Iranian Exiles Embrace Israel’s Drive Against Nuclear Deal

Since July 14 when the Vienna nuclear agreement between Iran and P5+1 – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – was announced, its opponents have been waging an all-out war against it. In particular, the same pundits who lied to us to lead the United States to a catastrophic war in Iraq are doing the same again, this time against Iran. But, one opposition group is most interesting because it consists of some of the Iranian exiles living in the United States. I am not talking about the Mujahedin-e Khalgh (MEK) that, up until a few years ago was listed by the United States as a terrorist organization. The MEK is despised by the vast majority of the Iranian people for its collaboration with Iraq during its war with Iran. I am talking about another group of exiles who have been acting as the "post-modern fifth column" of the agreement’s opponents, and have been repeating verbatim the lies, exaggerations, and fabrications uttered by Benjamin Netanyahu and his neoconservatives and Republican allies.

Such Iranian exiles argue that once the economic sanctions are lifted, (1) Iran will receive up to $150 billion (a great exaggeration, as the true number is close to $50 billion) of its frozen assets and will spend it to support its proxies and allies in the region, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria; (2) Iran will become an even more aggressive expansionist power, beyond the four countries in which it currently has influence, namely, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, and the agreement only delays, but does not stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

After the reform movement led by former President Mohammad Khatami was contained and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, many political activists that had even been imprisoned by the hardliners moved to the United States. Some of them hoped that they can persuade the George W. Bush administration to confront the Islamic Republic forcefully. Others called for help from the United States to topple the regime in Tehran. The neocons were also looking for some Iranian versions of Ahmed Chalabi, their Iraqi ally prior to invasion of Iraq.

Thus, some of the exiles received fellowships at right-wing institutions, such as National Endowment for Democracy that has played a significant role in inciting "color revolutions" around the globe. Some were given jobs and visiting positions at one of leading lobbies of Israel in the United States, namely, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (here and here), while others worked at the neocons hub, the American Enterprise Institute, and another pillar of Israel lobby, The Foundations for Defense of Democracies (here and here). One of them, Akbar Atri, was even made a member of the right-wing The Committee on the Present Danger. Two of them spoke in a panel organized by the FDC and sponsored by two Iran hawks, former Senators Rick Santorum and Joe Lieberman (Atri supported U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq). Some of them have testified in Congress, urging stronger actions against Iran.

During 2010-2011 Israel’s rhetoric against Iran intensified. Ehud Barak, former Israeli Prime Minister and Defense Minister, just revealed that Israel almost attacked Iran during that period. In November 2011 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued its controversial report on the status of Iran’s nuclear program, which was used by Israel and its supporters to advocate military attacks on Iran.

Shortly thereafter, a group of 175 Iranian exiles [later expanded to 184] issued a statement in which they essentially repeated Israel’s accusations, claiming that the Iranian government’s "intention of diverting its nuclear program into a military course has entered into a decisive phase," a lie that even the politicized IAEA under its Director-General Yukiya Amano has not claimed. They also demanded "an immediate cessation of all military aspects of the nuclear program [of Iran]," a pure fabrication, as the National Intelligence Estimate of the United States in November 2007 (and reaffirmed in 2009, 2011, and 2012) stated that Iran stopped its nuclear weapon research program [if it ever had one] sometime in 2003.

A large number of signatories from the same group recently issued a statement, opposing the nuclear agreement. Calling the nuclear agreement "appeasing Iran," they declared that they "are sounding the alarm bells before it is too late," eerily similar to what the Israeli and American far right have been espousing.

These exiles often hide behind "defending" human rights of Iranian people. True, these rights are systematically violated by the regime in Tehran. But, why will strengthening the sanctions against Iran and rejecting the Vienna agreement that will surely lead to a war with Iran help the cause of defending human rights in Iran?

The Iranian exiles have also been placing articles in right-wing newspapers and websites, warning about the dangers of rapprochement with Iran and the nuclear deal. For example, Saeed Ghasseminejad who is an associate fellow at the FDC, claimed in an article published on August 17 by Weekly Standards, the mouthpiece of the neocons that every investment in Iran will "flow" to the IRGC, the backbone of Iran’s military. In another article published by New York Daily News on August 16, Ghasseminejad referred to the Vienna agreement as "a raw deal for Iran’s dissidents." He was also quoted by another right-wing outlet, The Tower, saying, "Increased engagement with Iran will lead to worse repression."

Another of the exiles, Mehdi Khalaji who works at the Washington Institute, published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he repeated another claim of the Israel lobby and the neocons, namely, that Iran is an expansionist power, has been so for 400 years and will be even more so after the nuclear agreement. But, the fact is Iran has not attacked a single country for nearly 300 years; Khalaji simply fabricated a "new" history.

Another exile, Djavad Khadem, a minister in the government of Shapour Bakhtiar, the last Prime Minister under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi right before the 1979 Revolution wrote in a piece in November 2014 that, "President Obama appears ready to… misperceiving the Islamic Republic as a stable country in a chaotic region," and threatened that if the President does not tie the nuclear agreement to a "stable Iran" – code words for regime change – then "desperate Iranians would pick up arms to defend their right to exist."

In an opinion piece published by Times of Israel in January 2013, Ghasseminejad protested selection of Chuck Hagel as U.S. Defense Secretary, claiming that "Tehran votes yes to Hagel." In another piece published in June 2013 by the same newspaper, Ghasseminejad repeated verbatim the worn out claim by Netanyahu that Iranian leaders have an "apocalyptic" view of the world. In yet a third article there published in April 2013, Ghasseminejad claimed that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei "continues to pursue a nuclear bomb and recently reiterated that he will not hesitate to destroy Haifa and Tel Aviv," without mentioning that Khamenei made the threat if Israel attacks Iran first. In another piece published by Jewish Chronicles Online, Ghasseminejad mocked Iran’s presidential elections of June 2013, and essentially said about President Hassan Rouhani what Netanyahu said three months later in October 2013 when he said that Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothes. And, in yet another article published in June 2013 by the ultra-right National Post of Canada, Ghasseminejad called for regime change in Tehran, "The only hope for Iran is regime change — which must be the goal of Western foreign policy." This group has also published tens of articles in Farsi in which they argued for and supported the sanctions against Iran, with one of them likening the sanctions to "surgery on cancer."

The exiles have been fierce proponents of the crippling economic sanctions that have disrupted the lives of tens of millions of ordinary Iranians. Atri, for example, said in a June 2012 event at the AEI that "Iranians have paid a high price because of sanctions," but adding that he supports "even the extreme sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sector." This is while he and his wife lead a luxurious life near Washington. He warned against lifting the sanctions even in exchange for Tehran making major concessions (which Iran has actually made).

Ahmad Batebi, a former political prisoner who was tortured in jail, collaborated with Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, an organization setup specifically by Israel lobby AIPAC for opposing the nuclear deal and made a video that was broadcast by CNN, NBC, and other TV channels. In the video Batebi describes his torture and warns against the nuclear deal.

The exiles also have many websites and "non-profit" organizations through which they espouse their views and those of their benefactors. Atri, for example, founded E-Collaborative for Civic Education, and runs a website Tavaana. It produces books, articles, translations of foreign texts into Farsi, etc. It has a "faculty" that carries out the work with contracts and includes many of the exiles that have supported the sanctions, with at least one of them calling for breaking Iran up, if the Islamic Republic cannot be toppled. It receives funding from the US State Department, National Endowment for Democracy and United States Agency for International Development, among others. Other websites, such as Bamdad Khabar and Khodnevis, are also run by the same type of Iranian exiles.

Interestingly, even some of the neoconservatives are wary about such Iranian exiles. Back in 2006 Kenneth Timmerman who is the director of Foundation for Democracy in Iran complained, "[Former] reformers …. have gotten the lion’s share of the ‘pro-freedom’ moneys from the State Department." Timmerman was probably worried that his piece of the "pie" – funds for the opposition to the Islamic Republic – was shrinking, but the relevant question is, what has been the net useful result of providing so much funding to these exiles, at least as far as the lives of ordinary Iranians are concerned?

This is updated from an earlier version published in the Middle East Eye.

Author: Muhammad Sahimi

Muhammad Sahimi, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California, is co-founder and editor of the website, Iran News & Middle East Reports.