Observers


A documentary aired on “Press TV”, an Iranian state TV channel, claimed that the authorities arrested 17 CIA spies in Iran and identified others in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. But our investigations show some of the information provided in the documentary is false.

The 18-minute programme “Hunting Spies”, shown on June 22, opens with scenes from famous US action films. The Hollywood movies show American agents as unbeatable super humans – when in fact, the narrator says, American spies are just a bunch of losers.

There are also interviews with “CIA spies in Iran”, in which the allegedly captured spies explain how they communicated with CIA contacts outside the country and what they were asked to do for the Americans.

Next in the documentary, the Intelligence Ministry of Iran claims it found the identity of many CIA officers in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, Austria and Thailand. The programme even shows photos and videos of the presumed CIA officers in those countries.

Wrong addresses

France 24 verified some of this footage and found a number of irregularities.

At 2:28 the video shows a man with long hair and a beard. The documentary presents him as a “CIA agent in Austria”, with images supposedly recorded in the country. But after verifying the details in this part of the video, France 24 found on Google Street View that this location is not in Austria but in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.

A green flyer in the background reads “Golden Express”, which is a tourist guide service in Bratislava. The “Savoy” is an upscale restaurant located on Jesenského Square, a tourist attraction in Bratislava surrounded by landmarks such as the Slovak National Theatre, Kern House and the Memorial of the 1988 Candle Demonstrations.

Golden Express' Facbook page

Screen grab of the video and the same location on Google Street View in Bratislava.


At 3:37 the video shows another man wearing a red shirt. “Hunting Spies” suggests the man is a CIA officer whom Iranian intelligence officers had under surveillance in Azerbaijan, Iran’s northwestern neighbour.

The man appears in two images in two separate locations. The first is on a street close to a building with a very particular architectural style. In the second photo, the same man seems to be in a restaurant, which the programme says is in Azerbaijan. However, these images were actually taken in Armenia.

In fact, the monument that we can see in the first photo is the Yerevan Cascade, one of the most famous tourist attractions in Armenia’s capital.

A screen grab from the search engine Yandex shows a street view of the "Yerevan Cascade"
 

The second photo actually shows a hall in “Yerevan Ararat Brandy Factory”. This distillery is another hot spot for tourists in Yerevan, about 3 kilometres from the Yerevan Cascade.

Screen grab of the video, followed by a photo of the same distillery published on Google.

One alleged CIA agent supposedly filmed in Austria was actually in Slovakia. The other footage said to have been taken in Azerbaijan was actually from Armenia. “Hunting Spies” contains at least two significant errors.

The France 24 Observers team cannot confirm if the two other “American agents” supposedly in the United Arab Emirates and in Thailand were actually filmed in those countries. It was also not possible to confirm if those pictured are really CIA agents or not.

When asked about the errors in the documentary, Arash Bahmani, an Iranian journalist living in Spain, who is a specialist in Iranian current affairs, told the France 24 Observers:
 
We can never know for sure the reason behind [the errors ]. It could be a mistake by [the Intelligence Ministry] or maybe they are just trying to hide their intelligence activities in countries like Armenia or Slovakia.
 
Not the first time
In recent months Iran’s state media have actively intensified there promotion of Iranian intelligence services.

For example, “Channel 3”, another state channel, in June broadcast a TV series called “Gando”, the name of a type of crocodile native to freshwater habitats in southern Iran.

One actor in the show plays Michael Hashemian, a fictional stand-in for Jason Rezian, the Iranian-American journalist who served as Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post. Rezian was convicted of espionage in 2015 and spent more than a year and a half in prison before being released in January 2016 as the Iranian nuclear deal came into force.

In the series, Hashemian is presented as the mastermind of an American spy network in Iran.

The show also portrays the Iranian intelligence services as so effective that they are able to track anyone in the country and use agents around the world to monitor foreign intelligence agents’ activities.

"Michael Hashemian" (centre) alongside "Mohammad", an Iranian intelligence officer featured in the TV series "Gando"
 
“Humiliation prompted this intensifying propaganda”

Bahmani explains why “propaganda messages” by intelligence communities in Iran have intensified recently:
 
I think the first reason that Iran’s intelligence community rushes to broadcast this kind of propaganda is that it is their answer to some recent intelligence catastrophes that showed them as weak. Through TV series or these kinds of “documentaries” they try to save face and show some muscle.

One recent catastrophe was the leak of information about how some high-level intelligence officers in Iran’s intelligence community were actually working for foes in the region. Another was a security breach that allowed Israel to take thousands of confidential documents related to Iran’s nuclear program from Tehran to Tel Aviv.

Those scandals led to a lack of confidence in the intelligence community, not only among citizens but also from some Iranian authorities. So [the intelligence services] thought they needed to do some damage control inside Iran.

They needed to assure people, mostly their supporters, that they are in control. And this also sends a message to public that literally we are watching you, we are everywhere and we can arrest you at any minute if you do something wrong. Our power is not limited to only within our borders and we can even watch American agents abroad. The humiliation prompted this intensifying propaganda.