RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
We're looking this week at America's clandestine war against Iran. We heard yesterday about sabotaging Iran's nuclear program in cyberspace. Today we look at the clandestine war in the physical world, where assassinations, bombings and defections have put added pressure on Iran's government. As NPR's Mike Shuster reports, it's a murky world where little is certain.
MIKE SHUSTER: Two years ago, Shahram Amiri, a young Iranian nuclear scientist, vanished in Saudi Arabia. For months nothing was heard of him. Then information surfaced that he had defected to the CIA and had provided the U.S. with crucial information about a secret nuclear site in Iran. Last year Amiri undefected. He surfaced, declared he had been a prisoner of the CIA and wanted to go home. And so he did.
PAUL PILLAR: The Amiri case seems to be a story out of the wilderness of mirrors department.
SHUSTER: Paul Pillar is a former senior CIA official who now teaches security studies at Georgetown University.
PILLAR: In which intelligence agencies and the services and governments against which they operate are constantly in uncertainty about just where the loyalties of the people they're dealing with ultimately lie.
SHUSTER: The CIA is looking for human sources of intelligence in Iran all the time. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes there could be many more cases still in the shadows.
KARIM SADJADPOUR: When you have a regime which is deeply unpopular, it makes the covert war in some ways more enticing, because it's easier to recruit disaffected officials within the Iranian system.
SHUSTER: After the disputed 2009 presidential election and the brutal crackdown on opposition demonstrators, recruitment may have become even easier for intelligence agencies from the U.S. or Britain or Israel, says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA agent, now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
REUEL MARC GERECHT: It may have been the great turning point for people who were revolution-loyal to suddenly look upon the CIA or MI6 or Mossad as a legitimate way to express their opposition to the regime.
SHUSTER: Several months before that, another young nuclear engineer, Massoud Ali Mohammadi, was killed when a booby-trapped motorcycle exploded. Iran blamed the U.S. and Israel, but that might not be the whole story, says Karim Sadjadpour.
SADJADPOUR: In the case of Ali Mohammadi, you had an individual who was connected to Iran's nuclear program who the intelligence ministry had raided his home, who was thought to have an affinity and ties with the Iranian opposition. The next day he was killed in a very public, brutal fashion.
SHUSTER: The Iranian government always blames the British or the Israelis or the Americans for these attacks. That could be true, says Paul Pillar, but it doesn't have to be.
PILLAR: We're talking about individual elements of opposition to the regime, of which there are a good number. A bombing can take place as the work of a small group or cell that on its own initiative decides to cause problems for the regime.
SHUSTER: Tension with ethnic minorities in Iran is widespread, with many feeling disaffected from the central government, notes Karim Sadjadpour.
SADJADPOUR: There's ample reason why they should feel disaffected and ample reason why you would see, expect to see agitations among the population. So I don't think that they need the United States or certainly Israel to encourage them to agitate. They have plenty of reasons themselves for wanting to have a greater political and economic voice.
SHUSTER: Mike Shuster, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: We wrap up our series tomorrow with a look at covert operations that are part of U.S. policy toward Iran.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.