Has the U.S. Played a Role in Fomenting Unrest During Iran’s Election?

Posted: July 2nd, 2009 by Militant Libertarian


Following the announcement of victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over his main opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi in Iran’s presidential election on June 12, the country erupted in turmoil as supporters of Mousavi flocked to the streets to protest what they claimed was a fraudulent election, while state security and militia forces cracked down on dissenters, sometimes violently. Iran claimed that the unrest was being fueled by foreign interference, a charge reported but generally dismissed in Western media accounts. But there is ample reason to believe that the U.S. likely had a hand in fomenting the chaos that has since plagued the country many commentators have compared to the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah.
The role of the U.S. in overthrowing the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and installing the brutal regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is by now well known. In his speech in Cairo last month, President Barack Obama even referenced the CIA-backed coup, acknowledging that “In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.”[1]
The U.S. lost their principle ally in the Middle East, however, when the Shah was in turn overthrown as a result of the Islamic revolution that swept the country in 1979, resulting in the clerical regime that continues to this day under Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who took over the title from the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
During the Reagan administration, the U.S. illegally sold arms to the Iranian regime even while supporting Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s devastating war against the Islamic Republic. And while neoconservatives in Washington had their eye on Iran as a target for regime change throughout the Clinton years, it wasn’t until George W. Bush came to be president that a strategy for bringing this about began in earnest. Whether the policy of regime change implemented under Bush has been quashed or continued by the administration of President Barack Obama remains to be seen, but what is incontrovertible is that the U.S. has a long and sordid history of interference in Iranian affairs.
The National Endowment for Democracy
One mechanism by which the U.S. interferes in the internal political affairs of other nations is the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a quasi-governmental agency with funding from both Congress and private individuals whose purpose is to support foreign organizations sympathetic to U.S. foreign policy goals.
NED’s website states that its creation in the early 1980s was “premised on the idea that American assistance on behalf of democracy efforts abroad would be good both for the U.S. and for those struggling around the world for freedom and self-government.”[2]
The idea behind NED was to create an organization to do overtly what the CIA had long been doing clandestinely, and the organization has developed its own history of foreign interference. “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA,” acknowledged Allen Weinstein, one of NED’s founders.[3]
In Nicaragua, for instance, the CIA provoked opposition activities in the hopes that it would prompt an “overreaction” from the Sandinista government. The NED was there, also, providing money to opposition groups while the CIA armed contra terrorists (using money from the sale of arms to Iran, incidentally).[4]
In the Bulgarian elections of 1990, NED spent over $1.5 million in an effort to defeat the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). When the effort failed and the BSP won, NED backed opposition groups that sowed chaos in the streets for months until the president and prime minister finally resigned. [5]
The NED was in Albania supporting the opposition to the communist government that was elected in 1991. Once again, turmoil in the streets led to the collapse of the government, forcing a new election in which the U.S.-backed Democratic Party won.[6]
Between 1990 and 1992, NED financed the Cuban-American National Foundation, an anti-Castro group out of Miami that in turn funded Luis Posada Carriles, a terrorist harbored by the U.S. who was responsible for the bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976 that killed 73 people.[7]
NED was present in Mongolia helping to unite opposition parties under the National Democratic Union to defeat the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party that had won elections in 1992. With backing from NED, the NDU won in 1996 and U.S. media lauded the economic “shock-therapy” that the new pro-West government would implement. Under the new government, the National Security Agency (NSA) also set up shop with listening posts to spy on China. [8]
During the Clinton administration, NED was in Haiti working with the opposition to ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.[9]
And NED was in Venezuela financing the opposition to President Hugo Chavez, including groups involved in the attempted coup in 2002 that nearly succeeded in his overthrow.[10]
NED is also active in Iran, granting hundreds of thousands of dollars to Iranian groups. From 2005 to 2007, NED gave $345,000 to the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation (ABF).[11] The group claims “no political affiliation” on its website, but is named for the founder of the National Movement of the Iranian Resistance (NAMIR), an opposition group to the clerical regime founded in 1980. According to the group’s website, Boroumand was murdered by agents of the Iranian government in Paris, France, in 1991.[12] The website is registered to the Boroumand Foundation, listed at Suite 357, 3220 N ST., NW, Washington, D.C.[13]
Another recipient of NED grants is the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which received $25,000 in 2002, $64,000 in 2005, and $107,000 in 2006. The 2002 grant was to carry out a “media training workshop” to train participants representing various civic groups in public relations. The 2005 money was given in part to “strengthen the capacity of civic organizations in Iran”, including by advising Iranian groups on “foreign donor relations.” The 2006 grant was similarly designed to “foster cooperation between Iranian NGOs and the international civil society community and to strengthen the institutional capacity of NGOs in Iran.”[14]
