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Gunning for Iran – the Mujahedin-e-Khalq

“Gunning for Iran”

Dateline, SBS Television. 11th April 2006

This story looks at the shadowy Iranian opposition group the Mujahedin-e-Khalk, (MeK), and their role in publicizing so called intelligence “revelations” about Iran’s nuclear program.  The MeK is considered a terrorist organization and a cult by many, yet powerful figures in Washington DC are seemingly prepared to work with them.

TRANSCRIPT

11th April 2006.

You must’ve heard the howls of protest from the International Atomic Energy Agency after the release of a US House of Representatives report on Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA branded the American report “outrageous and dishonest” for asserting that Tehran’s nuclear plans were geared towards weapons. This, of course, was just the latest flare-up in the running debate over Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions. So where is Washington getting its information?

Try an Iranian opposition group known as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq – MeK for short. Given the debacle over Saddam’s non-existent WMDs in Iraq, you’d reckon there’d have to be a touch of caution where Iranian exiles peddling nuclear secrets are concerned. But as Bronwyn Adcock tells it, when the MeK speaks, Washington hardliners listen.

Three weeks ago in New York, journalists were summoned to this hotel for a press conference. It has been organised by this man – Alireza Jafarzadeh, an Iranian exile who regularly reveals what he claims is inside information on Iran’s nuclear program.

ALIREZA JAFARZADEH, MUJAHEDIN-E-KHALQ LOBBYIST: I would like to share with you today the information I’ve gotten from the very same sources that have proven accurate in the past.

Today, Jafarzadeh announces he’s discovered an apparently sinister new development.

ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: A very important aspect of the Iran regime’s nuclear weapons program is actually laser enrichment, and the information I’ve gotten from my sources today suggests that Iran is heavily involved in laser enrichment program.

As always, the information is incredibly detailed, with maps, names and addresses. Since 2002, Jafarzadeh and the Iranian opposition group he’s connected to, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MeK, have made nearly 20 intelligence revelations, in press conferences from Paris to New York, Washington and London.

ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: And they are scheduled to be able to get the bomb by 2005.

The MeK revelations have had an extraordinary impact, sparking inspections in Iran by the nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. According to the MeK, Iran is building a nuclear bomb, and the world should be very afraid.

ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: I think the world has to take the Iranian regime’s threat very, very seriously. These ayatollahs believe in what they say, believe that they can eliminate Israel off the map, they can eliminate the superpowers.

According to this Iranian opposition group, there is only one solution.

ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: You need to slay the dragon. This is the solution. You need to slay the dragon, which means regime change.

The MeK is playing a key role in what’s shaping up as one of the critical contests of our time – the stand-off between the US and Iran, played out here at the United Nations General Assembly two weeks ago.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH AT UN: Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.

AHMADINEJAD, IRAN PRESIDENT AT UN, (Translation): All our nuclear activities are transparent and peaceful and fully overseen by the IAEA

CROWD: Down with terrorist! Ahmadinejad terrorist! Down with terrorist!

Outside the United Nations that day Alireza Jafarzadeh and the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, are again trying to get their opinion heard.

ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: Obtaining the bomb, the nuclear bomb would unquestionably give Tehran the upper hand in the region.

And some powerful forces in the West are listening. The MeK’s main backer in Washington is a newly formed think tank called the Iran Policy Committee, headed by a former Reagan White House official, Professor Raymond Tanter.

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER, IRAN POLICY COMMITTEE: The regime change clock has to start. Right now, the regime change clock is not even ticking.

In the Iran Policy Committee, Professor Tanter has created a powerful grouping of former CIA, Pentagon and White House officials. At forums like this briefing on Capitol Hill, the group is trying to convince the American Government that the MeK can help them achieve the goal of regime change.

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: We didn’t choose the Mujahedin-e-Khalq. The data hit us between the eyes. The analysis passes what I call ‘the interocular test’ – it hits you right between the eyes. I invented that phrase.

