by Muhammad Sahimi
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a neoconservative organization in Washington founded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has long been obsessed with Iran and has vocally opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement between Iran and 5+1 group of nations. While much is known about FDD CEO Mark Dubowitz—whose purported “defense of democracies” has been undermined by his recent calls for “inclusive authoritarianism” in the Middle East—his right-hand man on Iran, Saeed Ghasseminejad, has gone largely unnoticed. And yet, Ghasseminejad has played a key role providing the fodder for FDD’s and Dubowitz’s wild exaggerations and dubious claims that have been instrumental in the Donald Trump administration’s push towards war with Iran.
Ghasseminejad is a player in Iran’s “fake opposition,” people who support economic sanctions and military pressure against Iran. The politics of this faux opposition stand in stark contrast to “true opposition” groups within Iran and their supporters in the diaspora, which is comprised of a broad coalition of labor and teachers’ unions, human rights groups, women’s rights and social activists, radical reformists, nationalists, secular leftists, and religious-nationalists.
Ghasseminejad was a civil engineering student at the University of Tehran, which—with the exception of the short-lived government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1951-1953—has always been a hotbed of anti-government activities. In 2002 Ghasseminejad and another student, Amir-Hossein Etemadi, a U.S.-based supporter of Reza Pahlavi, the son of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, published a student newsletter called Farda [“tomorrow”] in which they espoused “liberalism,” by which they meant military adventures of the kind envisioned by neoconservative supporters of “liberal intervention” in order to spread democracy by force. Ghasseminejad supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and in an article entitled “Why the U.S. will attack Iran,” he implicitly advocated military attacks against his native country.
In June 2003, after sporadic demonstrations against the government in Tehran, Ghasseminejad was detained briefly. In a press conference after his release, he apologized to Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, promised to be “a good citizen,” and stopped his political activities. Two years later, in the spring of 2005 Ghasseminejad and a small group of other students began publishing another newsletter called Talangar [roughly, “wake-up call”], which focused on criticizing leftist students and the newsletters that they were publishing.
Despite expressing his “love” for democracy and human rights and presenting himself as a “classic liberal,” Ghasseminejad has repeatedly embraced authoritarianism. In an article, entitled “What do we learn from Lenin,” published in Talangar, he expressed admiration for Vladimir Lenin and his concept of “democratic centralism.” He once referred to Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, as “the departed dear [leader] who saved Chile … and was much better than Salvador Allende,” the Chilean Socialist President who, similar to Mosaddegh in 1953, was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup in 1973.
Ghasseminejad also spoke out in favor of the slaughter of Egyptians during protests after the coup by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013, writing in his Facebook page, “I just thought I should come to Facebook and express my appreciation for the Egyptian Army cleansing the streets of the criminal Islamic fundamentalists.” He added, “As a matter of fact, the right question is not why the Egyptian Army cleans Egypt of Islamist beasts, rather why the Iranian army allowed the Islamists to take control of our country” during the Iranian Revolution.
Hence, Ghasseminejad has demonstrated that not only is he ignorant of Iran’s history, but also that he does not care about the slaughter of his own compatriots, since at least 3,000 people were killed during the Iranian revolution by the army. In addition, Ghasseminejad and his ilk have remained silent about the dictatorship of el-Sisi and the fact that Egypt now has tens of thousands of political prisoners.
After the U.S. Invasion of Iraq, Ghasseminejad began espousing the idea that “the engine for Iran’s political and social developments has been transferred to outside the country, and its democracy movement has been tied to the political developments in the Middle East and the U.S. interest and policy toward the region.” He left Iran in 2008, ostensibly for continuing his education, first moving to France and then to the United States. Since arriving in the U.S., he has relentlessly advocated economic sanctions and war against Iran.
In an open letter to President Obama in November of 2011, Ghasseminejad and like-minded “liberals” wrote, “We all know that the world’s inaction over the past decade led to the creation of a nuclear-armed North Korea. We believe that the Islamic Republic of Iran getting nuclear and other types of unconventional weapon would be repeating the same mistake, and must be prevented.” The letter warned that Iran’s response to Obama’s efforts at negotiation was “advancing its nuclear program toward weapon making.”
This was clearly false, as four years earlier in November of 2007 the National Intelligence Estimate had declared that if Iran did have an active program of research for making nuclear weapons, it stopped it in 2003, an assertion that was reconfirmed in 2010 and 2012.
Ghasseminejad has clearly and repeatedly laid out his misleading, notoriously hawkish, and frequently patently false vision of Iranian politics in a series of articles he has written over the last decade.
In various articles published prior to the JCPOA, for example, Ghasseminejad’s constant theme was that Iran has a military nuclear program, and that military confrontation with Iran will ultimately be unavoidable. In an article published by the now-defunct Persian website Rooz, he wrote, “Ultimately, sanctions will not force Iran to give up its program for nuclear weapons. … Making nuclear weapons is a goal that Iran will not stop pursuing. … The international community must choose between a nuclear Iran and confronting it militarily. I believe the world will not accept a nuclear Iran and, therefore, we will move toward military confrontation.”
After the IAEA issued a report in November 2011 about Iran’s nuclear program, Ghasseminejad and a group of like-minded Iranians issued an inaccurate statement declaring that “The new report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) presents evidence that the [Iranian] government’s determined efforts for diverting its nuclear program to a military one have reached a decisive stage.” The statement also contained a brazen lie: “Through a hostile discourse and not cooperating with the Agency the current rulers increase day by day the possibility of military confrontation with Iran.” This was while Iran’s program had been under tight inspection by the IAEA since February 2003.
