September 3, 2007
Disinformation Campaign in Overdrive: Iran’s VEVAK in High-Gear
Professor Daniel M. Zucker
In two prior articles,[i] we looked at the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS = Farsi: VEVAK=Vezarat-e Ettela'at va Amniat-e Keshvar). The following essay is a third installment in what looks to be a growing research project. Reference to the earlier papers is suggested for those new to the subject.
Founded in 1984[ii] and ranked by experts as one of the world’s largest and most active intelligence agencies in the Middle East and possessing a global reach,[iii] VEVAK’s activities and structure are shrouded in mystery, but its presence has been felt keenly with over 450 acts of terrorism carried out in less than a quarter of a century. With an almost unlimited budget, and a command structure reporting direct to the Supreme Leader (Farsi: faqih) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the secretive agency is one of the key pillars of the theocratic regime.[iv] Led from 1999 until mid-2005 by the notorious hanging judge Hojjatol-Islam Ali Younesi,[v] it is now headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appointee, Hojjatol-Islam Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ezhei, 51, formerly Prosecutor and Judge of the Special Tribunal for Clergy, and formerly Special Prosecutor in the MOIS, as well as a founding official and member of the staff selection board for MOIS[vi]
Although a government ministry, because of its secret budget and lack of accountability to either the cabinet or the Majlis (parliament), VEVAK remains above the law, being accountable only to the Supreme Leader. Under such conditions it is easy to see how it has become a major vehicle for political repression.[vii]
VEVAK agents traditionally have been tested vigorously before receiving security clearance and being trusted to take part in sensitive operations that could implicate the highest levels of the government if leaked to the public. Members, handpicked from other security agencies throughout Iran, are first required to torture and execute dissidents so as to test their loyalty to the regime and the Supreme Leader. Only the most loyal are inducted into the ranks of VEVAK.[viii]
One of the primary methods used by VEVAK is the dissemination of disinformation, a trick learned from the KGB playbook. Indeed, the largest directorate within the Ministry of Intelligence and Security is the Department of Disinformation (Farsi: Nefaq) which is charged with the task of creating psychological warfare and misinformation about enemies of the regime. Former VEVAK chief Hojjatol-Islam Ali Younesi admitted publicly on Iran State Television in October 2004 that the agency employed several thousand individuals just to staff that section. Some of those working in that department are former resistance members that were either seduced (with money, etc.) or coerced into assisting the regime. The regime gives high priority to this department and pays its agents handsomely.
In recent months, at the direction of Ahmadinejad, VEVAK has revived and expanded its directorate of Foreign Affairs to recruit foreigners to work with the intelligence agency.[ix] Although much of the increased budget for this directorate is earmarked for recruitment of those that will serve as jihadists in Iraq and/or Afghanistan,[x] VEVAK also recruits spies[xi] as well as agents to serve in its disinformation campaign. The recruitment methodology is basically the same for jihadists, spies and disinformation agents even if the three are different types of activities requiring different characteristics and skills. Recruiting agents begin the process, spotting and identifying candidates. After the initial contact, a positive response results in the following process being initiated:
• Once recruited, the regime’s local embassies take over in contacting such individuals;
• Then the prospective recruits are informally interviewed by undercover MOIS agents in those countries and under such pretexts as seminars, visits, getting to know the Islamic Republic, etc., before they are sent to Iran; .
• Once in Iran, the MOIS and Qods Force take it forward from that point. If the individual is willing to cooperate, the agents sign a contract with him and dispatch him to designated camps which are located in the suburbs of Tehran and the holy city of Qom for additional trainings.[xii]
If one surfs the net looking at sites that discuss Iran, one may encounter ads for cheap flights, special tours, and subsidized seminars in Iran; but beware, there is no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to Iran!
As pointed out in the earlier articles, VEVAK agents have been trained to use the old KGB 80/20 formula: tell the truth 80% of the time and spread lies 20%; attack the regime 80% of the time and the resistance 20%. It’s amazing how successful the formula has proven to be. Occasionally an agent will up the percentage to 90/10 so as to better hide his/her real intentions, but the percentage never drops below 80/20, as that would risk detection.
