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Their man in Iran

Ha'aretz Magazine
August 20, 1999

He was the CIA's top expert on Iran , recruiting agents and running them from Istanbul and Paris. Then he stalked out of the organization and slammed the door behind him. In his first interview, Reuel Gerecht, a.k.a. Edward Shirley, challenges the conventi Ronen Bergman

People familiar with the inner workings of both Gerecht and the Central Intelligence Agency say they are not surprised that he did not survive there for more than a decade. To begin with, he is a Jew in an organization that for many years preferred Protestants almost exclusively. He is also a natural rebel and hates accepting authority, traits that would seem to be incompatible with work in an espionage organization whose rigid bureaucracy has been the subject of endless verbiage. On top of that, Gerecht has the reputation of being an intelligence wizard with a very short fuse and unusual caprices. In short, he is exactly the type of person needed for field work in intelligence, but also one of those who will never survive the climb to senior positions - or who will simply die of boredom on the way up.

For seven years, from 1987 to 1994, Gerecht coordinated the network of American agents and contacts in and outside of Iran , first from Istanbul and later from Paris - from which he sent his letter of resignation to then director of the CIA, James Woolsey. Since then, he has worked for private consulting firms, specializing in Asia and the Middle East. He has published several articles and a book under the pen name of Edward Shirley. In the book, "Know Thine Enemy," he describes a secret trip he made, incognito, to Iran , after resigning from the CIA. This is the first time his real name has been made public.

Gerecht speaks Persian, is well versed in Iranian history and culture, and admires the work of Bernard Lewis, considered the senior orientalist in the world today. His main mission for the CIA was to produce an up-to-date situation appraisal of Iran 's present and future, a task that dozens of agents and contacts, most of them Iranian citizens, helped him complete. Former CIA officials say he has an unrivaled knowledge of the multilayered fabric of Iranian society.

Gerecht's views on Iran are sometimes surprising, and do not always coincide with the conventional evaluations of research institutions or media commentators. For one thing, he believes that the way the regime handled the recent student riots was laudable: "The riots did not come as a surprise to the regime. We know that the authorities have been monitoring the universities very closely for the past few years, ever since the leadership understood that they are the real incubator for Western and anti-establishment ideas. The regime grasped the fact that in order to deal with the students, it would have to exercise force sufficient to achieve deterrence, but not to cause excessive bloodshed. That may sound simple, but in reality it is very difficult to accomplish, and they succeeded. From what I know, the students got a few beatings, a few were wounded, a few were killed, and they are definitely afraid to return to the streets on the scale we saw.

"These compliments should not be taken to mean that the problems confronting the regime are about to disappear - on the contrary. We saw only the tip of the iceberg."

Will the regime survive the riots?

"The regime is dead. There is no doubt of that. It has long since lost the justification for its existence. There are some in the West who believe that its end can come by a process of evolution, that [President Mohammed] Khatami is an Islamic version of Gorbachev. I think that is somewhat naive. Even though there are serious disagreements within the regime, in the last analysis, during a crisis, Khatami will support [Islamic Republic leader Ayatollah] Khamenei. It's not part of his DNA to oppose them. He is flesh of their flesh and he sprang from them.

"There has been a large change in the hearts of the Iranians in recent years, but in order for that change to come to concrete expression, there has to be a major confrontation and the total collapse of the regime. The end, I believe, is a forgone conclusion. The question is how long it will take and how many victims it will claim. There is a tradition in the Middle East that regimes do not go away of their own free will. A totalitarian regime that knows it is operating on its last petrol fumes can be highly lethal toward its subjects. I am very much afraid of what will happen in the riots to come. It depends to a large extent on a few key factors. What will the army do, for example? It's clear that the regime, with its 'riot control forces' of the Revolutionary Guards, cannot cope with extensive demonstrations throughout all of Iran . It will have to call in the army. Will the soldiers open fire on their brethren? Only Allah knows."

When will the riots resume?

