Let's talk about regime change

By Massoud Khodabandeh Asia Times
November 30, 2005



As the standoff over Iran's nuclear program steadily deteriorates into a crisis, Washington's policy on the Islamic Republic is coming under sharp scrutiny. While a group of hardcore neo-conservatives want a decisive confrontation with the Iran, the broader US policy-making community is all too aware of the futility and dangers of this approach.

The case for regime change in Iran has been most enthusiastically taken up by the Iran Policy Committee (IPC) , which is largely composed of retired senior military officers and solely administered by a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations officer. Benefiting from close links to the Pentagon, the IPC has been tasked by the Iranian opposition group, Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a proscribed terrorist organization, to provide professional lobbying and public relations services.

On the other side are those who seek engagement. They won something of a victory on Monday when the State Department announced that the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, had been given permission to meet with officials from Iran. "It's a very narrow mandate that he has," spokesman Sean McCormack said. "It deals specifically with issues related to Iraq."

The IPC is likely to be undaunted, though. Lobbying on behalf of a proscribed and notoriously anti-American organization like the MEK would be controversial enough, but the IPC gives the impression that it has gone beyond advocacy and is now, to all intents and purposes, representing the MEK in the US.

While such sensational gestures generate useful propaganda against Iran in the short term, the doomed fate of the MEK means that individual IPC members are at serious risk of destroying their reputations in the long term.

Regime change in Iran?
A proper understanding of the relationship between the MEK and the IPC requires an understanding of the broader regime-change debate now under way in Washington. While the US built a case against Iraq over its alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, the neo-conservatives' case against Iran is more complex. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's recent ill-judged comments on Israel (that it should be wiped off the map), coupled with long-term US concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions, have enabled the neo-conservative camp to build up a case against Iran that leaves little room for negotiation.

In 2003, Senator Sam Brownback introduced the Iran Freedom and Democracy Support Act, which was backed by senators Rick Santorum and John Cornyn. After some changes to the bill, now sponsored by Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, it was finally passed on April 13 this year as the Iran Freedom Support Act (HR 282). The act allowed for "financial and political assistance ... to entities that support democracy and the promotion of democracy in Iran and that are opposed to the non-democratic government of Iran". While Brownback had envisaged the fund going to Reza Pahlavi and pro-monarchist groups and the media, Ros-Lehtinen promoted the MEK as the best recipients for millions of taxpayers' dollars.

The act was opposed by many Iranian groups, while the National Iranian American Council gave expression to the argument: "while supporters argue that any step short of regime change is unlikely to bring about change in Iran, opponents argue that making regime change official policy eliminates the possibility of diplomacy and makes confrontation between the US and Iran inevitable". Among those groups which lobbied for the bill were the Institute for Public Affairs, the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) and the Washington-based IPC.

Iran Policy Committee
The IPC, a think tank established in February by Raymond Tanter, professor of political science at Georgetown University, is supported by several neo-conservative politicians and analysts, including Douglas Feith, Frank Gaffney, Michael Ledeen, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Tom Tancredo and Bob Filner.

Ostensibly, the IPC's platform echoes the neo-conservative view that Iran poses a threat to US national security and that regime change is the preferred solution. Leaving nothing to doubt, the IPC's website banner reads "Empowering Iranians for Regime Change". A policy paper released on February 10 extends this view to state that "Iranian opposition groups ought to play a central role in US policymaking regarding Iran". It also perfunctorily adds that "diplomatic and military options" should be kept open.

A review of the IPC's first white paper reveals language and propaganda that is eerily identical to that used by the MEK, thus leaving well-informed and experienced analysts in little doubt that the paper was in part, if not in whole, written by agents of the MEK in the US. This style is also evident in the IPC's two subsequent white papers released in June and September. The promotion of the so-called "third way", oddly implicating the Shi'ite Islamic Republic in the spread of al-Qaeda-style Salafi jihadism (which is anti-Shi'ite through and through), and falsely accusing Iran of being the central force behind the Iraqi insurgency, are pure MEK disinformation techniques.

Interestingly, the June white paper, entitled "Sham elections and regime change", was primarily a response to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report that accused the MEK of torturing its dissident members and engaging in other forms of human-rights abuses. Yet again, using language that is the exclusive trademark of the MEK, the IPC had this to say about the HRW report:

The IPC appointed a task force on human rights to investigate allegations about the MEK and its related groups and claims against that organization by the HRW. IPC research concludes that the "credible claims" of HRW are actually statements by agents of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security [MOIS], especially Mohammad-Hossein Sobhani and Farhad Javaheri-Yar. Tehran sent most of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch from Iran to Europe for the purpose of demonizing its main opposition, the MEK.

