Moths to the Flame, Chapter 3...
The state of disorder in Tehran was plummeting sharply as protesters milled about the American embassy on Taleghani Avenue. Chants of ‘Death to America’ had not yet reached their crescendo, but all indications of a total meltdown pointed imminently to acts of a building revolutionary solidarity by the Muslim Students of the Imam Khomeini Line.
The CIA Chief of Station (COS) had no doubts whatsoever this was going south and just wouldn’t end well. He ordered an acceleration of the evacuation of most of the intelligence officers in the country as well as assets who had proven to be of significant production value. These assets would be the first to swing from a rope if Khomeini’s thugs got their way.
His major concern at the moment was the handler/asset pair codenamed ICARUS currently stranded in Qazvin. Although an extraction was always difficult, with the way Iran was imploding at its current rate, he could not risk bringing them into Tehran and attempting to get out via the flights out of Mehrabad airport.
In desperation, he made a call to cash in on a favor.
* * *
Sotvan Javaheri listened very carefully to Ryder’s proposal and suggested, “Mr. Ryder, I think that is possible, yes, but perhaps since my cousin is a sugar-beet farmer, maybe we could bring him something of use, perhaps some fertilizer?”
Ryder inquired, “Does your cousin have a great deal of arable land or does he have to irrigate his crops?”
Sotvan became animated, “Oh! Yes! Like almost every farmer, the land is too dry and his biggest obstacle is either erosion or poor water distribution. He is always complaining about rainfall – too much at once or too little!”
“Sotvan,” Ryder enthused, “I think we have a bit of good luck. When I was in the cafeteria at the embassy I spoke to a colleague from Canada, a social worker from the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS). This guy is here on behalf of a United Nations grant from the World Food Programme.
“This is really a strike of good fortune! He has irrigation equipment in a warehouse in Karaj. We’ll stay away from Tehran as best we can on back roads, but I think if we can get past the capital, movement west will become much easier, less roadblocks or any trouble.
“But I think you are right about the fertilizer. I’m gonna get my hands on a pallet or so of nitrate-based fertilizer, too.”
* * *
The site at Beshahr, by now, was a full-fledged rout. Every swinging Richard was packing, or minimally packed, ready to get on the first thing smoking to either an airport or a border. Fortunately, the American contingent was fairly manageable, there were only 22 fulltime staff, mostly technicians with a handful of security supervisors to the indigenous guards.
The options were few; fully developed ratlines, none. CIA had had an assumption that the Shah’s regime would remain stable, that there was no danger in the country falling in a coup. History would skewer that hubris, but for now, the priority was to make it happen. Four groups would assemble, load up on trucks (the collective capacity was barely adequate for the mission; another hard lesson learned regarding emergency preparation), and push off to their hopeful routes of egress.
Oddly, over the many years of the site’s production, the Iranian guards had developed a loyalty, even an affection for the American’s who had treated them fairly for over a decade of service. Each of the four evading groups had at least one local guard as an interpreter—there really was no chance of a firefight to get out of a road block or other situation. The guard could attempt to talk his way out, or not.
The group with all the disassembled site gear that had inhabited the single 10-meter radome or the processing/control room would head north to dump the cargo in the Caspian Sea then make their way to Baku. That group had been determined to have the greatest success, but the Station in Baku had limited assets to assist in the extraction. One group would head into the abyss of Tehran, another would head straight for the Iraq border and make their way to Sulaymaniyeh.
Ryder’s group was comprised only of himself and Sotvan, but he was carrying three months of collection data on magnetic tape buried by a quarter-ton of nitrogen-based fertilizer primed to blow with several thermite grenades. There was space to load some of the irrigation equipment staged at Karaj. If they made it to Sotvan’s cousin’s farm, they would gladly provide it, but it mainly provided cover for action.
Prior to launch, Ryder had received a call from David Matriss who relayed a further tasking: retrieve and extract a high-risk precious cargo package out of Qazvin. It was somewhat convenient since it was right on their route of egress, but making contact with an element wanted by the Revolutionary’s or any loitering along the way added an order of magnitude of risk. Ryder decided to not inform Sotvan quite yet of this development.
Ryder observed the stoic discipline of the guards taking charge of their groups, placing them into chalks to board their respective trucks as Sotvan maneuvered out the gate and put the site in their rear-view mirror. Outside the gate, Ryder was reminded of the beauty of the country in which this base had been situated: to the southwest, the tip of Mount Damavand rose majestically above all else, a dominant peak along the Alborz range rivaled in height only by the Himalayas; the road meandered languidly from the base of these mountain slopes rising from the Caspian Sea and was flanked by stands of ash, elm and cypress trees; Ryder knew full well these montane forests would too soon stratify into the more arid deserts approaching Tehran.
* * *
At the warehouse in Karaj, a man was waiting. Lonny Pemberton had been in CIA’s Directorate of Operations his entire career, at least 17 years at this point. He was due to an assignment at The Farm, the Agency’s training center known to the world as the Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity (AFETA), or alternatively as Camp Peary which was located just outside Williamsburg, Virginia. Lonny looked at that future with some distaste; he loved being in the field and running operations.