CROWD (Translation): Ahmadinejad terrorist! Ahmadinejad terrorist! Down with the terrorist!

But for some, the sight of exile groups bearing gifts of intelligence for the West just brings back bad memories.

PROFESSOR GARY SICK, COLOMBIA UNIVERSITY: In the past, on Iraq, we were fed a lot of false information to try to get our attention and to get us to do what we did. We bought it, and I have a very hard time understanding how anybody can maintain a straight face and say, “Again,” we should do the same thing all over again.

Professor Gary Sick has served on the National Security Council under three presidents. He was the principle White House aide for Iran during the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, and has followed the country closely ever since. He’s extremely sceptical about the MeK.

PROFESSOR GARY SICK: When people get enthusiastic about this, I just have to look at the history of the organisation, the way it’s behaved, the way it’s done all of the things that it’s done, and I simply can’t see it, I really can’t see it. I find it very difficult to explain why people would get so enthusiastic about this group.

The MeK does have an extraordinary history. A militant left-wing movement, it participated in the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah. But afterwards, when the ayatollahs took power, the MeK began fighting the new regime.
It carried out bombings that killed senior Islamic leaders, and many of its members were executed.
In the 1980s it moved its military base to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. From here at Camp Ashraf it launched attacks across the border, and successfully carried out assassinations and bombings within Iran. The MeK’s military heyday has long since passed. Less than 3,000 fighters remain in a camp now guarded by Americans. What’s more, the group’s often violent past has left it officially listed as a terrorist organisation in the United States, the European Union and Australia.
The real action for the MeK now is in the West, where a bevy of lobbyists is operating, including Ali Safavi here in London. Safavi has devoted most of his adult life to the MeK struggle. Now he’s working to get the group taken off the terrorist list. His office located around the corner from parliament.

ALI SAFAVI, NATIONAL COUNCIL OF RESISTANCE OF IRAN: And obviously the office is very close so that it would be more convenient, both for us and for them.

Being listed as a terrorist organisation stands between the MeK and real political credibility. Safavi claims the group was only put on the list by governments trying to win favour with Iran.

ALI SAFAVI: It has nothing to do with the nature, with the conduct, or the activities of the Mujahedin. It is basically a bargaining chip.

Ali Safavi is trying to convince the West of the apparently impressive democratic credentials of the MeK and its political wing, the NCRI.

ALI SAFAVI: The NCRI basically advocates a secular, democratic form of government, a government that is based on the separation of church and the state or mosque and state, if you will.

Leading the concerted charm offensive is the group’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, who’s based in Paris. She’s offering up an enticing proposition to the West.

MARYAM RAJAVI, (Translation): Today I’ve come to tell you that the international community doesn’t have to choose between mullahs with an atomic bomb and war. A third way exists. A democratic change by the Iranian people and organised resistance.

Maryam Rajavi says if the MeK is just taken off the terrorist list, it will be a sign for the people of Iran to rise up and overthrow their government. It’s this proposition that’s winning support with the Iran Policy Committee in Washington and in parliaments around the West.
Here at the European Parliament, British Conservative MP Brian Binley tells a group of MeK supporters that the majority of the House of Commons and 130 members in the House of Lords are behind the group.

BRIAN BINLEY, BRITISH CONSERVATIVE MP: Because they are the antithesis of the dictatorial fundamentalists that rule in modern-day Iran today, and, indeed, the very antithesis of a regime that I believe poses the greatest threat to global security that we face as a global people.

Binlay was converted to the cause after being approached by an MeK supporter in the halls of Parliament.

BRIAN BINLEY: I met with a gentleman called Nasser, who is a supporter of the National Council, and we talked. And he works in and around the House, as a lobbyist, I suppose you would say. And we talked, and I liked what he had to say, and, more importantly, what he had to say seemed credible in the way that I’ve just explained.

