Iran's Neighbor Dubai a Place of Intrigue

The lavish resorts and business climate of the Persian Gulf city of Dubai have always attracted investors and tourists from around the world. Now the city is a center of intrigue because of its proximity to Iran.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, the city we're visiting next has been compared to Casablanca. We mean Casablanca as depicted in the Humphrey Bogart movie, full of exiles and intrigue and spies. Its modern-day counterpart may be Dubai, the rapidly growing city in the United Arab Emirates. It has lavish resorts and a free-wheeling business climate, huge skyscrapers, and a lot of people from just across the Persian Gulf in Iran.

Here's NPR's Ivan Watson.

IVAN WATSON: Every week, hoards of young Iranians fly to Dubai to enjoy the city's sandy beaches and raucous nightclubs.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

WATSON: Several times a year, these partygoers are joined by groups of young anonymous Iranian activists who secretly travel here to attend Dr. Ramin Ahmadi's weeklong workshops on how to start a non-violent revolution in their homeland.

Dr. RAMIN AHMADI (Cofounder, Iran Human Rights Documentation Center): It is hard for the Iranian regime to identify a small group of activists who are there not to just go to discos or get drunk, but to sit around and talk about Martin Luther King and history of non-violent movement in Eastern Europe.

WATSON: Ahmadi, an Iranian exile based in Connecticut, insists he does not receive U.S. government funding for his workshops. The classes are often taught by veterans of the popular revolutions that toppled governments in Serbia and Ukraine. Ahmadi says these teachers have to adopt cloak-and-dagger tactics as soon as they land at Dubai Airport to avoid what he describes as Iranian spies.

Dr. AHMADI: Usually, we have protocols to make sure that the trainers are not followed, and when they are followed, to make sure that by changing hotels and so forth, that they lose the sort of the people who are following them.

WATSON: Dubai is an increasingly attractive destination for Iran watchers of all persuasions, in part, because it's home to one of the largest Iranian expatriate communities in the world.

Nasser Hashempour is the vice president of the Iranian Business Council in Dubai.

Mr. NASSER HASHEMPOUR (Vice President, Iranian Business Council): The population of Iranian expatriates living in UAE is between 450,000 to 500,000 registered, which has been increased very much for the last three years.

WATSON: It's also a major transit point for Iranian trade. Jean-Francois Seznec is a Persian Gulf expert at Georgetown University.

Professor JEAN-FRANCOIS SEZNEC (Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University): Dubai is being used, you know, as a lung for Iran. I mean, they use it to breath, really. It's a place where all the goods, which cannot come into Iran because of the sanctions against Iran, go through Dubai.

WATSON: Last year, the U.S. State Department created what it calls an Iranian regional presence office in Dubai. U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said it would be a listening post. He compared it to Riga, the Latvian port city which served as a window on the Soviet Union in the 1920s.

A U.S. official here says the new office in Dubai only does diplomatic work, but the State Department isn't the only American agency using Dubai as a listening post.

Mr. BOB BAER(ph) (Former CIA agent): Dubai is about the only window CIA has, really, into Iran, because it's impossible for the CIA to operate in Iran.

WATSON: Bob Baer is a retired 21-year-veteran of the CIA who used to run the agency's Iranian operations from Europe. He says, for years, Dubai has been thoroughly infiltrated by Iranian intelligence.

Mr. BAER: We call Iranians working for us - we call them assets. And obviously in this shadow war against Iran we've lost people, and among them have been Iranians. We've lost a couple of Iranian assets in Dubai - murdered, assassinated.

Prof. SEZNEC: I think it's a very good image to call it Casablanca. But it's Casablanca on steroids.

WATSON: Georgetown University's Jean-Francois Seznec says it's only natural for both Iran and the U.S. to maintain a large intelligence presence in a city that is a frequent port of call for American warships patrolling the Persian Gulf.

Prof. SEZNEC: We used Dubai as a place for R&R for the fleet and whatnot. And the Iranians use Dubai as an R&R place. So everybody is sitting there and trying to figure out, you know, who's there and looking at each other and trying to gather information.

WATSON: Emirates University Professor Abdul Khaleq Abdullah says he's not worried about all the spies in Dubai.

Professor ABDUL KHALEQ ABDULLAH (Political Science, Emirates University): I think the world needs a place like Dubai, especially in terms of tensions and in terms of crisis.

WATSON: He argues that Dubai plays a vital role in a tense, militarized region by offering neutral ground where everyone is welcome.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Dubai.

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