Details are murky still, but in an apparent effort to keep the country's top media professionals in line, the counter-intelligence arm of Iran's Intelligence Ministry summoned approximately 100 journalists last week to a special workshop, perhaps in response to the recent defection, in Sweden, of a Moj News Agency reporter.
How the journalists were selected is unclear, as is the location and exact date of the event. But as the Iranian Students' News Agency (INSA) reported, the goal of the workshop was to warn media professionals about the “possible dangers and threats they may face because of the nature of their jobs.”
The gathering was held, according to the outlet, at the behest of high-ranking leaders in the regime, and focused on the themes of “influence and espionage.” Like INSA, the Fars News Agency also reported that the event targeted people who, given their line of work, are exposed to more outside intelligence threats.
Sources give conflicting accounts of who attended the event. A political journalist from one of Iran’s major newspapers told IranWire that only top editors and CEOs participated. Another reporter, from a news agency, believes the guests “mostly consisted of journalists involved in international and foreign affairs — people who go on trips with [Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif and [Abbas] Araghchi,” the Ministry's spokesman.
“They want to teach them that they are in danger. It’s probably because of that journalist from Moj News Agency who’s seeking asylum, and they want to be more vigilant,” the source told IranWire.
On Sunday, August 25, Moj News Agency journalist Amirtohid Fazel — who was accompanying Zarif on a visit to Sweden — separated himself from the rest of the press corps to seek asylum right in the middle of the trip.
Information and Intimidation
A journalist who participated in the intelligence workshop also drew the connection to Fazel. “The main purpose was to warn journalists not to trust anyone, especially during our trips abroad,” he told IranWire.
The source went on to say that the event was meant not just to warn but also intimidate the participants. “Intelligence officials... told us if we commit a mistake, we and our families can expect problems,” he said. “I heard that such meetings were held in the USSR but it was my first time experiencing it in person.”
Reports suggest that during the event, government intelligence officials talked about different methods foreign spy agencies use to get strategic and even ordinary information. But as the Security and Defence News Telegram channel reported, speakers were also careful not to divulge too much information.
“Whenever a journalist wanted to ask two or three follow up questions, [the expert] responded that he can't say anymore since it’s classified,” the news outlet explained.
Still, according to Ensaf News, participants learned about one specific scholar — a high-ranking scientist — who was sentenced to death after it was discovered he had supplied foreign intelligence agencies with sensitive military information. The speaker added, however, that most people found guilty of espionage are sentenced to between five and 10 years in prison.
Indeed, a number of researchers, students, and university professors have been imprisoned in Iran and charged, in closed courts, with espionage. All of the people in question deny the accusations against them.
Fars reported that there were talks, during the event, about different behavioral and communication techniques spy agencies use to deceiving target. There was even mention of the so-called “honey trap” approach, whereby targets are lured in sexually.
Participants were reportedly shown a short film about a foreign woman who was semi-fluent in Farsi and tried to lure employees from the Iranian consulate to her home, which was full of microphones and cameras planted by foreign security agents.
Fars also reported that at one point in the workshop, a speaker shared information about intercepted CIA documents urging spies to take advantage of certain Iranian cultural vulnerabilities.
“The CIA officially recommends to its agents that since Iranians are emotional and sensitive people, try to give them gifts, buy them dinner, etc., to the point that you make them feel they owe you. They will thus try to repay your kindness. That way you make an Iranian friend and can then convert them into traitors and spies,” the CIA instructions read.
Another example mentioned in the workshop, according to Ensaf News, was that of an experienced diplomat who started working for the Foreign Affairs Ministry in 1993. The man was assigned to a central European country in 2005 and began working for the CIA three years later. He returned to Iran in 2009 and worked as an assistant for one of the Ministry deputies while continuing his work for the CIA via secure lines. The US spy agency paid him handsomely for the information he provided. The man eventually, however, realized that his cover was blown and escaped the country.
“The experts said that recruitment methods depend on people’s motives,” the Security and Defence News Telegram channel reported. “One person might dream about living in the west. Another wants top-quality, higher education. Another one wants a job with high income.”
And there's no single profile that foreign agencies target, the experts reportedly explained. Recruits could be anyone from diplomats and cultural advisers to clerics and taxi drivers.
Ensaf News noted one case in which, besides smuggling important military information abroad, the recurit gave MOSSAD information on Iranian nuclear scientists — including Masoud Ali-Mohammadi — that the agency later assassinated.
Masoud Ali-Mohammadi was one of the four nuclear scientists assassinated as part of a MOSSAD plot, according to the Intelligence Ministry. Seven years ago, the Ministry also announced that they caught the assassins of the four scientists and sentenced one of them, Majid Jamali Fashi, to death.
Iranian state television aired a documentary called the Assassination Club that showed 13 suspects of that case. But less than a month ago, Maziar Ebrahimi — one of the people who appeared in the documentary admitting to his role in the affair — said he'd been savagely tortured in prison and was thus forced to confess. He said that prior to his arrest he'd never even heard of Masoud Ali-Mohammadi or the other murdered scientists.
Ebrahimi's recent statements prompted some members of Congress to demand clarifications from the Ministry. And on Tuesday, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi appeared before the National Security and International Politics Committee of Congress to answer questions from Tehran representative Mahmoud Sadeghi.
Afterward, Mr. Sadeghi tweeted that he’s not satisfied with the minister’s answers. “The Q&A lasted for more than 40 minutes. Given the lack of time, they're supposed to provide me with more detailed information next month,” he wrote.
One Tehran based journalist later said that the counter-intelligence workshop for journalists may in fact have had more to do with Maziar Ebrahimi’s story than the Amirtohid Fazel defection.
“After [Ebrahimi] interviewed with outside media, it was very embarrassing for the intelligence ministry. After the report, Iranian media also followed up on Mr. Ebrahimi’s story with Iranian Judiciary officials and members of Congress,” the journalist said. “This turned into a major scandal for the Intelligence Ministry. That's why they called in chief editors and general managers.”