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Iran’s Spy Games Can Turn Deadly

There’s a reason why Iranian students in STEM fields are being asked questions and sometimes turned away by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents

Peter Theroux
February 04, 2020
Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Protesters offer support to a deported Iranian student while protesting outside the federal courthouse in Boston on Jan. 21, 2020Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Protesters offer support to a deported Iranian student while protesting outside the federal courthouse in Boston on Jan. 21, 2020Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

One of the American diplomatic hostages held by the Iranians after the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran fielded a question a few years ago about how well the Iranians had done in the negotiations that yielded the 2015 nuclear deal. The questioner had referred to them as chess players. No, the retired diplomat said, the Iranians were not chess players; in fact, they were often lacking at strategy. The negotiators’ success, he said, was more like backgammon. “They excel at exploiting their luck. They watch the dice roll, and are quick to read their opportunities and their opponent’s weakness, and to act and adapt accordingly.”

After more than two decades in the U.S. government intelligence community, with two years at the White House as director of Persian Gulf affairs, I agree. Iran has won and lost with successive rolls of the dice, always learning and adapting. Persians attained near perfection in carpet weaving, ceramics, and architecture ages ago; their newer public sector industries such as global crime, terrorism, and hostage-taking are still catching up.

Hostage-taking was the Islamic Revolution’s first big initiative, in 1979. The costs included international isolation and arms embargoes, which Saddam Hussein took in turn as an invitation to invade his weakened neighbor. After the catastrophic war that resulted, Iran refined, rather than discarded, its techniques of hostage-taking, having learned not to take hostages directly and in full view of the news media. In the early 1980s, Tehran turned to its wholly owned subsidiary, Lebanese Hezbollah, which took over this tool for intimidating enemies and extracting concessions.

One decade and 100 hostages later, Tehran resumed its practice of domestic hostage-taking, usually seizing lucrative dual nationals under some uproarious law enforcement pretext. Hezbollah’s criminal methods were often deadlier than Tehran’s, as in the Buenos Aires bombings in the 1990s. There is this old saying that terrorists don’t want a return address, but proxies can often provide one.

Iran learned more about the risks of using proxies in 2011 when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC) Quds Force tasked Manssor Arbabsiar, a naturalized dual citizen, with arranging the murder of the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir. The proxy in this case, Arbabsiar’s chosen killer, was an undercover FBI agent posing as a drug cartel operative. Both Arbabsiar and his Quds Force handler, Gholam Shakuri, were charged. While Shakuri stayed safe in Iran, Arbabsiar pled guilty.

In the summer of 2018, U.S.-Iranian dual citizen Ahmadreza Mohammadi-Doostdar and legal permanent resident Majid Ghorbani were caught casing Israeli, Jewish, and Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) targets in Chicago, New York, and Washington. The FBI’s account of Doostdar’s amateurish street-trade craft—rubbernecking to detect surveillance, gaping into reflections in car and shop windows, abruptly changing clothes for no discernible reason—had my colleagues falling off their chairs, laughing. But there was nothing funny about the damage that they were eager to cause—as evidenced by the arrest in Germany of six people, including Assadollah Assadi, a Vienna-based Iranian intelligence officer under diplomatic cover, and a Belgian couple of Iranian heritage, for attempting to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in Villepinte, France, on June 30, 2018, which was attended, among others, by former New York City mayor and attorney to President Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani.

The Belgian-Iranian couple who were directed to execute the bombing, Amir Sadouni and Nasim Naami, were stopped in their car with 500 grams of TATP, a powerful explosive, and a detonator hidden in a toiletries bag. Iranian Deputy Minister and Director of National Intelligence Saeid Hashemi Moghadam was accused by France of having ordered the bombing.

Which brings us to the expulsion of Iranian students from the United States over the last few months. Most had just arrived from Iran and were sent home, to the horror of the news media, politicians, and civil liberties organizations. The most famous of these was Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi, a Northeastern University student turned back from Boston’s Logan Airport after several hours of questioning. His F1 visa was in order—he had been stuck in Iran since December while renewing it—but Customs and Border Protection (CBP) still found him “inadmissible.”

All of which struck many Americans, from ordinary citizens to high elected officials to Democratic presidential candidates, as outrageous. A Boston judge ordered Dehghani admitted to the United States; crowds of students demonstrated noisily against a purported “Muslim ban” at Logan; and Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey accused Trump of “targeting Iranian students.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted that “CBP already held him overnight. His deportation must be halted, and we must fight the Trump administration’s xenophobic policies.”

Mahsa Khanbabai of the American Immigration Lawyers Association claimed that Dehghani was one of “many Iranian students ‘deported’ by CBP Logan”—the Guardian reported that of 10 Iranian students repatriated from the United States since August, seven had arrived at Logan. CBP denied that country of origin was the issue. The Washington Post commented that “CBP’s decision to deport Dehghani stems apparently from the Trump administration’s deep-seated biases toward migrants from majority-Muslim countries.” A Boston Globe headline read: “Customs and Border Protection goes rogue: The case of a Northeastern student from Iran is just the latest to highlight the lawless behavior of the federal agency.”

The circle of support ran wide and diverse. Ali Shihabi, the U.S.-based founder of Washington’s anti-Iran Arabia Foundation came to Dehghani’s defense on Twitter. The American Conservative complained that “the revocation of so many student visas of Iranian students over the last few months is an ugly by-product of the Trump administration’s reckless Iran policy.”

OK, I’ll stop. Eventually it turned out that Dehghani’s family was connected to the IRGC and Hezbollah, and we read that “immigration authorities had also determined that Dehghani was the administrator of a YouTube channel, Islamic Pulse, that had published a call for reprisals against the United States for this month’s killing of Qassim Suleimani …”

The slow and fragmentary emergence of U.S. government information in these cases clearly raised doubts that its actions were anything but bigoted. The CBP cited the Privacy Act for avoiding making details public and issued this statement:

Every applicant for admission is subject to inspection upon arrival in the United States. The issuance of a visa or participation in the visa waiver program does not guarantee entry to the United States. Upon arrival at Logan Airport on Sunday, January 19, Mohammad Shahab Dehghani Hossein Abadi was deemed inadmissible and processed for expedited removal and return to his place of departure. During today’s hearing, the court ruled that the matter is now moot as the subject was never admitted into the United States, the subject is no longer in custody, and the court does not have jurisdiction to order his return.

Of course Dehghani had not entered the United States. No one has, including U.S. citizens, until they pass the “hard line” after U.S. Immigration—a point lost on Congressman Markey and Sen. Warren, both of whom are lawyers.

But why just students? Iranians of all ages arrive at American airports, and while there have been anecdotal denials of entry at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and the Blaine Peace Arch Border Crossing in Washington state, those were resolved within a day and usually in the travelers’ favor.

I do not believe that there is an effort—coordinated or coincidental—by CBP officers to torment and expel arriving Iranian students, to the exclusion of Iranians of all other ages or professions. What I do suspect is that the backgammon players of Tehran have figured out something that terrorist groups, mainly the precocious Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, learned many years ago: The value of a “cleanskin,” meaning an operative with no record of suspicious travel or training.

For these groups and their sponsors, someone who shows up clean at your border or airport immigration line is money. Even better is someone who is already a resident of your beautiful country and who, returning after a routine family visit to the old country, may appear even cleaner. Sadouni and Naami, who were Belgian citizens, were classic cleanskins. For the IRGC, having established, funded, and mentored its terrorist proxy groups—and studied others, like al-Qaida, whom it knows intimately as its on-and-off host—this lesson would have been swiftly absorbed.

I speculate that the IRGC closely watches the career paths of young Iranians who travel to the United States for education in STEM fields. Tehran is well known to closely scrutinize and control the issuing of exit visas for this demographic, and is quick to twist heartstrings once students are abroad. It did this with Jewish expatriates, especially in Los Angeles, when it arrested the “Shiraz 13” on preposterous charges. Iran’s goal was to keep human rights advocates from speaking up by using veiled threats against their family members still within the Islamic Republic. On Jan. 27, U.S.-based physician and regime critic Reza Behrouz was chased off of Twitter by the regime’s threats to his family inside Iran.

I further speculate that when these cleanskins—most of whom are guileless, ambitious, intelligent scholars with inevitable equities in and out of the Islamic Republic—return to Tehran, they get a visit from the Islamic Republic’s intelligence services, which uses wheedling, threats, promises, and warnings to co-opt or recruit them before their return to the United States—the Great Satan. Additionally, I speculate they are told to collect data against their hosts, against tech targets, and especially against the democratic, MEK, Baha’i, Christian, Jewish, and generally anti-regime cohort among the student population.

I also speculate that our various U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies in turn collect this information and disseminate it in classified channels to the CBP, ICE, and other Department of Homeland Security officers who police our borders. When any such Iranian student reappears at one of our entry points, immigration officers have access to that information and ask some fairly intrusive questions—as is borne out by Dehghani’s account. The student can admit to nefarious contacts with Iran’s terror apparatus, or deny it, or lie about it, none of which will lead to being readmitted.

These students are indeed victims of a cruel regime—the one located in Tehran. Charges and countercharges of a Muslim ban and Islamophobia, combined with flawed legal arguments, politicization, sad tales of students whose academic dreams are dashed, and other overwrought stories, combined with DHS’s relative silence, divert us from seeing that Tehran continues to roll the dice.


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Peter Theroux is a translator and writer in suburban Los Angeles. After more than 20 years in the U.S. government, he was awarded the Career Intelligence Medal.

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