After the formalities of bona fides having been exchanged, Lonny got right down to his brief, “Ryder, first I just want to say thanks for what you’re doing. Takes balls. Second, let me get you up to speed on the situation. Tehran is bad and only getting worse. I think we waited a bit too long to evacuate, but that doesn’t matter now. Your best bet is speed.”
Ryder considered, “Probably no other options now, anyway. What do you recommend. Any routes, any place to avoid?”
Lonny answered directly, “I think straight up Route 2 most of the way is fine. Again, right now roadblocks and just general chaos revolves solely around Tehran, at least until you get to Tabriz.”
Ryder replied, “Sotvan’s cousin is in Urbia, just west of Lake Urbia. We’re looking to start hitting backroads once we pass Zanjan. Sotvan has arranged for some Kurd protection to link up with us in Urbia and they will escort us to the border. Once over the border, we’ll push a final leg to Yukesova.”
Lonny stiffened a bit at the mention of the Kurds, “OK. The Turks will be fine with the whole thing if we keep it quiet, but do you think you can split away from your Kurd escort at the border? That’ll be an issue on the Turkish side of the border. If that’s cool, Station in Ankara can get another escort to get you up to Kars and then on to the Sinop facility.”
Ryder said, “Sure. I think I can make that happen without hurting any feelings. The deal was to get us across the border, so I think we’re good.”
Lonny relaxed, “Ok, brother. We’ll get you loaded up as soon as possible so you can hightail it out of here.”
The rest of the meeting was to exchange more authentication protocols for the precious cargo to be picked up in Qazvin. To affect the extraction, Ryder was directed to approach the northwest corner of the parking lot servicing the Sardar Bozorg reservoir where the ICARUS team would each wear a rust-colored lamb’s wool vest with black pocket embroidery and each man would carry a luggage bag to which an umbrella would be affixed.
Neither would wear the once compulsory kolah-e Pahlavi headgear so as not to arouse the ire of any of Khomeini’s growing mob of zealots; somewhat incongruent with the recent tradition of Iranian men’s dress habits, the pair would remain hat less. Sotvan would tie a purple ribbon to the truck’s radio antenna, a tasseled crystal ball dangling from the rear-view mirror completing the near recognition signal.
* * *
Things had not gone swimmingly that day in Lillehammer in July of ’73. He had been the youngest on the kidon team sent by Golda Meir to seek retribution for the atrocities committed in Munich ’72. His work had settled from the more arcane ‘wet work’ to the equally stressful field assignment as a katsa, or case officer, where he recruited intelligence assets.
Some of the earliest opposition to the Shah had congealed around the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) with its anti-Israeli efforts spearheaded by the equally odious Yasser Arafat. The Black September group that had taken Israeli athletes’ hostage in Munich in 1972 may or may not have been beholden to Arafat, but when Khomeini hosted Arafat in February of this year, Mossad took note.
He contemplated the irony. In 1962, a massive earthquake destroyed much of Qazvin; the Tel Aviv-based TAHAL corporation was requested by the Shah to rebuild and strategically plan the entire region. TAHAL had extensive expertise in developing agricultural irrigation systems, so a warehouse south of Qazvin was converted to manufacture the pumps and pipelines that distributed quenching water to a normally arid land.
The company formed to do so was called the Iran Cutting Tools Manufacturing (identified by its Farsi abbreviation of Towlid Abzar Boreshi Iran [TABA]). As early as 1975, Iran was already building its first pressurized water reactor to create nuclear energy. TABA was in the process of converting its advanced metal machines to be able to manufacture the casing, magnets, molecular pumps, composite tubes, and bellows for centrifuges.
Not all parties were enthralled with Carter’s Camp David Peace Accords that normalized relations between Egypt and Israel in 1978. Neither the PLO, some hardliners in Israel, nor a handful in the CIA saw much merit. Even though Stansfield Turner had been doing his outmost to decimate CIA’s HUMINT capabilities since 1977, a very small consortium at CIA was fully aware of the dangers in the Middle East, and only they knew of ICARUS with a view to the potential of a nuclear capable Iran under Khomeini.
Whereas the father had been an engineer at the pipe and pump plant at TABA since its beginning, the son had taken an interest in engineering toward the future—in nuclear power, specifically in the design of centrifuges that spin uranium gas at high speeds to produce fuel. Both father and son had already agreed to the son’s recruitment—if Israel paid for the son’s education in France. Israel then had four years to figure out how to plausibly reinsert the son back into Iran; the father would grease the skids for employment at TABA.
He focused on the immediate concern—an escape into Turkey once a flawless link up with his ‘ride’ was secured. The tiny cabal of Americans at CIA had to prove their worth by getting the son out of country. That would cement at least a little trust with the katsa, but until then, the Americans would not know the true identities of ICARUS. He would only provide the psuedo Corey Reed and the boy would only be called Hani.