This reads like MEK propaganda. But leaving aside this important detail, what is striking about the IPC is that nobody on its board is in fact an Iran expert, let alone an expert on the bloody history and intricate cult-like ideology of the MEK. It is perhaps not surprising then that the IPC scrupulously avoids a debate with former members of the MEK.

Leaving aside the highly questionable relationship between the IPC and the MEK, the solution offered by the former to the policy differences on Iran is not altogether convincing. In the IPC's first white paper, the authors review the appeasement and military options before concluding that "Washington should consider a third alternative, one that provides a central role for the Iranian opposition to facilitate regime change". The problem for the IPC is that the US government instinctively distrusts the MEK, which has a history of anti-Western propaganda, is the only Iranian organization that has admitted to killing Americans, and was for nearly 20 years an unwavering ally of Saddam Hussein.

Moreover, the IPC's lukewarm enthusiasm for the use of military force against Iran is, at best, deceptive. Indeed, if the IPC is serious about promoting MEK interests, then it must realize (as the MEK readily does) that only massive US-led military force against Iran could make marginalized exiled groups like the MEK even remotely relevant.

Furthermore, a brief glance at the IPC co-chair biographies reveals why this MEK-connected think tank secretly lobbies for war against Iran. Composed of retired senior military officers, a former ambassador, and Claire M Lopez, former operations officer with the CIA (and the sole administrator of the IPC and its main point of contact with the MEK), these individuals' expertise and career paths are based on the promotion of military options rather than peaceful ones. Moreover, several of the principals are affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its related think tanks.

MEK: A bad investment
The IPC's emergence as the representative of the MEK in the US is directly tied to the proscription of the latter in 2003. Up to August 2003, the MEK was capable of running its own propaganda campaign through the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the personnel of both being almost identical.

The NCRI was outlawed in the US in August 2003 when the State Department added the cover organization to the list of terrorist entities as a pseudonym for the MEK. Similarly, the MEK's small military wing in Iraq, the so-called "National Liberation Army of Iran" was bombed, disarmed and dismantled by US forces in April and May 2003. Having lost the patronage of Saddam, the MEK is now looking to the US government and Israel-linked lobby groups in Washington for support.

As part of this push to gain acceptance in the West, the MEK has presented itself as a pluralistic, secular and pro-democratic group which promotes the role of women and supports human rights. Its tools in this exercise have been the feminized image of its head, Maryam Rajavi, in civilian clothes, and the placing of the MEK's long-time US spokesman, Alireza Jafarzadeh, in the Fox News network as an independent analyst on Iran.

But even this was not enough to shift perceptions, and congressional support has been falling off as representatives are made aware of the manipulations which led them to sign up to documents purporting to condemn the Iranian regime, but having in their small print support for the MEK.

The creation of the IPC has arguably been the best publicity asset for the MEK in its efforts to reinvent itself. But no matter how the MEK markets itself, it cannot escape its past. The specter of young, brainwashed devotees burning themselves to protest the arrest of Maryam Rajavi in Paris in June 2003 continues to haunt Europe.

Moreover, there is now a determined and organized effort by former members to bring the organization's leaders to account. On November 24, a group of anti-war activists and former MEK members held a press conference in Washington DC, entitled "Saddam's links with international terrorism". The conference showed videos secretly filmed by Saddam's own security services which evidenced the financial, logistical and intelligence relations between the former Iraqi regime and the MEK. Additionally, a documentary exposed the MEK's involvement in the suppression of the Kurdish uprising in 1991, immediately after the first Gulf War.

The day before this press conference, the MEK issued a statement alleging that former MEK members had been sent by Iran's Intelligence Ministry to prevent the organization being removed from the US terror list. The following day, the IPC issued a statement repeating these unsubstantiated accusations. Unfortunately for the IPC, United Press International picked up its statement and printed it. It was clear that the IPC had simply rehashed the MEK's statement and had not checked its information independently. Consequently, Tanter and other IPC members are now being sued by those they allegedly libeled.

While promoting regime change in Iran is a legitimate discourse, supporting terrorist organizations with a documented history of anti-Americanism clearly is not. IPC members might want to reconsider their position and decide whether supporting an organization that is nearly universally despised by Iranians of all political persuasions is worth the price of personal infamy.


Massoud Khodabandeh is a former member of the Mujahideen-e Khalq, and mainly served in the organization's intelligence/security department. Khodabandeh left the Mujahideen in 1996 and currently lives in the north of England, where he works as a security consultant. He has been active in Iranian opposition politics for over 25 years. He works closely with the Center de Recherche sur la Terrorisme in Paris as an expert on Iran.