How the CIA failed its Iranian informants

“It’s a stain on the US government,” Hosseini told Reuters.

CIA spokeswoman Tammy Kupperman Thorp declined to comment on Hosseini, the cases of other captured Iranians or any aspect of how the agency conducts its operations. But she said the CIA would never be negligent with the lives of those who help the agency.

“The CIA takes its obligations to protect the people who work with us very seriously and we know that many do so bravely and at great personal risk,” Thorpe said. “The idea that the CIA wouldn’t work as hard as possible to protect them is wrong.”


Hosseini’s leap into espionage came after climbing a steep path to a lucrative career. The son of a tailor, he grew up in Tehran and learned lathing and car mechanics, he said, showing Reuters his business school diploma.

Along the way, teachers spotted Hosseini’s intelligence and pushed him to study industrial engineering at the prestigious Amirkabir University of Technology, he said. Hosseini said a professor put him in touch with a former student with ties to the Iranian government who eventually became his business partner.

Founded in 2001, their engineering company offered services to help companies optimize their energy consumption. The company initially worked primarily with food and steel factories, Hosseini said, over time securing contracts with Iran’s energy and defense industries. Hosseini’s account of his career path is confirmed in company records, Iranian media accounts and interviews with six associates.

Hosseini said the success of the business had made his family wealthy, allowing him to buy a big house, drive imported cars and go on vacations abroad. But in the years since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who served from 2005 to 2013, his affairs have turned upside down.

Under Ahmadinejad, a hardliner aligned with the country’s theocratic ruler, Iran’s security forces have been encouraged to enter the industrial sector, increasing the military’s control over lucrative commercial projects. Established companies have often found themselves relegated to the role of sub-contractors for these newcomers, Iranian democracy activists said, cutting their slice of the pie.

Before long, Hosseini said, all of his new contracts had to go through some of those companies, forcing him to lay off workers as revenues plummeted.

“They didn’t know how to do the job, but they took the lion’s share of the profits,” Hosseini said, his voice rising as he recounted the events a decade later. “It was like you were running the company, doing everything from 0 to 100, and seeing your salary being given to the most junior employees. I felt violated.

At the same time, American rhetoric was intensifying against Ahmadinejad. Washington viewed the Iranian president as a dangerous provocateur bent on building nuclear weapons. Hosseini began to feel that his life was being destroyed by a corrupt system and that the government was too erratic to be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. His anger grows.

One day in 2007, he said he opened the CIA’s public site and clicked on the link to contact the agency: “I am an engineer who worked at the Natanz nuclear site and I have information”, writes- he in Persian.

Located 200 miles south of Tehran, Natanz is a major uranium enrichment facility. Archived web records of Hosseini’s engineering company from 2007 indicate that the company worked on civil electric power projects. Reuters could not independently confirm Hosseini’s work at Natanz.

A month later, to his surprise, Hosseini said he received an email from the CIA.


Three months after that contact, Hosseini said he flew to Dubai. At the fashionable Souk Madinat Jumeirah market, he looked for a blond woman holding a black book. He was standing in front of the restaurant where they had agreed to meet, when she arrived accompanied by a man.

The restaurant manager led them to a secluded table in the corner. The woman introduced herself only as Chris, speaking in English while her colleague translated into Persian. As she sipped a glass of champagne, Chris told her they were the people Hosseini had exchanged messages with over the past few months on Google’s chat platform. She asked Hosseini about his work.

Hosseini said he explained that his company had worked several years before on contracts to optimize the flow of electricity to the Natanz site, a complex balancing act to spin the centrifuges at the precise speed needed to enrich uranium. Located in central Iran, Natanz was at the heart of Tehran’s nuclear program, which the government said was to generate civilian electricity. But Washington saw Natanz as the heart of Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

Hosseini told Chris his company was a contractor for Kalaye Electric, a company sanctioned in 2007 by the US government for its alleged role in Iran’s nuclear development program. He added that he was looking for additional contracts at other sensitive nuclear and military sites.

Kalaye Electric did not respond to requests for comment.

The next day, the three met again, this time in Hosseini’s hotel room overlooking the gulf. Hosseini deployed a maze-like map on the desk showing electricity connected to the Natanz nuclear facility. As he did, Chris’ mouth dropped open, Hosseini recalled.

While it is several years old, Hosseini explained, the notations on the map of the amount of energy entering the facility provided Washington with a baseline for estimating the number of centrifuges currently active. This evidence, he thought, could be used to assess progress in processing the highly enriched uranium needed for a nuclear weapon.

Hosseini said he didn’t know it at the time, but Natanz was already in the sights of US authorities. That same year, Washington and Israel launched a cyberweapon that would sabotage those same centrifuges, infecting them with a virus that would cripple uranium enrichment at Natanz for years to come, security analysts concluded. Reuters could not determine whether the information provided by Hosseini contributed to this cyber-sabotage or other operations.

In later meetings, Hosseini said, the CIA asked him to focus on a larger US goal: to identify possible critical points in Iran’s national power grid that would cause long and crippling blackouts if hit by a missile. or saboteurs.

Hosseini said he continued to meet with the CIA in Thailand and Malaysia, in a total of seven meetings over three years. To show proof of his travels, Hosseini provided photographs of the entry stamps in his passport for all but his first two trips, for which he said he used an older, now discarded, passport.

As the relationship progressed, Hosseini said, Chris was replaced by a male handler who was accompanied by officials described as more experienced in CIA Iranian operations, as well as technical experts able to follow his lingo. engineering.

The new role motivated Hosseini, infusing his work with a sense of urgency and purpose. He rushed to win cases that would give him greater access to information sought by the CIA. He said his company had secured a contract with a unit of Setad, the sprawling business conglomerate controlled by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to assess the electricity needs of a giant business and commercial construction project in northern Tehran.

Representing the paramount chief’s business organization, Hosseini pushed state-owned power company Tavanir for electricity needed for the sprawling development, Hosseini said. When Tavanir said he did not have enough electricity to meet the gigantic demands of the project, Hosseini asked the company to provide in-depth analyzes of the national grid. This gave him access to maps showing how electricity flowed to nuclear and military sites and how critical points in the grid could be sabotaged.

Setad and Tavanir did not respond to requests for comment.

In August 2008, a year after becoming a spy, Hosseini said he met an older, broad-shouldered CIA officer and others at a hotel in Dubai.

“We need to broaden the engagement,” Hosseini said of the officer. The officer handed Hosseini a piece of paper and asked him to write a promise that he would not provide the information he shared to another government, a CIA practice intended to deepen the sense of commitment from an informant, two former CIA officials said.

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