Now, let’s begin to examine the list of candidates that work for VEVAK. Our first subject is already known to those who read my first paper on VEVAK.[xiii] I am referring to British-born Anne Singleton and her Iranian-born husband, Massoud Khodabandeh, currently of Leeds, England who organized and run the pro-regime/anti-resistance website Iran-Interlink.org. In the late 1980’s, Ms. Singleton worked with a pro-resistance Iranian student group in London, but was dismissed on moral grounds. Massoud Khodabandeh and his older brother Ibrahim were both members of the resistance movement group, Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK, also known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran=PMOI) in the 1980’s when they lived in England.[xiv] Massoud abandoned his affiliation with the PMOI in 1996. Singleton and Khodabandeh married sometime after that and subsequently were recruited by VEVAK,[xv] apparently after the agency had coerced the Khodabandeh brothers’ wealthy elderly mother to assist them or lose her extensive property in Tehran. Using wire-taps and monitoring her contacts abroad with her sons, VEVAK was able to flip Singleton and Masoud Khodabandeh to its service. On the invitation of her mother-in-law, Singleton made several trips to Iran[xvi], including a visit to Tehran in the winter of 2002 where she was met at Mehrabad Airport by VEVAK agents interested in her background. She apparently volunteered to work on her brother-in-law, and then spent the month in training before returning to England and going on to found the Iran-Interlink website in the winter of 2002.[xvii] The trips to Iran as well as to Singapore (where VEVAK generally holds briefings for its foreign agents) made the resistance suspicious of the Khodabandehs and tipped them off as to their new loyalties.[xviii] In 2004 she was seen in Evin Prison with VEVAK agents visiting her brother-in-law, Ibrahim, who had been arrested by the Syrians and extradited to Iran. Ibrahim has since recanted his MEK affiliation and now likewise works for VEVAK’s anti-resistance campaign.[xix] The Khodabandehs have been very active over the years in VEVAK’s campaign to vilify the MEK. The materials disseminated on the Iran-Interlink site are all produced by VEVAK in Tehran.[xx]
Iran-Interlink.org[xxi] is probably the most sophisticated of the regime’s anti-resistance websites. Other sites include several that are disguised to look like resistance sites, such as www.mojahedin.ws[xxii], www.hambastegimeli.net[xxiii], www.iran-aawa.com[xxv], or neutral as www.perseetavenir.com[xxvi] and www.iranpeyvand.com, and those that clearly are anti-resistance, such as www.irandidban.com, www.theblackfile.com, www.pars-iran.com, www.nejatngo.org, and www.negaheno.net. Anyone associated with these websites should be considered a VEVAK agent or loyal supporter of the IRI regime.
Our next subject is Mahtub (Mahtaub) Hojjati, aka Mathilde Fein, Mattie Fein, Mattie Lolavar, and Mattie Lolavar-Cohen. Ms. Hojjati is the founder and self-appointed president of a very new Iranian opposition think tank in Washington, DC, the Institute for Persian Studies, which she claims aims to replace the current regime of Iran with a democracy. At first glance, Hojjati sounds as if she has all her priorities in the right place. But when one examines her words more carefully, things begin to go awry. In a recent interview with Global Politician Associate Editor Ryan Mauro[xxvii], Ms Hojjati attacks the idea of American funding for the establishment of indigenous Iranian civic organizations and programs, and lambastes the largest, oldest, best-organized and most popular of resistance groups, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), saying it “commands no indigenous adherents in Iran.”[xxviii] When asked about the Iran Policy Committee’s suggestions[xxix] that the MEK be removed from the US Department of State’s Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list[xxx] she says:
“The MEK should not be removed. The signal to the people of Iran would be devastating because they despise the MEK for its treason in the Iraq-Iran war. … Any U.S. support of MEK would dishearten many Iranians, continue to cultivate mistrust that the U.S. is far removed from the desires of the Iranian people, and would be a set-back to the U.S.”[xxxi]
Ms. Hojjati’s views of the MEK seem just a little too close to those of the regime. When 50,000 Iranians can be gathered from around the world to attend a rally in support for the National Council of Resistance of Iran and the MEK in the Paris suburbs[xxxii] and 5.2 million members of the Iraqi anti-fundamentalist coalition Solidarity Congress commend the MEK[xxxiii], Hojjati’s suggestion of MEK unpopularity rings very hollow. So too, the $75 million democracy promotion fund which Hojjati decries is intended for just the type of projects that Dr. Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Kian Tajbakhsh formerly with the Open Society Institute of U.S. billionaire George Soros, and Ali Shakeri of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding were engaged in developing. For the most part, it seems that only the regime found such actions to be in any way objectionable, because of its fear of a “velvet revolution”[xxxiv]. Dare we ask why an “opponent” of the regime appears to be protecting it from the two things it fears the most? Is it possible that Ms. Hojjati isn’t quite what she wants us to think she is?
Dr. Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a political scientist who has taught at Tehran University, and Boston University, as well as done research at UC Berkeley and Harvard. He is an author of several books on modern Iran and a prolific essayist in the world press. Despite his impressive academic credentials, I believe that he serves an apologist for the Tehran regime. To substantiate my claim, I suggest that we look at some of his recent writings. Let’s start with the Washington Post’s Post-Global Power Barometer interview by the Denver Research Group, Inc., entitled “A unique perspective on Iran; an interview with Kaveh Afrasiabi”[xxxv] When queried about the popularity of the nuclear program within Iran, Afrasiabi replied: “The Iranian people are solidly behind the government's nuclear program...” Such an answer is refuted by the recent poll by Ken Ballen of Terror Free Tomorrow that found that only 29% support the current nuclear program,[xxxvi] a drop of about 5% from a poll taken almost five years ago! Most Iranians don't care about nuclear power; they do care about the horrible state of their economy. Next, when asked about the intentions behind Iran’s nuclear program, Afrasiabi gave a very long reply that suggested that the nuclear program was purely a defensive mechanism instituted after the trauma of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, ignoring that Ayatollah Khomeini prolonged that war by at least six years. He then stated: “It is baffling to the Iranians why Iran should be denied the right enjoyed by Brazil, Japan, and others with impunity, and why there should be continuing sanctions when Iran is fully cooperating with the IAEA (which has confirmed time and again the absence of any military diversion)?[xxxvii] [Italics are mine] As regards the intent of the Iranian nuclear program, 18 years of keeping it clandestine, and 5 years of obfuscation and non-cooperation with the IAEA[xxxviii] should make clear to all just what Tehran wants. Besides, Japan and Brazil possess nuclear power but haven’t threatened to destroy their neighbors or produced weaponry; neither of them has conducted clandestine programs like Iran’s. Lest we forget, let me remind that last year the regime rejected the offer of a transparent light-water reactor system that was made by the “5+1”[xxxix] negotiating group. Now Afrasiabi would have us believe that Tehran only wants electric power?
Afrasiabi is just like his fellow Iranian academicians, Vali Nasr[xl] and Ray Takeyh[xli]: Iran is too strong to bully into submission[xlii]; it would be much wiser to give poor, misunderstood Tehran more carrots, hold all the sticks, and slowly everything can be worked out! Meanwhile, our potential future friend (the Islamic Republic of Iran) is supplying the radical Shia militias of Iraq (Jaish al-Mahdi and the Badr and Wolf Brigades of SCIRI/SIIC) as well as al-Qa‘eda and the Taliban with explosively formed projectiles/penetrators (EFP's) that are killing our troops in Iraq[xliii] and Afghanistan.[xliv] Indeed, since dialogue between the US and Iran about Iraqi security began, Iran has increased its supplying of weaponry to the insurgents[xlv] and upgraded their training in the use of mortars and rockets.[xlvi] Claiming that Iran only wants to be recognized as a regional power and isn't interested in spreading its revolution's radical Islamism would be plausible only if one closed one's eyes to the horrible Islamist repression occurring daily in Hezbollah-controlled south Lebanon[xlvii], Hamas-controlled Gaza[xlviii], and the environs of radical Shiite (al-Dawa and SCIRI/SIIC, etc.), IRGC supported, militia-controlled Basra.[xlix] If you aren’t a fundamentalist Muslim in those areas, keep out of sight; your life is not worth the price of a cup of coffee.
Iranian-born, Oxford-trained scholar Ray Takeyh is currently a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. Takeyh has trumpeted the same message for over five years: get rid of the sticks and offer better quality carrots to the Islamic Republic. Iran is open to dialogue and can be reached if only we would be serious in our attempts to do so. In article after article, it’s the same message—engaging Iran in a dialogue is the only way to solve our problems. Takeyh suggests that somehow dialogue will melt the hearts of the clerics and turn them into moderates that respect human rights and the concept of a civil society.
Let’s examine one of Takeyh’s recent essays—“The Iran Puzzle”[l] to see how he operates. Suggesting that Tehran no longer fears regime change[li] and now is willing to work out a pragmatic deal with the US, Takeyh seems to read events with a very special set of rose-colored lenses. The recent spate of executions[lii] and this summer’s Bassiji campaign to enforce strict compliance with the Islamic dress code which has resulted in the detention of over 93,000 women[liii] might suggest that the regime is not as confident about its control[liv] of the discontented masses as Takeyh wants us to believe. Throughout his essay, Takeyh tries to give the impression that Iran has moved far away from the Islamic revolutionary fervor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and that despite Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric[lv], the leadership has become pragmatic. Indeed the vast majority of Iranians reject Khomeinism, but Supreme Leader Khamenei and his inner circle of fellow clerics, supported by the veteran leadership of the Islamic Revolution’s Guards Corps (IRGC = Farsi: Sapeh-e Pasdaran), retain their desire to spread their revolution to other countries.[lvi] Iran’s financial, logistical, organizational, and military support for the Badr and Wolf Brigades of SCIRI/SIIC of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim and the Jaish al-Mahdi of Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq and its offshoots[lvii], of Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas in Gaza through the work of the Qods Force should be seen in this context.[lviii] When Takeyh writes: “Yet Iran is no longer committed to refashioning regional norms in its image.”[lix], he must be referring to the Iran on another planet, because this planet’s IRI, led by Khamenei, is doing a lot to spread the faith. A tour of Basra in Iraq, Gaza City, or almost any village in south Lebanon will present just how “disinterested” Iran is to spread its revolution.
Rather than repeat the many valid points presented in his lengthy exposé of Dr. Takeyh’s campaign to facilitate dialogue with Tehran at almost any price, I refer the reader to Hassan Daioleslam’s recent article, “Pro-Ayatollah Disinformation and Manipulation Campaign by Washington Think Tankers”, published in Global Politician.[lx] Bottom line: Dr. Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations should be seen for what he is: an agent of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s campaign to turn back sanctions and buy more time to complete its nuclear program. It also should be noted that his wife, Suzanne Maloney[lxi], a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow and until recently at the State Department as chair of the Iran desk of the Policy Planning Staff, was responsible for vetoing expenditure of much of the $75 million democracy promotion fund earmarked for Iran.[lxii] How convenient for the IRI regime!
Professor Paul Sheldon Foote of California State University at Fullerton (Accounting)[lxiii] spent time in pre-revolutionary Iran where he met his wife Badri. A self-styled old school conservative (he likes to call neo-conservatives “Neo-Trotskyites”), he is a frequent contributor to VEVAK sites such as Iran-Interlink,[lxiv] hambastegimeli.net,[lxv] and Mojahedin.ws.[lxvi] Foote serves as the regime’s “attack-dog” against the Iranian resistance organizations NCRI and MEK and their supporters, and is also an apologist for the Tehran regime. Now, not everyone needs to like the NCRI and MEK; we do live in a free country and have a right to pick whom we support and whom we don’t. But unlike Dr. Kenneth Timmerman who is a vocal opponent of the MEK but even more vociferous critic of the Tehran regime, Foote defends the IRI. I guess that being as conservative as he claims to be allows him to be comfortable with the conservatism of Iran’s radical Islamist mullahs.
Safa Haeri is the Iranian born editor-in-chief of the Iran Press Service, an internet website claiming to be a fully independent and private news gathering and disseminating service based in Paris, France,[lxvii] that presents news and opinions from Iran and the Iranian diaspora. Carrying a variety of sources, the IPS website appears at first glance to be a neutral website, featuring news and opinions from all. However, when one checks out Haeri’s columns and letters, his pro-regime, anti-resistance position becomes fairly clear. A sampling of Haeri’s material will make my point. In a letter to Dr. Patrick Clawson and Dr. Daniel Pipes, posted at Dr. Pipes’ website, Haeri wrote:
“That the US could benefit from the Mojahedeen for espionage and spy activities, might be. For how many items, I don't know, considering that 90 per cent of [what] the organization had said about Iran were (sic) wrong, except the recent disclosures, which, don’t forget, were first provided by some Iranian officials.
Anyhow, but you must be SURE that if there is only one thing that could mobilize all Iranians behind the mullahs[, it] is the US backing the MEK, not a military attack, nor bombing out Iranian nuke installations.”[lxviii] (sic)
Haeri has taken much liberty with the truth. Check my endnotes as regards the accuracy of the MEK’s reports[lxix] and as to their popularity[lxx] in Iran—a very different picture will emerge.
