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The Nation

CIA Looks to Los Angeles for Would-Be Iranian Spies

Informants: The city has the largest population of Persians outside Iran. Many have contacts in their homeland.

January 15, 2002|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prominent members of the Iranian community in Los Angeles said they weren't aware of the CIA's presence. "I haven't heard of it," said Syrus Sharafshahi, publisher and editor of Sobh-Iran, one of two leading Farsi-language newspapers in Southern California.

Many prominent Iranians in Los Angeles said they were skeptical that such an effort by the CIA would be fruitful but were not surprised or offended that the agency would try.

The risks for informants are considerable. Foreign travelers in Iran, particularly those from the United States, are followed closely by the Republic's intelligence service, MOIS, former CIA officials said. Spies caught by the republic face severe punishment, including execution.

Iran Tries to Recruit Spies in U.S. Too

The Iranian intelligence service is also active in the United States, former CIA officials said, paying close attention to--and trying to recruit spies within--an expatriate community that includes many people eager to see the republic toppled.

The republic "regards it as a hostile emigre community," said a former CIA officer with experience in Iran. "They will attempt to recruit in that community for defensive purposes or because they want them to spy for Iran." Expatriates who travel back to Iran are often interrogated upon arrival, said an Iranian scholar in the United States who asked not to be identified. "They're astonished at the amount of information that is already on hand about them."

Travelers are often confronted with details from their homes to give the impression that Iranian intelligence is omniscient, he said. "It's the usual interrogators' tricks," he said. "They'll say, 'You have pictures of the shah on your mantle, don't you?' "

The CIA is not above playing its own mind games with Iran. Several years ago, a former agency officer said, the CIA funded the creation of a satellite broadcast designed to bombard Tehran with Persian programming from Los Angeles, including newscasts and stand-up comedy segments poking fun at the republic's leaders.

The effort was scrapped within a year, the former officer said, amid resistance from members of Congress skeptical that such broadcasts were worth the cost. But the program has since been supplanted by at least three privately funded satellite broadcasts into Iran by Los Angeles companies.

The channels air a mix of news, comedy and entertainment that have found a sizable following in Iran, where satellite dishes are abundant even though they are outlawed.

Some credited the broadcasts with helping to incite pro-democracy protests in the country several months ago. The uprising was followed by a crackdown in which Iranian police combed neighborhoods in Tehran, confiscating satellite dishes and doling out fines.

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