profile also reveals that Iran approached South Africa's leadership in search of a workaround for international sanctions imposed by Western powers. It cites "a covert source" who claims that on two occasions, then-President Thabo Mbeki had met with senior Iranian officials requesting help with their nuclear programme.

A month after an initial September 2005 meeting, an Iranian delegation headed by a "Mr Rowhani" - likely to be current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who had stepped down as head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council in August of that year - met Mbeki, according to the source.

"The nature of the discussions was a request from the Iranian Government to the SA Government to assist Iran with their nuclear program and to provide technical advice and technology," the document says.

"The advanced level of South Africa's technologies in the aerospace industry, especially in the missile guidance field has increasingly become a focal point" of Iran, a South African spy commented. "It is foreseen that these industries will be targeted for procurement processes."

South African intelligence agents reported that the Iranians were also interested in technology used for satellite interception, online surveillance and hacking.

They were also said to have sought tools for cracking encryption codes and protecting their own secrets online, and the report said Iranian officials had discussions with managers of South Africa's electronic interception facility, the National Communication Centre in 2005. Iranian delegations were also said to have visited several other technical facilities, including manufacturers of drones, electronic warfare systems and interception technologies.

Despite the interest, the SSA was wary. "Cooperation between Iranian entities and the South African defence industry should be carefully considered," agents warned.

"Especially in view of the risk of international sanctions against the industry when it becomes known that they are negotiating contracts on non-proliferation and arms controlled technologies with such a country."


British agents had also been monitoring Iran's activities in South Africa, according to another leaked document, trying to police trade restrictions that the UK had been instrumental in establishing.

A cable from the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6, warned its South African counterparts that a South African company was involved in "advanced" business dealings with an Iranian "front company".

The 2009 cable, marked for "UK/SA eyes only," warns the South Africans that the Iranian company was secretly "responsible for the production of missile launchers" and "the development of rocket bodies", but had "gone to great lengths to pretend" that it was a legitimate firm and "hide the fact that it is related to the missile industry".

MI6 alleged that the front company was hiding the involvement of Tehran-based Shahid Bagheri Industrial Group, whose assets were frozen by the United Nations in 2006 due to its alleged role in Iran's missile programme.

British intelligence feared the sale of the accessories and materials by the South African company could "significantly enhance Iran's ability to produce ballistic missiles, including some which would be suitable for carrying nuclear warheads".

MI6 explained that the companies had planned a business trip to Iran by a dual British-South African national, and asked the SSA to use export licensing laws to "prevent the proposed visits from going ahead".

"We believe such action would be consistent with South Africa's international obligations, as it would be with ours," MI6 wrote to their South African partners.

The use of fronts

South African intelligence reports also identify various and seemingly unrelated organisations they believe are being used to facilitate Iranian intelligence activities.

"Influential Iranian individuals" especially those "in religious cultural affairs and the Persian carpet trade" are used as "deep cover for intelligence activities," the agents claim.

"Non-official covers include Iran Air (the official airline of Iran), the Islamic Republic News Agency, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines," the January 2010 document disclosed.

The agents also profile a number of carpet shops, publishers and other small businesses they believe have links to Iran's intelligence agencies.

They also allege Iranian links to local vigilante group People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) and Ahl ul-Bait Foundation of South Africa - a Shia Islam religious institute. Both groups strongly deny this.

PAGAD national coordinator Abdusalam Ebrahim says the group has never received any support. "It doesn't matter if it's Iran or Iraq or Saudi Arabia." Ebrahim told Al Jazeera. "PAGAD never got support from anybody".

'Broader than espionage'

The SSA characterises Iranian spies as individuals who are "highly motivated and difficult to recruit". They appear "courteous," "tolerant" and "persuasive" but apply "counter-surveillance measures constantly".

Their responsibilities are "much broader than only espionage," according to the SSA. Among its findings are "confirmed" links between Iranian spies and what South Africa identifies as "extremists" and "terrorists".

Iranian intelligence members "placed abroad under the cover of a Foreign Affairs official" have the responsibility to "make contact with an already established Hezbollah or Hamas cells in a target country" or "to recruit members for a cell", the report says.

"Both the Ministries of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Committees make use of the diplomatic bag to send arms to the Iranian Embassies abroad. These arms are then stored in the Embassy with the full knowledge of the Ambassador."

They then train these cells to strike "an identified target," which the South Africans say are "usually American or Israeli". The "subsequent act of sabotage/terrorism/assassination," is carried out by members of the cell, subsequently granting the Iranian intelligence official "deniability".

Between 1989 and 2002, there were 24 assassinations successfully carried out by Iranian spies in Europe and Turkey, all with the explicit approval of Iran's President and Supreme Leader, the document claims.

Despite all the details presented in the SSA's "Operational Target Analysis", the agency concludes that it needs more information in order to make "a comprehensive threat assessment" on Iranian espionage activity.

It concludes by saying "the extent of Iranian intelligence involvement in South Africa [...] needs to be established" and urges further investigation.


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