In Iranian Friend of the Neocons, Shades of Iraq’s Chalabi
by Niall Stanage, NY Observer
Published: June 5, 2007
Tags: Politics, Alireza Jafarzadeh
This article was published in the June 10, 2007, edition of The New York Observer.
Consider the scenario: A Middle Eastern nation is in the Bush administration’s sights; an expatriate opposition figure of dubious provenance emerges and becomes prominent in Washington and across conservative media; this opposition figurehead claims to be in possession of sensational intelligence which indicates that the leadership of his native land is hell-bent on destruction and that immediate action is needed.
Stop me, as the Smiths once sang, if you think you’ve heard this one before.
The nation in this instance is not Iraq but Iran. And Alireza Jafarzadeh, a man who is intimately linked with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (M.E.K.), is—at least in the minds of skeptics—playing a role akin to that performed by Ahmed Chalabi in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
Mr. Jafarzadeh, unsurprisingly, does not welcome the comparison. His role, he claims, “is exactly the opposite of what Chalabi was.” But the similarities are uncanny.
Mr. Jafarzadeh’s prominence—his claims have been cited publicly by President Bush—is peculiar, to say the least, given that the group with which he is so closely linked has long been listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department.
He ceased to represent the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in the U.S. when its Washington office was forced to close in 2003. The closure took place because, in the eyes of the State Department, the NCRI was—and is— merely a front for the M.E.K.
Mr. Jafarzadeh, an affluent-looking 50-year-old with neatly trimmed dark hair, spoke gently and with deliberation in a Gramercy restaurant recently about the Iranian regime’s nuclear ambitions and its desire to “dominate” Iraq and the broader Middle East.
The solution, he suggested, lay in the U.S. permitting the opposition—by which he clearly meant the M.E.K.—to be “unshackled”. Perhaps mindful of the U.S. experience in Iraq, Mr. Jafarzadeh insisted that America would not need to “put boots on the ground.”
Instead he suggested, somewhat opaquely, that if the U.S. would “pursue a policy totally different from what its policy has been so far,” it could set off a chain of events that would ultimately bring the Iranian regime crashing down.
The U.S., he said, “should rely on the tremendous potential inside Iran.” If it were to “build bridges with people and with the organized opposition, it could expedite the process of change.”
Anyone can make grandiose claims, of course. And there are other Iranian expats—including Manucher Ghorbanifar, a shadowy figure from the Iran-contra scandal, and Reza Pahlavi, the eldest son of Iran’s last Shah—who have sought to position themselves as influential players in the debate over Iran. But Mr. Jafarzadeh seems to lead the field.
His finest hour—and one that he is happy to recount in exhaustive detail—came in 2002, when he claimed to have discovered evidence of a secret nuclear facility in Natanz, Iran. President Bush himself noted some three years later that the information had come to light “because a dissident group pointed it out to the world.”
According to a Newsweek report, White House sources later confirmed that this reference was to the NCRI. To have the President tip his hat towards an organization that his own administration defined as terrorist was a remarkable coup for Mr. Jafarzadeh.
Skeptics, however, have suggested that the much-vaunted intelligence had been available via U.S. agencies to many people on Capitol Hill, albeit in classified form, before Mr. Jafarzadeh “revealed” it.
They also regard the M.E.K.’s claims to be regularly unearthing fresh intelligence as an exaggeration, or worse. Referring to Mr. Jafarzadeh’s fondness for briefings that draw upon satellite imagery to support allegations about Iranian misdeeds, Professor Ervand Abrahamian of CUNY said: “I am very suspicious. The Mojahedin don’t have satellites.” (Mr. Abrahamian is one of the leading U.S. experts on the M.E.K., having written a book about the organization entitled The Iranian Mojahedin.)
Mr. Jafarzadeh, who now heads a consultancy business, has also been a foreign-affairs analyst for Fox News since 2003, and typically uses his platform there to insist that the current Iranian regime is incapable of reform and to caution against any conciliatory moves by the U.S.
Though he is a regular guest on Fox News television shows, his most recent contribution came on the Foxnews.com Web site eight days ago. Mr. Jafarzadeh authored an article that cast doubt on the wisdom of talks between Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and his Iranian counterpart:
“For the mullahs in Iran, every inch that the U.S. concedes is interpreted as a sign of weakness that … invites more terrorism and sectarian violence,” Mr. Jafarzadeh wrote.
