WASHINGTON — At a November 2009 meeting, top Iranian security officials allegedly discussed staging a student takeover of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran, much as students had seized the U.S. Embassy there three decades earlier, according to a State Department cable.
But Ali Larijani, a powerful politician and speaker of Iran's parliament, urged caution as Iranian-Saudi tensions rose. Referring to the 1979-81 U.S. hostage crisis, Larijani told his colleagues that "one experience occupying a foreign embassy is enough — in fact we have not yet extricated ourselves from the last experience."
That second-hand anecdote, related to a U.S. diplomat by an unidentified Iranian in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is one of hundreds about Iran contained in classified U.S. cables obtained by WikiLeaks and recently passed to McClatchy.
Taken together, the cables portray a U.S. government ravenous for any scrap of information about Iran, no matter how incomplete or contradictory — and admittedly blind to much of what is taking place in a country where the U.S. has not had an official presence in more than a generation.
Filed by a special corps of U.S. diplomats known as "Iran watchers," the cables are a mix of surprising insights into life inside Iran and large blind spots about a country key to U.S. foreign policy. Most are classified confidential, a fairly low security classification, though about a third are labeled "secret" or "secret/no forn," meaning they should be read only by U.S. diplomats.
They are based on phone calls to and emails from sources inside Iran, interviews with members of Iranian rock bands on tour in neighboring countries, foreign journalists who've recently been to Iran, and conversations with Iranian businessmen, academics, and former officials traveling outside their homeland. One cable even recounts an Iran watcher's chats with truck drivers crossing the border into Turkmenistan.
How critical the work of the Iran watchers is to U.S. intelligence assessments of what is taking place in Iran is unknowable. The U.S. government refused to comment on the cables.
"The United States strongly condemns any illegal disclosure of classified information," Mike Hammer, the acting assistant secretary of state for public affairs, said in an email. "In addition to damaging our diplomatic efforts, it puts individuals' security at risk, threatens our national security, and undermines our efforts to work with countries to solve shared problems. We do not comment on the authenticity of the documents released by Wikileaks."
But the work of the "Iran watchers" brings attention to one of the realities that American decision-makers face — without an embassy and consulates inside Iran, most of what they know about that country is second and even third hand. In a world where such information helped mislead the Bush administration into asserting erroneously that Saddam Hussein still had active weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq, the prospect that U.S. intelligence may be guided, even in a small way, by such reports unnerves some.
Anyone who will talk to an Iran watcher "is someone who wants a (U.S.) visa, who wants money, is an expatriate, or someone with an explicitly anti-Islamic Republic agenda," said Flynt Leverett, a former White House and CIA official who's now a professor of international affairs at Penn State University.