In a joint interview with the Clarion Project, an ultra-right website, Ghasseminejad and Sara Akrami, an occasional contributor to David Horowitz’s FrontPagemag.com and Huffpost, stated: “Imagine the time when the Iranian government achieves its dream of completing its so-called ‘peaceful nuclear program’ or, what we call it, a nuclear bomb. The entire region will definitely be set on fire.”
After President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel as his Defense Secretary in January 2013, writing in Times of Israel, Ghasseminejad declared, “The mere prospect that Hagel will fill the job is already harming efforts to convince Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program; it sends Iran a signal that President Obama is not serious about his stated opposition to the regime’s nuclear weapons program.”
Ghasseminejad presents himself as an expert on economic corruption in Iran. Khamenei is, of course, a dictator, and by helping former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad come to power he was instrumental in abetting the systemic corruption that the Ahmadinejad administration left behind, which is why a very large majority of Iranian people despise both men. Thus, given what the public already knows, there is no need to exaggerate anything or lie about the corruption. But, even here, Ghasseminejad lies. For example, he has propagated the notion that Khamenei’s wealth is close to $100 billion, which is supposedly stolen from the Iranian people. The reality, however, is quite different. The Islamic Republic’s Constitution has bestowed upon Khamenei the control on several large foundations whose assets are worth about $100 billion. But, the assets are not Khamenei’s and belong to the state. He appoints their directors and other key figures. While the Rouhani administration has no control over these foundations, ever since he was elected in 2013, Rouhani has been pressing them to pay taxes on their net income, with some recent success as the idea of paying taxes has been accepted, although the amount of tax has not been decided yet.
Ghasseminejad’s campaign of falsehoods continued up until the JCPOA was signed in July 2015, which temporarily silenced the “fake opposition.” But, after President Trump was elected in 2016 and made it clear that he would take the U.S. out of the JCPOA, Ghasseminejad and his ilk suddenly intensified their campaign again.
Ghasseminejad has also been linked to a possibly illegal State Department-funded propaganda project that specialized in attacking Iranian and Iranian-American individuals and groups in the United States opposed to hawkish policies against Iran. Citing Congressional sources who had received a closed-door briefing by State officials, The Independent reported last month that “one individual” from FDD “is part of the E-Collaborative for Civic Education’s Iran Disinformation Project.” Revelations of the project’s funding and work became so embarrassing to the Trump administration that the State Department had to suspend its funding, said to be $1.5 million per year. Negar Mortazavi, the lead author of the Independent article, told LobeLog that she was told by one of the Congressional staff who attended the briefing that the individual was indeed Ghasseminejad and that he “worked for” one of the project directors, Iranian-American activist Mariam Memarsadeghi. Several of his pieces have, at least, been cross-posted at both the Iran Disinformation Project and FDD’s website.
In addition to attacking Iranians who oppose confrontation with Iran, Memarsadeghi has made little secret of her own wishes for war with Iran. She has has argued that “war is a prelude to peace” and once delivered a speech in which she said “If we take a look at history, [we see that] war has always been the beginning of improving lives and [the state] of countries and nations. … War is certainly terrible [and] we should try not to ever get there, but for many, for a variety of conditions, regaining their human dignity is not possible without war. I would also like to add that peace by itself, peace for the sake of peace, is very boring. As Mark Twain said, why would I go to heaven; I’ll be bored there [Twain did not actually say that].” That Ghasseminejad would choose to work on a project with her would suggest that FDD’s top Iran expert holds similar extremist views. FDD, it should be noted, has denied any organizational connection with the Iran Disinformation Project.
More recently, as Trump has shifted to declaring that he does not want war with Iran, the “fake opposition” has begun changing its tune … again. When Ghasseminejad writes in Farsi, he sounds like a moderate, writing on Twitter, “The sanctions will weaken the Islamic Republic. Increasing diplomatic pressure will weaken it. Military pressure against it in the region will weaken it. [But] none of them will topple the Islamic Republic. Ultimately, it is up to the Iranian nation to either topple it or live with it.” Immediately after this tweet, writing in English, Ghasseminejad claimed that “Tehran sees its attacks in the Persian Gulf have made Washington more eager to negotiate & its tone softer; it also notices an army of commentators try hard to argue that Tehran could not be behind the attacks. The only conclusion Tehran can make is that attacks are working.” In other words, Washington should get even tougher with Iran.
The net result of efforts by Ghasseminejad and others in Iran’s “fake opposition,” aside from getting them high-paying jobs with lavish budgets, is the creation of false narratives about Iran that serve their push for military confrontation. They pretend that there is no opposition within Iran to Khamenei and hardliners—hence, war and sanctions are viewed as the only way to topple the regime. They claim that moderates and reformists support Khamenei and present “an acceptable face” for him, a false claim espoused by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. However, there are in fact extensive discussions within Iran among reformists and other political groups about boycotting the parliamentary elections in early 2020, unless they are free. After scattered demonstrations in December of 2017 and January of 2018, the “fake opposition” made false claims about the extent of the support for the demonstration, whereas the middle class, the engine for the democratic Green Movement of 2009-2011, stayed home and did not join the demonstrations, because it did not want Iran to become the next Syria. Finally, the harsh illegal economic sanctions that Ghasseminejad and FDD have been supporting have forced the true opposition in Iran to constantly wage battle on two fronts. One against Iran’s hardliners and Khamenei, and a second one against the destructive effect of the sanctions and the threat of war on Iran’s economy and their daily lives.
Muhammad Sahimi is a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles