Leaked intelligence documents – which have been dubbed the Spy Cables – from agencies all over the world have caused international diplomats to spring into serious damage-control mode.
Al Jazeera’s investigative unit, in collaboration with City Press, is publishing a selection of the documents and the stories contained within them.
South Africa, and its links to the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, South Korea and North Korea are mentioned in the leaked documents, which cover topics from secret uranium shipments, a seizure of arms delivered from North Korea to Iran, and Iran’s efforts to use official and unofficial channels in South Africa to beat western-imposed sanction
According to the documents obtained by Al Jazeera, the Spy Cables provide a detailed account of Tehran allegedly using secret front companies, as well as open diplomatic channels, in its efforts to work around trade restrictions in order to obtain materials for both arms manufacture and other industries.
A 128-page “Operational Target Analysis”, written by South African spies, profiles dozens of alleged Iranian operatives, listing their names, cover stories, families, addresses and phone numbers.
Another South African intelligence document reveals Iranian officials carried out “a clean-up” of several diplomats at the Iranian embassy whose loyalty to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was questioned.
South African intelligence reports also identify various and seemingly unrelated organisations they believe are being used to facilitate Iranian intelligence activities.
“Influential Iranian individuals” especially those “in religious cultural affairs and the Persian carpet trade” are used as “deep cover for intelligence activities,” the agents claim.
“Non-official covers include Iran Air (the official airline of Iran), the Islamic Republic News Agency, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines,” the January 2010 document disclosed.
The agents also profile a number of carpet shops, publishers and other small businesses they believe have links to Iran’s intelligence agencies.
Presidents’ nuclear discussions
The intelligence profile also reveals that Iran approached South Africa’s leadership in search of a workaround for international sanctions imposed by Western powers. It cites “a covert source” who claims that on two occasions, then-President Thabo Mbeki had met with senior Iranian officials requesting help with their nuclear programme.
A month after an initial September 2005 meeting, an Iranian delegation headed by a “Mr Rowhani” – likely to be current Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani who had stepped down as head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council in August of that year – met Mbeki, according to the source.
“The nature of the discussions was a request from the Iranian government to the South African government to assist Iran with their nuclear programme and to provide technical advice and technology,” the document says.
“The advanced level of South Africa’s technologies in the aerospace industry, especially in the missile guidance field has increasingly become a focal point” of Iran, a South African spy commented.
“It is foreseen that these industries will be targeted for procurement processes.”
South African intelligence agents reported that the Iranians were also interested in technology used for satellite interception, online surveillance and hacking.
UK and SA
British agents had also been monitoring Iran’s activities in South Africa, according to another leaked document, trying to police trade restrictions that the United Kingdom had been instrumental in establishing.
A cable from the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6, warned its South African counterparts that a South African company was involved in “advanced” business dealings with an Iranian “front company”.
The 2009 cable, marked for “UK/SA eyes only”, warns the South Africans that the Iranian company was secretly “responsible for the production of missile launchers” and “the development of rocket bodies”, but had “gone to great lengths to pretend” that it was a legitimate firm and “hide the fact that it is related to the missile industry”.
The agents also allege Iranian links to local vigilante group People Against Gangsterism and Drugs and Ahl ul-Bait Foundation of South Africa – a Shia Islam religious institute. Both groups strongly deny this.
Pagad national coordinator Abdusalam Ebrahim says the group has never received any support.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s Iran or Iraq or Saudi Arabia.” Ebrahim told Al Jazeera.
“Pagad never got support from anybody”.
The SSA characterises Iranian spies as individuals who are “highly motivated and difficult to recruit”. They appear “courteous,” “tolerant” and “persuasive” but apply “counter-surveillance measures constantly”.
Their responsibilities are “much broader than only espionage,” according to the SSA. Among its findings are “confirmed” links between Iranian spies and what South Africa identifies as “extremists” and “terrorists”.
Despite all the details presented in the SSA’s “Operational Target Analysis”, the agency concludes that it needs more information in order to make “a comprehensive threat assessment” on Iranian espionage activity.
It concludes by saying “the extent of Iranian intelligence involvement in South Africa […] needs to be established” and urges further investigation.
Al Jazeera has redacted the papers to protect individual identities. Click on the documents to read them:
– Al Jazeera and City Press