PROFESSOR GARY SICK: These are people who really believe that Iran…the regime should be changed, that this regime of mullahs should be done away with. And you look around, and you don’t see any other place where you can put a lever. And I must say for the Mujahedin, to give them full credit, they are very good at their propaganda.

According to Gary Sick, the MeK’s origins at the time of the revolution were anything but democratic.

PROFESSOR GARY SICK: There, too, they weren’t talking about democracy, they were talking about power, and who took over. And there was certainly no sign from where I sat in the White House that these people were in any way trying to bring democracy to Iran. They were trying to get rid of the group that had taken over and install themselves in power. And I think that pretty well describes what they’ve been doing ever since.

Massoud Khodabeanedeh says that the MeK is not only undemocratic but that internally, it operates like a cult. Now living in the United Kingdom, Khodabeanedeh was a high-level member for more than 15 years.

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH, FORMER MEK MEMBER: They have a charismatic leader, they use psychological methods to convince people and keep people. Their wealth is always serving the leader, not the people. They try to get the money out of the people and keep it. They cut people from their past, their family. They are very restrictive in that way. There is Maryam and Massoud and me, as his bodyguard.

Khodabeanedeh worked as security for the MeK’s leadership in Iraq but left after becoming disenchanted. He is now one of the most outspoken critics of the organisation.

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: Later on it came to these sessions of self-confession, which again, is a cult… every cult has got it – which you have to come, and every day come to the meeting, explain what you have been thinking about, or what even you have been dreaming about, and even if you don’t have, they will hint that you have to lie, you have to make up something. So the collective pressure would be on you and they purify you.

REPORTER: So all women wore headscarves?

ANNE: Yeah. It was a part of the uniform. It was actually the uniform.

Massoud Khodabanedeh’s wife, Anne, was also a member for seven years, inspired to join by an Iranian boyfriend and an interest in Islam.

ANNE: I became full-time in 1990. After going on hunger strike for two weeks, I was on a real high and I devoted myself to them. And that devotion was encouraged, and I was told at some point fairly early on that all you have to do is choose your leader and follow that leader. And you don’t have to make any decisions. And that leader, of course, was Maryam Rajavi.

Both Anne and Massoud say that in order to encourage devotion to the leadership family relationships were discouraged.

ANNE: When it actually comes to being a liberating movement for women, I would say just the opposite pertains, that they forced women to separate from their children, forced women to divorce their spouse, they forced them to give up any thought of having a normal family life and family relationship. Even relationships with their siblings in the same organisation are, well, banned really. You might meet them but you can’t be a sibling, you can’t show more closeness to them you would show to Maryam Rajavi.

The MeK leadership totally rejects these allegations and accuses Massoud Khodabanedeh of being on the payroll of Iranian intelligence. A charge he in turn denies. An even more serious allegation, though, concerns the group’s relationship with Saddam Hussein during its 15 years in Iraq. This recently revealed footage shows Massoud Rajavi, the husband of Maryam and co-leader of the MeK, with the former Iraqi dictator.

ALI SAFAVI: The Mujahedin were forced to relocate in Iraq, and in the years they were in Iraq, from 1986 onwards, they were completely independent of their host, both in political terms, in ideological terms, in organisational terms and in military terms.

REPORTER: So there was no collaboration between the Mujahedin and Saddam?

ALI SAFAVI: Absolutely not.

However, many sources, including the US State Department dispute this, saying Iraq supplied the MeK with weapons and received military assistance from the Iranian exiles. Former member Massoud Khodabanedeh says that after the first Gulf War in 1991 Saddam’s security chief, Taha Yassin Ramadan, asked the MeK to help suppress the Kurds.

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: The way that it was done, I remember that in the meetings with Taha Yassin Ramadan, who was in favour of Mujahedin, and who very much praised the Mujahedin for their loyalty. He divided the forces because he didn’t have much forces after the war in ’91, so he had only enough to suppress the uprising in the south, so he left the north in hands of Rajavi.

