American intelligence officials and Iran watchers say the protests appear to have started organically.
The demonstrations, which are widespread and amorphous, do not match the playbook that Western intelligence agencies have used to mount covert operations in Iran — namely, sustained resource-intense operations that focus on the narrowly defined and measurable goal of sabotaging the alleged nuclear weapons program, they say.
For now, they say, the evidence points to one catalyst of the unrest: widespread discontent with the government.
“You don’t need Americans or Israeli or British intelligence to convince people in Iran that there is a small ruling elite that is controlling the country’s economy and ruining it,” says Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer on Iranian studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.
A former American intelligence official said it was implausible that a foreign agency could organize protests in dozens of cities without the Iranian government catching wind of it beforehand. Additionally, Western spy agencies are leery of operations that rely on mass demonstrations, which have a high risk of failure and cannot be easily controlled, the official said.
“Certainly, the West doesn’t have the ground game to engage in that kind of activism, nor do Iran’s regional adversaries,” said Suzanne Maloney, the deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to senior State Department officials on Iran.
That logic has not stopped Iranian officials from pointing fingers outside their borders.
On Wednesday, the government announced the arrest of an unidentified citizen of an unidentified European country who “had been trained by espionage organizations in Europe,” the Tasnim news agency reported.
Iran has also accused Saudi Arabia, its main regional rival, of fomenting unrest. On Tuesday, the head of Iran’s National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, told a Lebanese television station that the Saudis were responsible for 27 percent of all anti-Iran hashtags on Twitter.
“The hashtags and social media campaigns cornering the situation in Iran are all in fact being guided by Saudi Arabia, U.K., Israel and U.S.,” he said.
Mr. Shamkhani offered no evidence to support his claim. Iran and Saudi Arabia are openly hostile to each other and are embroiled in opposite sides of regional power struggles in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has leveled similar accusations against Iran, accusing its Shiite Muslim government of stirring up Shiite dissidents in Sunni Muslim-governed Bahrain and in eastern Saudi Arabia.
An American intelligence official disputed the Iranian claim of a Saudi hand in the protests, saying that it would be difficult for the Saudis, or their allies in the United Arab Emirates, to organize an uprising in Iran. Neither Arab country has a coterie of Persian speakers, links to a proxy opposition force, or the depth of personnel needed for such an operation, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Once protests begin, however, any number of countries could try to funnel aid to the protesters.
Iranian fears of foreign intervention run deep, as far back as to Alexander the Great, who conquered what was then the Persian Empire around 330 B.C. Modern Iran’s security establishment has long held that the biggest threats to the country come from abroad; the belief that the United States wants a change in government is axiomatic. The evidence, as every Iranian schoolchild knows, is the 1953 plot by the Central Intelligence Agency, code-named Operation Ajax, that overthrew Iran’s prime minister and re-installed the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Since at least 2006, the United States and its allies have undertaken a series of cyberattacks and more traditional strikes against Iranian targets to try to derail the nation’s nuclear program. The American operations, code-named Olympic Games and Nitro Zeus, succeeded in taking offline hundreds of Iranian centrifuges needed to purify uranium.
In 2012, Iran’s most senior atomic energy official, Fereydoon Abbasi, said separate explosions, which he attributed to sabotage, had targeted power supplies to the country’s two main uranium enrichment facilities. Mr. Abbasi himself narrowly escaped what Iranian officials described as a foreign assassination attempt in 2010 when unidentified motorcyclists riding through downtown Tehran attached a bomb to his car.
The attackers killed one scientist, a project manager for the country’s Atomic Energy Organization, Iran’s nuclear chief said at the time. Mr. Abbasi and his wife were wounded.
Iran blamed the United States and Israel for those attacks. The United State denied responsibility, and Israel did not respond to the accusation.
When Iran was confronted with its last major protest movement, the so-called Green Movement of 2009, the government arrested thousands of anti-government activists as well as political leaders, accusing many of them of being foreign spies.
Security forces have applied the same charge to rebel groups.
Jundullah, a Sunni Muslim group from Iran’s ethnic Baluch minority that has claimed responsibility for bombings that have killed dozens of people, has been accused of having ties to the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the United States.
In 2010, Iranian state television broadcast a statement by a captured Jundullah leader who said he had been promised military support from the United States. The American government has denied having links with the group.
The Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen Khalq, known as the MEK, leveraged its relationship with several former high-ranking Americans — such as R. James Woolsey and Porter J. Goss, former C.I.A. directors; Louis J. Freeh, the former F.B.I. director — to help overturn its listing by the State Department as a terrorist organization. Other American officials have called for Washington to support the group.
Such statements fan the suspicion in Iran that any foreigner may be a spy. Dual nationals in particular have traveled to Iran to visit family members, conduct academic research or expand their businesses only to end up in jail on espionage charges.
In 2017, Siamak Namazi, an oil executive, and his octogenarian Iranian-American father, Baquer, lost their appeal of a conviction for “collaborating with enemy states.” A Chinese-American student from Princeton University, Xiyue Wang, was arrested in 2016 and charged with “collaborating with foreign governments,” a charge he denies.
Whether or not there is any truth to the charges, the consequences are quite real. Omid Memarian, an Iranian political analyst based in New York, says that labeling the protesters as foreign agitators and spies serves as a warning to the working-class and rural citizens who make up a large proportion of the demonstrators.
“It sends the signal that it will be very costly for you to join,” he said. “It could mean years of prison, or worse.”
“But it is naïve to put the blame on outside enemies,” he added. “The grievances are real. The protests are real. It shows that people have little left to lose.”