U.S. scrambled to understand protests in Iran, leaked documents show

As protesters poured into the streets of Iran in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, U.S. diplomats scrambled to decipher the erupting political crisis and the goals of the opposition’s so-called green movement, according to recently disclosed diplomatic cables.

The diplomats hurried to understand without the benefit of an official outpost in Tehran, a result of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Instead they read news bulletins and spoke with allied embassies in places like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Turkey and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. They contacted Iranian dissidents, human rights activists and disgruntled businessmen, according to the confidential dispatches made public in recent days by WikiLeaks.

By early this year, diplomats dubbed “Iran watchers” at the U.S. Consulate in Dubai had produced the first in a series of cables examining the Iranian opposition since the 2009 election.

“What started as a movement to annul the election now gives shelter both to those seeking the full set of rights guaranteed them by Islamic Iran’s constitution and those seeking a new system altogether,” reads a cable sent Jan. 12 to the State Department.


“But like the regime that seeks to crush it,” the cable reads, the opposition “is not monolithic and there is a clear gulf between the opposition’s elite leadership and the popular movement protesting in the streets.”

The released documents reveal a feverish struggle by U.S. diplomats to gauge the effectiveness and power of an unprecedented opposition movement that would eventually be crushed, in part because it was as fragmented as the Iranian establishment.

The documents do not suggest that the United States or any of its allies sought to influence the opposition or provoke demonstrations, as Iranian authorities allege.

U.S. diplomats picked up stirrings of change as they stepped up efforts to interpret political maneuvers in Iran before the June 12, 2009, election.

In February 2009, a Chinese foreign affairs expert advised Americans that the election would constitute “an important factor in the chances for meaningful talks with the United States,” according to a March 4 cable from Beijing.

An April 12 cable from the State Department’s “Iran Regional Presence Office” in Dubai noted a push by reformist political opponents to deny Ahmadinejad a second term, saying that leading opponent Mir-Hossein Mousavi and others had embarked upon a lively media campaign and hammered hard at the incumbent’s weak points, especially his failure to boost the economy.

But hopes of a change in government in Iran and prospects for better engagement with the country were soon damped when Ahmadinejad claimed victory and his government unleashed thousands of militiamen to crush ensuing street protests.

On June 15, an unidentified source told a U.S. diplomat in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, that the election was a “coup d’etat” by the clerical establishment and the Revolutionary Guard and called Ahmadinejad “another Pinochet,” referring to the late Chilean dictator, according to a cable.


The source said he was disappointed that Arab leaders had congratulated Ahmadinejad on his victory, and urged the U.S. and others to “acknowledge the illegitimacy of the election.”

An unidentified Iranian businessman in Istanbul, Turkey, told U.S. diplomatic officials in August that election fraud was being led by “six or seven” Revolutionary Guard generals who were afraid they’d lose their power and privileges if Mousavi won.

European Union diplomats planned a surprise boycott of the inauguration ceremonies for Ahmadinejad as a public display of their disapproval of the election and crackdown, according to a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Paris quoting an official at the French Foreign Ministry. Ultimately, European officials decided not to send low-level delegates out of concern for French national Clotilde Reiss, a student who was then being detained in Iran.

“We think she may be released soon and we don’t want to create another irritant. There are enough already,” one diplomat told the Americans in August 2009.


As the crackdown intensified, it began to broadly affect Iran’s relationships with other countries.

On Jan. 20, another French diplomat told U.S. Undersecretary of State William J. Burns that countries such as Spain and Sweden were more willing to support tough sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program because of “recent gross human rights violations,” according to a cable. Some governments believe the program may result in weapons development, but Tehran says it is for peaceful civilian purposes.

According to a February dispatch from Berlin, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was concerned about the possibility that Tehran might try to exploit Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki’s upcoming trip to Germany as a distraction and “continue executing people during the visit.”

In a Feb. 8 meeting in Paris with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the domestic developments in Iran were important and “urged careful thought about how to avoid discouraging the protesters with sanctions” and to pressure Iran over human rights as well as nuclear technology.


Sandels is a special correspondent.