"We are now in a trial period for the students. Everyone is wondering how much blood they will be willing to shed. Of course, any assessment of mine at this moment is no better than anyone else's. Will there be a spark that will ignite everything again? Will everyone wait for the parliamentary elections in February 2000, or will the explosion occur as soon as the regime tries to prevent a few parties that are considered liberal from running? The great advantage of the extremist religious regime in Iran , as I saw it from the viewpoint of my agents, is the a-politicization of the populace. The average Iranian just wants to be left alone in peace; he wants the ayatollahs to get out of his life, but without becoming involved himself.

That approach, of course, works in the regime's favor."

There are some who claim that the students erred by choosing an ideological reason, like the closing down of a newspaper, to take to the streets, instead of something more down-to-earth that could unite them with other sections of the population, like unemployment or economic distress.

"It's easy for us to sit in Washington and criticize the students. I think that the sheer management of such a large protest movement makes it impossible to plan ahead. From my knowledge of the Iranian security services, if the students had tried to plan ahead and hook up with other forces in Iranian society, Iranian intelligence would have discovered it immediately and scuttled the whole movement with a few executions. Incidentally, the problem the United States had in predicting the recent student riots in Iran - and American intelligence was taken by surprise - stems exactly from this problem of the dearth of open information in the Iranian press and the analysis of the information that does appear." After his graduation, Gerecht's burning ambition was to enlist in the CIA: "I was a passionate believer in the Cold War. I know how that sounds today, but I really wanted to be part of the great battle against the Soviet Union and communism. I thought the CIA would be the appropriate place to combine that sense of mission of fighting the good fight against communism and also continuing my studies. One of my professors had ties with the agency and he put me in touch with them and gave me one simple piece of advice: 'Don't go there.'" Gerecht, of course, went his own way.

When he first encountered the intelligence network that the United States operated in Iran , Gerecht says, he was surprised by the paucity of knowledge about the country: "The flaws were so basic that I was stunned. To me it was clear that, as in academia, if you intend to study a certain country you have to start from the bottom and work your way up, to understand the local society and its history. You can't do that in your language - you need the language of the place. When Khamenei uses the Persian word for freedom, azadi, he means something completely different from Khatami, who uses exactly the same word to mean something closer to the Western interpretation of the term, but still not identical to it. If you don't speak Persian, you'll never get it. Nowadays, to the best of my knowledge, the CIA has one Persian speaker.

"The agency had no interest in the hearts and minds of the people. It's a lot easier to deal with things like the speed of a plane or the firepower of a tank than to collect intelligence on whether the regime is strong and will survive. The clandestine service of the CIA didn't even bother to follow the Iranian media closely. There is absolutely no doubt that the CIA in particular and the United States in general lack sufficient information about what is happening in Iran and Iraq."

It is impossible for the CIA to recruit an agent from the inner circle of Saddam Hussein or Ayatollah Khamenei, Gerecht says, unless it's an independent "walk-in" initiative by the agent: "I did a little research into the case of Aldridge Ames with the help of my friends on the agency's Eastern European desk. I discovered that almost all the CIA agents that Ames betrayed to the Russians were walk-ins. Most Iranians stationed abroad have very little information about what is happening in the inner ruling clerical circles, or are people whom the regime is positive will never collaborate."

Some people in Israel think that with a relatively small investment, say on the order of $50 million, it will be possible to give the revolutionary regime one more push and bring about its fall. By paying, for example, groups of students and women and workers at the major oil terminals to launch strikes and riots. The same people maintain that the CIA actually tried this - can you confirm that?

"For obvious reasons I can't answer that question. I will only give you my personal opinion, which is negative. There are actually two questions here: Is it possible to foment a revolution in Iran with money or by encouraging outside organizations and, if so, is the CIA capable of doing it? I will start with the second point. The United States is incapable of mounting an operation of that kind. If the truth ever comes out about the operations in which the CIA tried to undermine certain regimes or prop up others, it will become clear that they usually failed. If [such an operation] was a success, it wasn't because of the agency.

"In 1953, the agency mounted Operation Ajax to topple the regime of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and bring back the exiled Shah. I once suggested changing the name of the move to 'Operation Luck' -everything just fell into place. In any event, Iranian society today is far more complex and we know a lot less about it than we did then. You have to remember that getting involved in subversive activity like that places the lives of hundreds of people in great danger.

