Searching for up-to-the-date country-specific information among the WikiLeaks cables is for the most part a pretty easy task. Interested in eavesdropping on contemporary France? Click on the collected messages from the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Want to browse the latest political proceedings in Russia? Go to the Moscow embassy link. But there's one exception to that impressive efficiency. The dispatches from Tehran all date from 1979 or earlier, before the United States severed its diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic (in 1980) while 52 Americans were being held against their will in their country's embassy on a main boulevard downtown.
That's not to say U.S. diplomats have stopped following their main Middle East adversary. To the contrary, Iran is famously at the center of much of the diplomatic business recorded in the WikiLeaks cables -- that business, though, is forced to take place in other countries. Indeed, WikiLeaks has shed light not only on the content of America's Iran strategy, but on the unorthodox ways in which Washington finds itself gathering information about a state with which it has had limited direct contact. At the center of those efforts are the so-called Iran Watch stations, a set of monitoring posts the United States has been operating in more than a dozen cities on Iran's periphery and in Western Europe.
These offices were established starting in 2006 by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Dismayed by the State Department's failure to cultivate linguistic and diplomatic expertise on Iran, she beefed up the department's Iran desk and insisted that Farsi-speaking U.S. diplomats be placed in embassies and consulates outside the Islamic Republic. Nicholas Burns, then the undersecretary of state for political affairs and the George W. Bush administration's point man on Iran, compared the strategy to posting Soviet expert George Kennan to Riga, Latvia, in the 1920s before the United States recognized the Soviet Union.
The new push began with the Iran Regional Presence Office in Dubai, just across the Persian Gulf from Iran's Hormozgan province and adjacent to the Strait of Hormuz, the geographic bottleneck through which nearly 40 percent of the world's traded oil passes. Dubai is also home to a large Iranian expatriate community. With about a half dozen staff, Dubai's is the largest Iran Watch station and benefits from the regular traffic between the emirate and Iran by Iranians and others visiting the Islamic Republic.
Other Iran Watch posts are single-officer affairs and are currently located in Baghdad, Baku, Berlin, Istanbul, London, Paris, and Tel Aviv. There was also an Iran Watch officer in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, for several years, but the office closed in part because of the repressive nature of the local government and the lack of high-value Iranian contacts. Aside from reporting on Iran, the watchers interact with Iran experts in local governments. The creation of these monitoring stations is having a cumulative impact on the State Department's bureaucracy, helping re-create an Iran-centered career track within the agency. But, more substantively, the posts are useful in providing a reality check for U.S. policymakers in the form of unvarnished information about Iranian political developments, says John Limbert, who was responsible for the Iran Watch stations during his recently ended nine-month stint as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, agrees. "It's the internal reporting about what's afoot in Iran that Washington is starved for," the U.S. official said. "It supplements what we get from other sources."
Still, Limbert, who personally visited all the Iran Watch stations, expressed frustration that the diplomats' views were often not taken into account by an administration that has focused more in recent months on economic sanctions than on outreach.
"I liked them a lot, given the limitations they were under. They did some good stuff," he said. "One of my jobs was to encourage them. These are really smart people, and somebody needs to validate them."