Massoud says he saw first-hand a Kurdish village that had been destroyed by the Mujahedin.

REPORTER: What happened to the village?

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: It was just flattened down, the whole village. Villages in Iraq are small villages, and with say 20 tanks, you can see what damage can be done. But it was deliberately flattened.

REPORTER: And this was done by the Mujahedin?

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: By the Mujahedin. They were there when I was passing the tanks and victoriously celebrating.

Massoud also says that during his time with the MeK its members were fed a diet of anti-imperialist and anti-American propaganda. He believes now they’re trying to reinvent themselves for a new, Western benefactor.

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: Especially when they went to Iraq, they didn’t see that one day Saddam would fall so they have openly been anti-Western all the years that they were there relying on Saddam. Any democratic face that they put is a false face.

REPORTER: Why do you think they are putting on this false face now?

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: There is no other choice. After Saddam falls, there is no other choice.

The MeK denies this aspect of its past. It says that anyone making such allegations is being either directly or indirectly influenced by Iranian intelligence.

ALI SAFAVI: It is far more than a bit of a propaganda campaign. In fact the Iranian regime has spent hundreds of millions of dollars engaging in propaganda.

In Washington, the MeK’s main American backers also reject any criticism.

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: We are familiar with all the allegations and we have looked at all these allegations and we have found them to be baseless. And we’re smart, we’re not idiots. I’m a professor at the University of Michigan and Georgetown University and I think I can tell whether a person is saying something to dupe me. And Human Rights Watch and various others who say the MeK and NCRI are changing their face in order to appeal to groups like the Iran Policy Committee haven’t done their research.

While the MeK and their supporters say they’ve nothing in its history to be ashamed of, experts say that’s not how it’s viewed in its homeland.

PROFESSOR GARY SICK: They are certainly despised, there’s no two ways about that. They are seen as turncoats, they are seen as traitors, people who joined Iran’s enemies to try to overthrow the government.

For a group claiming it can make the Iranian population rise up and overthrow the government, this apparent lack of internal legitimacy is a major problem.

REPORTER: How much support do you have in Iran, in numbers?

ALI SAFAVI: Well, you know that our movement from day one has called for free elections under UN supervision. I think if such an election were held, without question… our movement would get most of the votes.

DOHKI FASSIHIAN: The claim that the MeK would actually win any support or win any elections inside Iran is really preposterous.

Dokhi Fassihian is the former executive director of the National Iranian American Council, a non-partisan group. She spent much of the 1990s in Iran and knows the political scene well.

DOHKI FASSIHIAN: In fact they are hated and detested in Iran because of their role in siding with the Iraqis in the very, very long and bloody Iran-Iraq war. And so, I would say that even more so than Iranian Americans, Iranians inside Iran really do hate the MeK and really don’t understand why some governments and some officials abroad can support such an undemocratic group and such a violent group.

Political credentials aside, the strongest claim the MeK has on Western attention is its intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program.

REPORTER: How good are your sources, your intelligence from Iran?

ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: Well, the intelligence is the best that exists anywhere. The best track record in terms of intelligence regarding Iran comes from the sources of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq and the NCRI. It wasn’t the intelligence community of the US, or Britain, or other Western countries that discovered Natanz.

The MeK’s biggest claim to fame has been its revelation in 2002 that Iran had a secret nuclear site at a place called Natanz. After the announcement, the International Atomic Energy Agency confronted Iran and Iran opened the site for inspection.

DAVID ALBRIGHT, INSTITUTE OF SCIENCE AND INTERNATIONAL SECURITY: So I think the Iranian opposition group, what they did, their real contribution was to start a chain of events where Iran had to admit that it had its secret gas centrifuge program and other secret nuclear programs, and help get the IAEA into Iran to start uncovering a whole set of misleading statements or hidden facilities in Iran. This building was sized to hold 1,000 centrifuges, but could actually hold more.

David Albright is a physicist and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington DC. He’s an expert on secret nuclear weapons programs throughout the world. While he credits the MeK with bringing Natanz to the world’s attention, the site was not in breech of the Non-Proliferation treaty. Albright also says later revelations have not proven as useful.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Since then, their record has been a lot more mixed and a lot of revelations about things going on, related to making nuclear weapons. IAEA went to one place and found nothing. There was some equipment that was imported, they said it was related to nuclear weapons. It turned out on analysis it wasn’t even suitable for use on a nuclear weapons program. So I think that you have to read beyond the detail and try to make sense out of it, and often it doesn’t make any, or it’s just speculation.

Dateline also understands that the IAEA has examined much of the intelligence provided by the MeK and its political wing, the NCRI, and while it agrees several early claims were on target, the rest have been unreliable.

REPORTER: All their revelations paint a picture of Iran having an incredibly advanced nuclear weapons program. Would you agree with that assessment?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: It’s relative to what? I mean, compared to Iraq, which had nothing, yeah, it’s quite advanced. Are they close to building a bomb? Most assessments, including our own, are that no, they are not.

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: No-one knows whether the revelations are true so how can one make a statement that the NCRI-MeK revelations are off? Intelligence people say this, but they don’t back it up. Because journalists don’t do a good job in querying them. “What is your evidence?” “Oh, I can’t say.” Hello, that’s not right.

REPORTER: But by the same token, if the NCRI holds a press conference saying, “Look we’ve got these documents, we know this information,” and there’s nothing else to back it up, how can you be sure that’s true?

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: Look, intelligence is an art. What you need is to use the NCRI-MeK allegations as lead information, which you compare with info you acquire independently.

REPORTER: But if revelations are being made, and they’re not proven, and they’re put out there in the media and put out there as a case for regime change, and they’re not actually substantiated, isn’t that alarmist?

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: How do you prove revelations with a totalitarian Islamist fascist regime?

The MeK knows that hardliners in Washington are desperate for any information that will confirm their suspicions of Iran.

PROFESSOR GARY SICK: So if the MeK is trying to get credibility as a group that the US should cooperate with in trying to overthrow the regime, focusing on the nuclear side is an absolutely logical place for them to focus, so I don’t blame them for doing that. I think that’s an area that is going to attract attention, it’s going to get them a following, and it will attract the attention of people in Washington.

According to former member Massoud Khodabanedeh, the MeK is just trying to stay alive.

MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: They want to survive. They are saying, “Take us off.” The end game is “Take us off the list of terrorism and use us.”

And in a clear convergence of interests, Professor Tanter from the Iran Policy Committee is happy to help.

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: I am not a lobbyist for the MeK and the NCRI, I’m a lobbyist for America, which is different. You keep asking me questions which imply that I am trying to push the MeK on to people.

REPORTER: But you are promoting their cause, you’re trying to get them off…

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: I am not promoting their cause, I am promoting American interests. There is a difference.

REPORTER: You’re not suggesting they are necessarily a good replacement government, you are saying rather they are a good tool for Western interests?

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: That’s what you asked me, they are a tool for Western interests, yes. They are accused of being a tool of Western interests by the regime. It’s true!

REPORTER: And they are a tool for Western interests?

PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: Yes! They want to be a part of the West.

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Ahmadinejad’s Iran

“Ahmadinejad’s Iran”

Dateline, SBS Television. 4th April 2007

This report from inside Iran canvasses the views of everyone from the Iranian Foreign Minister, high profile economists, down to the man on the street. What we find is overwhelming support for  Iran’s nuclear program but growing unease at the parlous state of the economy and the confrontational style of President Ahmadinejad.

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TRANSCRIPT

REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock

Ever since Iran elected a new president nearly two years ago I’ve been applying for a visa to come here.

REPORTER: So do I need anything in particular to get this press pass, just my passport?

MAN: They just take a photo of you, that’s all, and you have to fill out one or two forms.

On my last trip five years ago the nation’s slogan was “dialogue among civilisations”. Now, thanks to Iran’s nuclear program, it’s facing sanctions and the threat of war. The man leading the country on this apparent collision course is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While he was voted in on the promise of bringing wealth to the poor, it’s the nuclear issue he’s since embraced, taking on perceived Western hypocrisy.

PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, (Translation): They pile up their own arsenals of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, yet when it comes to the desire of other nations to develop nuclear energy for peaceful technological and scientific purposes, they start shouting slogans about global security.

Here in the city of Karaj, many Iranians have come to give their President letters containing their personal concerns. This is a hallmark of this self-styled man of the people. He’s apparently received 5 million letters since he became President. But how closely is he reading their concerns?

REPORTER: One sign that President Ahmadinejad’s popularity could be on the decline came in local council elections in December. Across the country, Ahmadinejad and his supporters suffered heavy defeats. Here in Tehran, they won only 2 out of 15 seats in the local council.

These losses in Tehran are particularly significant for a man who was once the mayor of this city. I’ve come to Friday prayers at Tehran University, a good place to gauge what the conservative, religious elements in Iran are thinking. I’m only allowed to film from the women’s section and can’t see today’s speaker, but it’s Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – an influential cleric and former president. He’s delivering a message to the West about Iran’s nuclear program, a message that’s almost a mantra in Iran nowadays.

AKBAR HASHEMI RAFSANJANI, (Translation): We’re prepared to give you our complete assurance, that if we can sit at the negotiating table on terms of complete equality, then Iran will prove to you that it has no objective other than the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Under Ahmadinejad, Iran seems prepared to risk everything to achieve their aim,

REPORTER: At what point, though, will you question is it worth a very high price to pay? Mottaki:

MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: The only price which we are not going to pay, and definitely we will not pay, is to ignore for the right of our nation. We cannot accept this discrimination approach in the international relations.

REPORTER: But will it have such a tangible benefit for the Iranian people that it will be worth…?

MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI: We are going to spend tens of billions of dollars for production of 20,000 megawatts of electricity in our country through nuclear power plants. It is our national interest for our nation.

Back outside, after Friday prayers, ordinary Iranians are embracing this political message.

MAN 1 (Translation): We don’t intend to use it for mass murder. We want to use it for medical advancement and nuclear advancement.


MAN 2: The nuclear issue is one of the science issues in Iran and all over the world. And all the people of the world, has the right, the equal right, for reaching to this point, and it is part of the scientific effort of the Iranian nation.

From an Iranian perspective, there’s a deep sense of outrage that they’re being denied what other countries have.

MAN 2: More than 70% of the energy of France comes from atomic power, and we have the right.

PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM, POLITICAL ANALYST TEHRAN UNIVERSITY: Many Iranians feel that, think that the West is against us. Not for the nuclear program per se, but the West is against Iran not to advance scientifically. This is something that many Iranians believe.

Until the Islamic revolution of 1979 that removed the American-backed Shah and installed Ayatollah Khomeini in power, this compound was the United States Embassy in Tehran. These murals tell the Iranian history of American interference in their country. For many, the nuclear debate is seen in this context.

MAN 3 (Translation): Iran has always had a proud history. And you must also know it’s always been the case that some have tried to impede our national progress. If you look at the Quajar or Pahlavi dynasties or even the early days of the revolution, countries like Russia, England or America have always tried to divide us.

REPORTER: Are you a supporter of President Ahmadinejad?

MAN 2: Me?

REPORTER: Yes.

MAN 2: All these people are like Ahmadinejad, every of them is one Ahmadinejad.

REPORTER: What is it that you like about President Ahmadinejad?

MAN 2: Everything!

REPORTER: Can you give me some examples?

MAN 2: He is the most brave man in the history of the Muslim world.

