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IRAN: Book says U.S. spies pump Dubai visa applicants for intel

September 16, 2009 | 12:41 pm

Dubai-gold The CIA stepped in to prevent the United States from closing a consulate in the Persian Gulf city-state of Dubai, arguing that it was a gold mine of human intelligence from Iran.

That's according to a new book, “City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism,” by former Associated Press correspondent Jim Krane.

The State Department tried “more than once” to shut down its consular services office in Dubai for budget reasons.

But it ran up against the resistance of senior intelligence officials. 

For decades, they'd been gleaning precious information about Iran by grilling hundreds of Iranian visa applicants, according to the book.

The CIA several times over the years managed to convince the State Department to make cuts elsewhere, Krane writes in the book, released in the U.S. this week. 

Iranians applying for U.S. visas in the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai are “monitored, interrogated and, sometimes, recruited into spying on their own government” by Iran specialists and Farsi speakers working for the CIA or other American agencies, the book says. 

Those with Iranian military or government backgrounds are asked to return time and again, with agents “pressing them to collect more and deeper details,” while holding out the possibility of a U.S. visa so they can visit friends and family or consider emigration, Krane writes. 

“Some of these Iranians are recruited as long-term spies,” said Krane, who told the Times his sources were U.S. diplomats who served in the U.A.E. “I was given to understand that most of the Iranians' visa applications were eventually rejected.” 

Krane, who covered Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf for the Associated Press, said the so-called “visa window operation” dates back to the 1979 revolution. 

“The CIA's visa window has been so lucrative over the years that the agency has on several occasions vetoed the State Department's plans to shutter the Dubai consulate for budgetary reasons,” he said in a telephone interview. “The upshot is that the U.S. is able to gather significant intelligence on Iran without having an embassy, and it can do it from the comfort of Dubai.”

Tens of thousands of Iranians live in Dubai and many more regularly visit for business or tourism, flying in across the Gulf on one of hundreds of weekly flights from various Iranian cities to the multicultural commercial and port city.

From Dubai, Washington monitors Iran’s business relations, trade and cash flows in an intelligence operation that has been ongoing since the 1980s. 

Over the years the tiny consulate, dwarfed by the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi, grew from a half-dozen American staff members to take over at least three floors in the Dubai World Trade Center, with spying a priority, said Krane, who is now pursuing a doctorate at Cambridge University in Britain. 

In 2006, the State Department opened a new Dubai department called the Iran Regional Presence office, the first U.S. mission aimed at Iran since Washington and Tehran severed ties following the 1979 Iranian revolution. 

-- Borzou Daragahi in Beirut