In at least one instance, associations with Mr. Jafarzadeh’s friends have proven problematic for D.C. power brokers. Three years ago, leading neoconservative Richard Perle found himself in hot water after he spoke at an event that was ostensibly intended to aid the victims of the Bam earthquake, but which was also apparently associated with the M.E.K. Mr. Perle claimed he believed that all proceeds of the events were going to the Red Cross, though in fact the charity organization had refused to take money from the sponsors, saying it had become aware of the event’s “political nature.”
Several members of Congress have been clearer about their ties to the group, as has the Iran Policy Committee, a hawkish think tank whose leading members have in a number of cases previously served in Republican administrations, the U.S. military or the C.I.A.
Republican Congresswomen Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida is perhaps the M.E.K.’s leading sympathizer on Capitol Hill, though the organization’s appeal evidently cuts across party lines: California Democrat Brad Sherman has also been vocal in its defense.
Ms. Ros-Lehtinen has claimed that the group “loves the United States. They’re assisting us in the war on terrorism. They’re pro-U.S.,” and has also insisted that a petition she organized in sympathy with the M.E.K. in 2002 was signed by around 150 members of Congress. She has, however, never released the names of the colleagues she contends signed the petition.
The Iran Policy Committee’s president, Professor Raymond Tanter, served on the National Security Council during the Reagan administration. Mr. Tanter, like Representatives Ros-Lehtinen and Sherman, has long been known as an especially vigorous advocate of pro-Israel causes. He has previously said, “Regime change is not our policy toward Iran, but it should be.”
He said that his group at one point analyzed Iranian government pronouncements on opposition groups with a view to creating “an antipathy scale,” rated from zero to five. “The NCRI and M.E.K. received about 4.0,” he said.
“Antipathy is not the same as fear,” Mr. Tanter continued. “We can’t really say the regime fears groups, but the regime pays attention to and hates the NCRI and M.E.K.”
But it’s not just the Iranian government that has a low opinion of the Mojahedin.
“They are not a reliable group,” said Judith Kipper of the Council on Foreign Relations. “It has never been precisely clear to me who they are or what they believe. I don’t think they should be an ally of the United States, because I don’t think they are trustworthy.”
“They are a very hated group here,” said Salome Abtahi, a Tehran-based journalist with the reformist newspaper Shargh. “Many people believe they are like a cult.”
Mr. Abrahamian, who described Mr. Jafarzadeh as “a typical member of the Mojahedin,” said that the M.E.K. is the object of “major revulsion” in Iran despite having had “a lot of support” around the time of the Iranian Revolution. (Mr. Jafarzadeh, citing the M.E.K.’s and NCRI’s presence on the terrorism list, noted that he is no longer an official spokesman for either group.)
The two key factors behind the M.E.K.’s hemorrhaging support since then, he contended, were the group’s decision to base itself in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War, at which time it came to be seen as a proxy of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and the increasingly cultish leadership of M.E.K. leader Massoud Rajavi and his wife Maryam.
Mr. Jafarzadeh shot back that the M.E.K. was merely interested in ending a war it had come to consider unnecessary, and that “Mr. Rajavi went to Iraq only after the French government forced him out of France.” He also made the credulity-stretching assertion that the M.E.K. was permitted to exist as a wholly independent entity inside Iraq under Saddam.
A State Department report from 1994, however, states that Mr. Rajavi adopted “Saddam Hussein as his patron” following his expulsion from France. The report also notes: “Internally, the Mojahedin run their organization autocratically, suppressing dissent and eschewing tolerance of differing viewpoints. Rajavi, who heads the Mojahedin’s political and military wings, has fostered a cult of personality around himself.”
Such judgments lie behind the M.E.K.’s inclusion on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
Mr. Jafarzadeh himself was circumspect about whether his allies would win a hypothetical freely contested election in Iran.
“I don’t think anyone can say what would happen,” he said. “Even they themselves haven’t said they are going to be the government of Iran.”
He insisted that the M.E.K. and its supporters are intent on bringing “a secular, democratic” Iran into existence.
Again, this is at odds with the American government’s assessment. The State Department report, for example, noted: “The major objective of the [organization’s] public relations campaign is to posit the Mojahedin as the alternative to the current Iranian government. To achieve these objectives, they must ensure their organization and its espoused principles appeal to Western audiences and Iranian expatriates.”
Elsewhere, the report notes that “the Mojahedin’s 29-year record of behavior does not substantiate its capability or its intention to be democratic.”
Mr. Jafarzadeh said that members of the State Department “clearly have an agenda” in relation to the group, charging that the M.E.K. had been placed on the terrorist list as a sop to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s more conciliatory predecessor as Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami. The U.S.’s refusal to “deregister” the group “only helps the regime,” he said.
He insisted that despite the ban, the group had many friends in Washington, “including in the White House.”
He did not name names.