Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 6th ed.  –  Online updating pages

Chapter 10: Secret Intelligence

p. 165, illegals: There is evidence that the use of ‘illegals’ is increasing. This is a result of the large number of expulsions of intelligence officers with diplomatic cover (‘legals’) produced by the serious deterioration in relations between Russia and the NATO powers following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

p. 165, ‘typical diplomatic ranks’: It is worth recording the view on this of the highly regarded veteran BBC world affairs reporter, John Simpson, albeit one that appears in his 2021 novel Our Friends in Beijing (see Further reading below). Referring to Raj Harish, an important character in the book, he says that ‘He had one of those flimsy cover jobs at the British embassy [in Beijing]: deputy information officer, or third commerecial attaché, or something. If you want to see who’s in the British intelligence game, look at their titles. They’re always a couple of steps below the level you’d expect for their age and seniority.’ (p. 111)
Rather confirming this is the evidence of the SIS station in the British Embassy in Tehran in 1952. The head of station in the embassy was former Special Operations Executive officer C. M. (‘Monty’) Woodhouse, who had cover as 2nd Secretary (Information), according to the Foreign Office List for that year. However, he had only just arrived and most of the station’s key local agents were activated and run by R. C. (‘Robin’) Zaehner, a scholar and fluent Persian-speaker who had seen much service as an SIS officer for the embassy since 1943. (The exception was a high-level ‘walk-in’ codenamed ‘Omar’ whom Woodhouse ran himself.) According to The English Job, by former British foreign secretary Jack Straw, in 1952 Zaehner had the rank of ‘acting counsellor’ in the embassy. There is no mention of him in the Foreign Office List for these years, so this title was presumably what was known as a ‘local rank’ – a label solely designed to give comfort to the wearer and impress the locals. As for the rest of the ‘station’ in the embassy, whether this consisted of one or more SIS officers or simply diplomats allotted to Woodhouse, is not clear. In any event, in his memoirs, Something Ventured, he says that ‘My own assets when I took up a nominal post in our Embassy were considerable … Three or four able young men … specialized in intelligence on Iran and the Communists. Another cultivated leading Iranians who were hostile to Mussaddiq [the prime minister]. Another conducted a useful liaison, approved by the Shah, with the chief of the Security Police, who was well informed about the Tudeh Party [the Iranian Communist party].’ The Oriental Counsellor, Assistant Oriental Secretary, 1st Secretary (Information), and the other 2nd Secretary (Information) would seem to be likely candidates for these intelligence specialists. By way of a footnote, the SIS station in the British Embassy in Tehran was crippled in October 1952 when Iran severed diplomatic relations with Britain but Woodhouse and his ‘team’ were able to preserve contact with their main agents in Tehran from a new office set up ‘under cover’ of the British military’s GHQ on Cyprus. In 1953 a joint SIS-CIA stimulated coup brought down the popular Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, chiefly because he had nationalized the rapacious and mule-headed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (today BP) but ostensibly because he was believed to be opening the gates to a Soviet takeover of Iran.

p. 173 (Second to be noted …), secret service alliances and liaisons: Other plausible liaisons if not alliances are those between Russia and China and Russia and Iran claimed in 2023 by SVR chief Sergey Naryshkin, although it clearly suits the Kremlin to advertise – and possibly exaggerate – the strength of these relationships.

p. 174, intel officers as special envoys: See Ch. 15 updating page.

Further reading

Anadolu Agency [Turkey], ‘Intelligence ties with China at “unprecedented” level, says Russian spy chief’, 17 January 2023

Cater, Leonie, ‘Netherlands orders expulsion of Russian diplomats’, Politico, 18 February 2023

Clogg, Richard, ‘Woodhouse, Christopher Montague [Monty], fifth Baron Terrington (1917–2001)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 08 January 2009

Cornwell, Tim (ed), A Private Spy: The Letters of John le Carré (Penguin Books, 2023), first pub. Viking 2022. Not of great value for this subject but still worth using via the Index, which turns up interesting tit-bits.

Der Standard, Parliamentary Question: ‘Number of Russian diplomats in Vienna has decreased since 2022, according to Foreign Minister’, 12 May 202

Dettmer, Jamie, ‘Russian spies rebound in Europe’, Politico, 4 April 2023

Duxbury, Charlie, ‘Russia’s diplomatic clash with Europe flares in Estonia: A mutual expelling of ambassadors is putting into question the value of European countries’ diplomatic links with the Kremlin’, Politico, 26 March, 2023

Guardian staff, ‘Moldova expels 45 Russian diplomats and embassy staff, citing years of “hostile actions”’, 27 July 2023

Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, ‘China’, HC1605, 13 July 2023

Karnitschnig, Matthew, ‘How Putin hijacked Austria’s spy service — and is now gunning for its government’, Politico, 24 May 2024

Riehle, Kevin, ‘The History and Continuing Relevance of Soviet Bloc Illegal Intelligence Operatives’, 5 January 2023, a blog post of the History and Public Policy Forum (Wilson Center)

Security Service, UK (MI5), ‘How Spies Operate’

Simpson, John, A Mad World, My Masters: Tales from a Traveller’s Life (Pan Books, 2001), Ch. 4 (‘Spies’), useful on the differences between journalists and intelligence officers by the highly respected BBC world affairs editor

– – – -, Our Friends in Beijing (John Murray, 2021), pb. ed. 2022

Straw, Jack, The English Job: Understanding Iran and why it distrusts Britain (Biteback, 2019), Ch. 10 (‘Spooks and Coups’)

Walker, Shaun, ‘The ‘ordinary’ family at No 35: suspected Russian spies await trial in Slovenia’, The Guardian, 24 March 2023

Wikipedia, ‘Robert Charles Zaehner’

Wintour, Patrick, ‘Spy games: expulsion of diplomats shines light on Russian espionage’, The Guardian, 15 April 2022

Woodhouse, C. M., Something Ventured (Granada, 1982). According to the ODNB essay on Woodhouse, his revelations about the Mossadegh affair in this memoir ‘earned him a mild rebuke from SIS.’