"As for the other question, I don't think an operation like that stands any chance of success, from the outset. You can't just dole out a little money, or even a lot of money, here and there and wait for something to come out of it. If it's ever going to work, it takes many years; there can't be an instant overnight revolution. There is no chance of activating opposition organizations from outside. They are small and weak, and they don't grasp the enormity of the change that has occurred in Persian society since 1979. The fate of the Iranian nation is in its own hands, and that's as it ought to be."

What is the strongest group in Iran from which the revolution could spring?

"That's an easy one: the women. They are a very vibrant group, very strong and they are influential within Iranian society. The women also hold one of the two last banners of the Islamic revolution by - excuse the expression - the balls: the chador [the black robe worn by devout Muslim women]. The other banner is hatred of the United States and Israel. The chador is the way in which the revolution is manifested in every square, on every street. Through the chador you create the feeling of an Islamic revolution in motion. Take it away, and bye-bye ayatollahs.

"The regime still has at its disposal the important power centers, namely the secret services and the Revolutionary Guards. People who join those apparatuses don't do it primarily out of ideological belief; they do it for job security, access to power and money and in order to be safe from state intrusion. There are a large number of people who know that their economic future is very dependent on the future of the regime, and they will do everything to preserve it."

It was precisely the "Westernized" Iranians, those who admired the United States, who did not interest him as a recruiter and handler of agents, Gerecht says. "I was looking for the revolutionaries, those who revered Khomeini and might loathe much about the West, but at the same time could serve as CIA agents. That's possible only in Iran ."

Gerecht is not eager to go into any great detail about his activity. He is willing to say that "There were definitely times when the information my agents brought was very important for formulating the American situation appraisal regarding Iran . There was certain tactical information that I thought bore extraordinary significance. On the other hand, we have to be honest ... cases in which a solitary piece of information brought by an agent caused an upheaval in a certain conception are few to nonexistent. In very many cases, the product I brought, like that of my colleagues, was not worth the effort and the loss of human life it sometimes entailed."

Nevertheless, a person who worked as a CIA analyst at the time and was familiar with the reports that emanated from Gerecht's agents says they were highly esteemed: "If until his period at the organization we were totally blind, Gerecht - first in Istanbul and then in Paris, opened a window for us to get to know Iran and understand what was happening here. To his credit it should also be said that at the beginning of the 1990s he discerned the collapse of the revolution and [defined] the key groups in Iranian society in a way that has proved accurate to this day. He was the first to signify Khomeini's death as the death of the entire revolution."

The former CIA source says that the requests from the information analysts that were put to Gerecht and his colleagues in Istanbul encompassed virtually everything: the general mood in Iran , profiles of key figures, involvement in terrorism, nuclear weapons, the economy, culture and even the fate of the missing Israeli navigator, Ron Arad. The source in the CIA says that Gerecht was the first one to identify a rather unassuming person in the clerical system, the head of the Ministry of Islamic Direction, Mohammed Khatami, as a relative liberal compared to other officials in the revolutionary system.

Gerecht's assessment of Khatami was dismissed by the analysts, who thought he was as extreme as everyone else. Gerecht did not think too much of Khatami's resolve at the time, and he hasn't changed his mind since: "Who is this Khatami, after all? When they tried to take away his position in the Ministry of Islamic Direction in 1992, he didn't put up a fight and acquiesced out of fear of more senior people. The election that put him in power was really a vote against the government's candidate, and Khatami was run against him only so they could say that there was another candidate."

How is an Iranian recruited to work for the United States, the "Great Satan"?

"It's no different from recruiting a Syrian to work for the Little Satan [Israel]. People are people are people. Iranians have plenty of reasons to work against the regime. It is impossible to overestimate their feelings of frustration and disappointment at the results of the 1979 revolution. At the same time, there is hardly a home that wasn't affected in some way by the Iran -Iraq war... they don't blame Saddam but their own regime.

"Nowadays, the Iranians, including even the heads of government, find it difficult to define in words the content of the revolution. At first the ayatollahs claimed it to be a historic turning point; they said they would cre


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