MAN 4 (Translation): Ahmadinejad is equipped with the weapon of both faith and science. And he’s now resurrecting the weapon of “Allah is great” that Imam Khomeini used to win the revolution. God is great.

PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: Because he has been acting as the champion of resisting US pressure. And, in a way, he has identified himself very much with Iran’s nuclear program. So in a sense, if you go after him, you look a bit unpatriotic.

Despite having the power of patriotism on his side, people are speaking out against Ahmadinejad, an extraordinary thing in a country where free speech has both limits and consequences. I’m heading to the north of Tehran to see one of his critics. Dr Ebrahim Yazdi was Iran’s first foreign minister after the revolution. He soon fell out with the leadership though and became a dissident voice who’s faced arrest many times.

DR EBRAHIM YAZDI, IRAN FREEDOM MOVEMENT: You know, when I was not here five years ago and the security forces came and they took many of my pictures with Khomeini and now I don’t have them. I have some in my office, but now I don’t have it.

Ahmadinejad says that he wanted to refresh, or rearrange everything, in accordance with the first days of the revolution. This is impossible. The generation of the revolution is different than this generation. Therefore when he is talking everybody look around like he is talking nonsense.

While Dr Yazdi supports in principle Iran’s right to nuclear technology, he thinks the issue is being manipulated by a populist president.

DR EBRAHIM YAZDI: Many governments, like Iranian Government, in the world, when they have failed to give the proper services that people expect, then they try to bring in a foreign threat, replace it with a foreign threat. I’m afraid that even today the Bush Administration play the same game. Exaggerating the foreign threat. The same thing in Iran.

Dr Yazdi accuses the President of exaggerating the nuclear issue to disguise the fact he’s failed on his key election promise of reducing the gap between rich and poor. To find out more, I take a trip to Tehran’s main bazaar, the economic heartbeat of the country. Despite it being the lead up to Iranian New Year, the owner of this decorations shop, Saeed, tells me business is slow.

SAEED: I think most of my customers are… do not they are not optimistic for the future, they feel worried about the future. Therefore, as you know, our items are decorations and when they do not feel secure they do not buy some decorations, they prefer to pay for something basic, for example food and something like this.

The story is the same in this cosmetics shop.

REPORTER: How bad has it been compared to other years?

MAN 4 (Translation): I can confidently say in previous years our sales exceeded 10 or 12 million toman. Now it’s about 4 or 5 million. Maybe people want to hang on to their money in case there’s a war or something.

REPORTER: How is business now?

MATTAVI: It’s not good, it’s not good.

Mattavi owns and runs a plastics business. He tells me he can only afford to pay his sole employee around US$140 a month. I soon discover what a sensitive issue the economy is.

REPORTER: What do you think is the reason for the economy being bad?

MATTAVI: You see, it’s the politics problem of course, just that. Economic problem is just politic problem.

REPORTER: You were saying the problem is politics, what do you mean by that?

MAAAVI: I cannot be talking about that, it make problem for me, take it easy. Any of the persons in Iran cannot talk about politics so much. It make problem for them, take it easy, miss.

REPORTER: OK, no problem at all.

It’s little wonder ordinary Iranians are scared of speaking out when you consider what’s happened to those further up the food chain. Economist Saeed Laylaz says the President personally had him sacked from his government job for criticising his economic policies.

SAEED LAYLAZ, ECONOMIST: There are a lot of people, there are a lot of people who have to leave their jobs because of their warning and publishing their opinion about the economy or about the politics and so on.

REPORTER: Why do you think it is that the President is so sensitive about the economy?

SAEED LAYLAZ: This is because he failed in his economic policies, I believe. Frankly speaking, honestly, there is not one policy which has been successful by him since the past 16-17 months ago.

The biggest problem according to economists like Laylaz is the President’s spending spree. On entering office he took billions of dollars from Iran’s Oil Stabilisation Fund, a reserve of excess oil revenues. He spent up big on infrastructure projects, subsidies to the people, new government jobs, and salary increases. This dramatic expenditure led to a surge in inflation.