Now let’s look at Haeri’s “reporting”. A quick perusal of his August 20, 2005 column entitled “All MKO say are pure lies”[lxxi] will show that he interviewed known VEVAK agent Massoud Khodabandeh who runs the VEVAK financed Iran-Interlink website from his home in Leeds, England. Khodabandeh was indeed a member of the MEK before leaving and then being seduced financially by VEVAK, but he never was a senior officer in the MEK as Haeri contends. However, Massoud Khodabandeh is one of nine VEVAK agents and two Iranian embassy associates detained by the French police for attacking Iranian dissidents in Paris in mid-June of this year.[lxxii] Haeri’s column is full of distortions and lies. Among the more blatant is the following:
The Mojaheedin collaborated…to overthrow the former Shah of Iran. As part of that struggle, they assassinated at least six American citizens, supported the takeover of the U.S. embassy, and opposed the release of American hostages. …
Not only the group engaged in Iraq’s war against Iran and killed thousands of innocent Iranians, not only the group collaborated actively with Iraq’s secret services in the slaughter of Iraq Kurds and Shi’ites and took part in Iraq’s attack on neighbouring Kuwait, but is [sic] also killed many of its own members, as reported by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.[lxxiii]
To refute these charges that the regime bandies about so freely, one only need consult the texts of the independent Iran Policy Committee,[lxxiv] the European Parliament’s Friends of a Free Iran,[lxxv] or the report commissioned by former House Majority Leader Richard Armey and Dr. Neil Livingstone: DLA Piper’s Iran: Foreign Policy Challenges and Choices.[lxxvi] It is interesting to note that Mr. Haeri’s articles are regular features at VEVAK websites such as Iran-Interlink,[lxxvii] mojahedin.ws,[lxxviii] or survivorsreport.org.[lxxix] It seems that Mr. Haeri is not as independent and private as he would like us to believe.
Finally we come to the class of “useful idiots”. In this category we need to place Dr. Gareth Porter for his defense of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Sapeh-e Qods, the IRGC’s most ruthless and blood-spilling unit. In an essay published on August 2, 2007, in American Prospect entitled “The Iran attack that wasn’t”[lxxx], Porter tries to extricate Iran’s Qods Force from any involvement in the Karbala attack of January 20, 2007, in which five American soldiers were killed, four with a bullet to the back of the head, execution style, after having been kidnapped. Claiming that Iranian involvement in the raid was a fiction dreamed up by the White House in order to fan the flames of war-fever against Iran, Porter likewise claims that the Iranian regime is innocent on the charge of supplying arms and explosives that are being used to kill American troops.
The only problem with Porter’s fantasy is that the local Iraqi newspapers[lxxxi] carried the news that the local radical Shi‘ite governor of the Karbala prefecture had given orders for the convoy to be waved through the check-point without inspection and that all the locals knew that these were Qods Force vehicles. Porter is correct when he says the Americans were highly embarrassed by the attack, but that’s about as far as his accuracy goes. Just like the later incident involving the capture of the 15 British sailors, the IRGC bragged ahead of time[lxxxii] that it could do something of this nature to even the score for the Irbil raid.[lxxxiii] Although my source indicated that the convoy was flagged through the Karbala checkpoint[lxxxiv] without inspection, Steve Schippert’s investigation[lxxxv] of January 26, 2007, provides an excellent open-source based analysis. So too, apparently satellite photos of Iran indicate that the IRGC had constructed a mock-up of the Karbala PJCC facility prior to the attack.[lxxxvi] No, neither Porter nor I have access to classified information; but, however I flip the coin, like Schippert, it lands with the Qods Force being the likely culprit.
Gareth Porter has a long track record of opposition to war; in many ways that is very admirable, if somewhat naïve. However, saying categorically that Iran had no hand in the Karbala incident, and claiming that the White House is now pushing a false story just because General David H. Petraeus would not substantiate earlier press questions about Iranian involvement is not only naiveté in the extreme, but also serves to once again release from culpability a regime that has a 28-year track record of attacking our citizens. I do not speak for the White House or the Pentagon, but I can fully understand General Petraues’ reluctance to indict the Qods Force before being sure that the government was prepared for the possible repercussions.[lxxxvii] Now that overwhelming evidence of Iranian support for attacks on our personnel has been substantiated, there is no reason to deny the evidence of the Qods Force involvement in the Karbala incident, Gareth Porter’s political fantasies notwithstanding.
Although far from exhaustive in coverage of the subject—the Iranian regime having the budget and foresight to employ thousands of agents in its intelligence service—I hope that this exposé serves to call attention to VEVAK’s extensive disinformation campaign and thereby combat it in some small measure. It is essential for us to realize that our conflict with Iran is played out at many levels, and that the public learn to read commentaries, opinion-editorials, and reports with a careful and critical eye. If one asks the crucial question Quo bene? (“Who benefits?”), the author’s motives become clear. When the author protects the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran, even having attacked it, one should suspect VEVAK involvement. Remember Jefferson’s warning: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”[lxxxviii]