The group’s president is Dr. Trita Parsi, whose parents fled political repression in Iran when he was four. He studied for his Doctoral thesis at the Johns Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies under Professor Francis Fukuyama.[15]
Fukuyama wrote in 2007 that “Ahmadinejad may be the new Hitler”, but that the use of military force against Iran “looks very unappealing”, and that airstrikes “would not result in regime change”, which was “the only long-term means of stopping” Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.[16] The NIAC similarly opposes the use of military force against Iran, and instead “supports the idea of resolving the problems between the US and Iran through dialogue in order to avoid war.”[17]
Following the Iranian election and subsequent violence, NIAC issued a statement saying that “The only plausible way to end the violence is for new elections to be held with independent monitors ensuring its fairness.”[18]
Last November, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations Mohammad-Javad Zarif charged the U.S. with attempting to orchestrate a “velvet revolution” in Iran. One of the means by which this was being carried out, he said, was by means of workshops. “American officials have been inviting Iranian figures to so-called scientific seminars over the past few years”, he said. “However, when the Iranians attend these sessions, they realize they have gathered to discuss measures to topple the Iranian government”.[19]
The Office of Iranian Affairs
In February, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice requested emergency funding from Congress to the amount of $75 million, on top of a previously allocated $10 million, “to mount the biggest ever propaganda campaign against the Tehran government”, in the words of The Guardian. The money “would be used to broadcast US radio and television programmes into Iran, help pay for Iranians to study in America and support pro-democracy groups inside the country.” The propaganda effort would include “extending the government-run Voice of America’s Farsi service from a few hours a day to round-the-clock coverage.” In announcing the request, Rice said the U.S. “will work to support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom and democracy in their country.”[20]
The Christian Science Monitor reported candidly on the “implicit goal” of the requested funds as being “regime change from within”, and similarly noted that “The money will go toward boosting broadcasts in Farsi to Iran, support for opposition groups, and student exchanges.”
A former specialist on the Middle East from the National Security Council, Raymond Tanter suggested the U.S. could work with an Iranian opposition group, the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK). “If we are serious about working with groups from within,” he said, “it will have to be with the MEK, because there’s no other opposition force the regime cares about.”
Mehdi Marand, a spokesman for the Council for Democratic Change in Iran, similarly said that some in the Congress were ready to remove the MEK from the terrorist list. “If the US really wants to help the democratic forces inside Iran,” he said, “the only way is to remove restrictions from the opposition.”[21]
The problem is that the MEK is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. Based in Iraq, the group came under the sway of the U.S. after the 2003 invasion that overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein.
According to former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who was among a few lone voices pointing out prior to the invasion of Iraq that there was no credible evidence the country still possessed weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. was already working with the MEK. Well prior, in 2005, Ritter wrote that the Bush administration had authorized a number of covert operations inside Iran. “The most visible of these”, he wrote, “is the CIA-backed actions recently undertaken by the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, or MEK, an Iranian opposition group, once run by Saddam Hussein’s dreaded intelligence services, but now working exclusively for the CIA’s Directorate of Operations.” The MEK’s CIA-backed operations within Iran included “terror bombings”, Ritter charged.[22]
A State Department cable unclassified in March, 2006 and entitled “Recruiting the Next Generation of Iran Experts” began by asserting that “Effectively addressing the Iran challenge ranks as one of the highest foreign policy priorities for our Government over the next decade.” The document outlines a plan developed under then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to “promote freedom and demoncracy [sic] in Iran.”
To this end, the State Department created the Office of Iranian Affairs (OIA) under the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, which would “reach out to the Iranian people” and bring more Iran experts into the Foreign Service and more Persian-speaking officers into the OIA, the Intelligence and Research Bureau (INR), and other branches of the State Department. Part of the “outreach” effort would be based in Dubai, a “natural location” for a regional office due to its “proximity to Iran and access to an Iranian diaspora”.[23]
The Dubai office would be modeled on the listening station in the Latvian capital of Riga, according to the document, which was where the U.S. had a listening station to gather information on the Soviet Union during the 1920s (George Kennan was at one time stationed there). The Iranian media has referred to the station as the “regime-change office.” A State Department official based in Dubai said the office’s purpose “is to get a sense of what’s going on in Iran. It is not some recruiting office and is not organizing the next revolution in Iran.”[24]
But the State Department cable also stated that among responsibilities of the Deputy Director of the Dubai station would be to seek “ways to use USG programs and funding to support Iranian political and civic organizations” and “to alert Washington on [the] need to issue statements on behalf of Iranian dissidents.”
The OIA would also create an International Relations Officer Generalist (IROG) position in Istanbul to advance “U.S. policy objectives with the Iranian [expatriate] community” in Turkey and Israel. A similar position would be created for the same purpose in Frankfurt, London, and Baku.[25]
In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times critical of the Bush administration’s designs on Iran, Charles A. Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and Ray Takeyh, also a senior fellow at the CFR, observed that the objective was “not just to contain Tehran’s nuclear ambitions but also to topple the Iranian government.” Their main criticism with the new “strategy for regime change” is that it was likely to “backfire and only strengthen Tehran’s hard-liners” by giving them cause to decry “U.S. ‘interference’” and thus lending them political leverage to implement a crackdown on dissidents.[26]
When asked whether the OIA was intended to promote regime change, a State Department senior official told CNN it was “to facilitate a change in Iranian policies and actions” before acknowledging, “Yes, one of the things we want to develop is a government that reflects the desires of the people, but that is a process for the Iranians.”[27]
Then US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton acknowledged in October 2006 that regime change was the “ultimate objective” of the U.S. sanctions policy, and adding that it “puts pressure on them internally” and “helps democratic forces” within the country and amongst the Iranian diaspora.[28]
Administration officials told the New York Times that then Vice President Dick Cheney was promoting the “drive to bring Iranian scholars and students to America, blanket the country with radio and television broadcasts and support Iranian political dissidents.” The program was to be “overseen by Elizabeth Cheney, a principal deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, who is also the vice president’s daughter.”[29]
A Washington Post article on the new office noted money would be spent on “opposition activities” and observed that “Although administration officials do not use the term ‘regime change’ in public, that in effect is the goal they outline as they aim to build resistance to the theocracy.” The Post also noted that a “setback” for the Bush administration had come when Congress cut $19 million from the funding that would mainly affect broadcast operations, thus affecting plans to increase Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts into Iran to 24-hours a day.[30]
The Financial Times reported in April, 2006 that the effort was being coordinated with the U.K. and noted that criticism of the administration’s strategy included some of the same Iranians the program was designed to bolster. “Serious Iranian opposition politicians are virtually unanimous in saying that foreign funding of activities designed to promote democracy, especially by the US or UK, would be counter-productive”, the Financial Times reported. The article also quoted Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a press adviser to President Ahmadinejad, as saying that Iranians are “alert” to the “propaganda of enemies”.[31]
In May, the Los Angeles Times reported that the OIA was headed by David Denehy, a specialist at the International Republican Institute (IRI).[32] The IRI has been a recipient of NED funds, and was active in Venezuela, including the year of the attempted coup, when the IRI received $299,999 from NED to “train” political parties (including the IRI, over $1 million in grants was given by NED to groups operating in Venezuela in 2002).[33]
NIAC president Trita Parsi explained the goal of the U.S. policy by saying, “The administration is trying to make regime change through democratization the policy, instead of making confrontation by military means the policy.”
The L.A. Times also reported that “at the Pentagon, an Iranian directorate will work with the State Department office to undercut the government in Tehran.” The new Iranian directorate, the report noted, “has been set up inside its policy shop, which previously housed the Office of Special Plans [OSP]”.[34]
The OSP was the office headed by Douglas Feith that was created to bypass the normal intelligence review process and stovepipe information bolstering the policy of regime change in Iraq, including information from Iraqi dissidents like Ahmad Chalabi, who was afforded little credibility outside Feith’s office.
In an article for Rolling Stone, author James Bamford revealed how a member of Feith’s cabal at the OSP, Michael Ledeen, set up a meeting with Iranian dissidents to further the goal of regime change in Iran. Ledeen had served as the Reagan administration’s intermediary with Israel during the illegal arms deal that became known as the Iran-Contra Affair.
At the meeting in Rome, Ledeen, along with Larry Franklin and Harold Rhode, met with an Iranian named Manucher Ghorbanifer in a safehouse provided by Nicolò Pollari, the director of Italy’s Military Intelligence and Security Service (SISMI). Pollari had just months before been responsible for providing to that Bush administration what would later be revealed to have been fabricated documents purporting to show that Saddam Hussein had obtained yellowcake uranium from Africa. The men discussed the possibility of using the MEK to further their goal of regime change in Iran, according to Bamford’s sources who were familiar with the meeting.
Additionally, Larry Franklin, who worked under Feith in the OSP, later met with two other men “who were also looking for ways to push the U.S. into a war with Iran.” The two men were Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). With the FBI watching, Franklin illegally passed classified information on a National Security Presidential Directive dealing with U.S. policy on Iran to AIPAC with the goal of having the influential Israeli lobby exert pressure on the White House to adopt the draft directive.
In the July 24 article, Bamford wrote, “Over the past six months, the administration has adopted almost all of the hard-line stance advocated by the war cabal in the Pentagon…. To back up the tough talk, the State Department is spending $66 million to promote political changes inside Iran—funding the same kind of dissident groups that helped drive the U.S. to war in Iraq.”
Writing in the New York Times Magazine in June, 2007, Negar Azimi wrote about how the Iranian newspaper Kayhan “editorializes almost daily about an elaborate network conspiring to topple the regime. Called ‘khaneh ankaboot,’ or ‘the spider nest,’ the network is reportedly bankrolled by the $75 million and includes everyone from George Soros to George W. Bush to Francis Fukuyama to dissident Iranians of all shades.”
Azimi added, “If the spider’s nest had a headquarters, it might well be the Office of Iranian Affairs, which sits on the second floor of the State Department” and “was charged with outlining, in close consultation with Denehy, how to spend the democracy fund.”
$36.1 million of the funds was to go to VOA Persian and Radio Farda. VOA has often featured Reza Pahlavi, son of the former Shah, who now lives in Maryland. On April 1, 2007, VOA featured the head of the Balochi terrorist group Jundallah, Abdel Malek Rigi, who was “introduced as the leader of an armed national resistance group.”
Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who previously had worked for three years at Radio Farda, told Azimi that the VOA’s new administrators “do not seem to be able to distinguish between journalism and propaganda…. If you host the head of Jundallah and call him a freedom fighter or present a Voice of America run by monarchists, Iranians are going to stop listening.”[35]
U.S. Covert Operations in Iran
In April, 2006, investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh wrote in the New Yorker magazine that “The Bush Administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack.”
A source with ties to the Pentagon told Hersh that American units were operating in Iran and “working with minority groups in Iran, including the Azeris, in the north, the Balochis, in the southeast, and the Kurds, in the northeast.” The principle goal was to “‘encourage ethnic tensions’ and undermine the regime.”[36]
Asia Times Online reported shortly thereafter that a “former Iranian ambassador and Islamic Republic insider” had provided details “about US covert operations inside Iran aimed at destabilizing the country and toppling the regime – or preparing for an American attack.” According to the source, “The Iranian government knows and is aware of such infiltration.”
Richard Sale, intelligence correspondent for United Press International, corroborated the charges made by Hersh, saying that “The Iranian accusations are true,” but that “it is being done on such a small scale – a series of pinpricks – it would seem to have no strategic value at all.”
The Asia Times Online article continued, noting recent unrest in Iranian ethnic minority communities, including amongst Kurdish, Arab, and Balochi populations. In one incident “in late January, a previously unknown Sunni Muslim group called Jundallah (Soldier of Allah) captured nine Iranian soldiers in the remote badlands of Sistan-Balochistan province that borders Afghanistan and Pakistan.”[37]
In July, Seymour Hersh repeated in an interview with NPR that the U.S. was supporting anti-regime terrorist groups including the MEK, Jundallah, and the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK). “The strategic thinking behind this covert operation is to provoke enough trouble and chaos so that the Iranian government makes the mistake of taking aggressive action which will give the impression of a country in acute turmoil”, Hersh said, in order to give the White House a casus belli.[38]
In a July 29 article, Scott Ritter wrote that “American taxpayer dollars are being used, with the permission of Congress, to fund activities that result in Iranians being killed and wounded, and Iranian property destroyed…. The CIA today provides material support to the actions of the MEK inside Iran. The recent spate of explosions in Iran … appears to be linked to an MEK operation….”[39]
Hersh wrote another article in the New Yorker in November noting that the Pentagon was increasingly conducting covert operations that had traditionally been the CIA’s domain and giving further details about its activities in Iran. “In the past six months, Israel and the United States have been working together in support of a Kurdish resistance group known as the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan”, which has conducted raids into Iran. He repeated that the “Pentagon has established covert relationships with Kurdish, Azeri, and Balochi tribesman, and has encouraged their efforts to undermine the regime’s authority in northern and southeastern Iran.”[40]
On Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh joined Scott Ritter in a conversation about the topic of Ritter’s book, Target Iran: The Truth About the White House’s Plans for Regime Change, which claimed the U.S. was conducting operations in Iran using the MEK. Ritter said the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad was building a station in Azerbaijan to work with Iran’s Azeri population and was also working closely with the MEK.[41]
On February 27, 2007, the London Telegraph reported, “America is secretly funding militant ethnic separatist groups in Iran in an attempt to pile pressure on the Islamic regime to give up its nuclear program.
“In a move that reflects Washington’s growing concern with the failure of diplomatic initiatives, CIA officials are understood to be helping opposition militias among the numerous ethnic minority groups clustered in Iran’s border regions.
“The operations are controversial because they involve dealing with movements that resort to terrorist methods in pursuit of their grievances against the Iranian regime.
“In the past year there has been a wave of unrest in ethnic minority border areas of Iran, with bombing and assassination campaigns against soldiers and government officials.
“Such incidents have been carried out by the Kurds in the west, the Azeris in the north-west, the Ahwazi Arabs in the south-west, and the Balochis in the south-east.”
A former high-ranking CIA official told the Telegraph that the CIA’s funding for opposition and separatist groups was “no great secret”.

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