SAEED LAYLAZ: Everybody is worried, especially the Supreme Leader, personally is supervising the situation and because of this inflation rate which is increasing very fast.

Economists are warning that uncontrolled inflation could lead to disaster.

SAEED LAYLAZ: I believe the main reason is the huge gap between the social classes in the society. There are a lot of poor people who cannot save themselves in a potential wave of inflation. In this case there are a lot of people who cannot receive enough money even for continuing their life. And because of this there will be unrest and social turbulences in the country.

This dire prediction is being heard. Despite the warm welcome the President received in parliament last month, there is serious discontent here. In an unprecedented move, 150 members of the conservative dominated parliament, or Majiles, signed a letter criticising his economic policies. Significantly, the discontent is not coming just from his political opponents.

PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: They are actually coming from his own rank. A number of senior conservative figures, particularly in the Majiles, have actually been highly critical of Ahmadinejad’s mainly economic policies.

Ahmadinejad has also come under fire for some of his other contentious forays into foreign policy, such as publicly questioning the truth of the Holocaust, and calling for Israel to be wiped off the map. Dr Afarideh is a reformist member of parliament and keen advocate of Iran’s nuclear program. However, he thinks the issue has been mishandled. The fact a member of parliament is prepared to speak out is an indication of the mood here.

HOSSEIN AFARIDEH, MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT: In my opinion the President brought some argument that was not necessary, he mixed some argument to the nuclear issue. For example, the time the Iranian case was discussed in the UN, he started to talk about the Holocaust. This bring big damage to Iranian benefit.

DR EBRAHIM YAZDI: What does it have to do with our national security? It has brought up more negative response, increased the pressure on Iran. It is not a wise policy to say and do things to solidify the front against Iran. You know, foreign policy basically, the mission is, or the function is, to reduce foreign tension.

One of the most damaging critiques came from a newspaper called ‘Jomhuri Islami’. This is not just any newspaper. It’s seen as close to the Supreme Leader and the semi-official voice of the hardline clerical establishment. In an open letter to the President it said: “We acknowledge your endeavours to campaign for Iran’s rights to develop nuclear energy.” However, it went on: “What is the need for such aggressive rhetoric when it can only provide a pretext for the bullies to exert further foreign pressure. The way you have been presenting the nuclear debate would lead the listener to form the view that you are exaggerating the significance of the issue in order to divert the public’s attention from other failures of your government.” This editorial led to speculation that Ahmadinejad may have lost the support of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. If so, it’s a sure sign of political death in Iran.

PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: We cannot say definitely or categorically that the Supreme Leader has withdrawn his support for Ahmadinejad. What we can say is the Supreme Leader is no longer willing to give him carte blanche, to give him absolute support, to give him point-blank support.

REPORTER: Would you agree that there is some domestic concern in Iran now about the conflict situation that is developing? There are some critics who are saying the President has been too defiant, too confrontational.

MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI: If you are talking there are different opinions, for daily life, economic, politics and the others, we have an alive society, a very active society, even politically, and that is quite normal and natural. The people are deciding here, and the nuclear issue is a consensus issue in the country.

While considerable unease about Ahmadinejad does exist in Iran, there is still comprehensive political support for the nuclear program. The Foreign Minister warns any outsiders not to place their hopes on any disunity within Iran.

MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI: We do not have any problem among ourselves, inside the country. Those who are going to invest on this possibility, they will lose, they will not get benefits.

Nevertheless, there have been strong rumours that the numbers are being gathered in parliament to impeach the President.

REPORTER: Do you think that’s a real possibility?

PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: I don’t think it’s a real possibility for the time being. I think in a sense maybe the nuclear issue is a god-sent issue to help him, because obviously even a school child will tell you that it’s very unwise to impeach him while Iran is under so much pressure from outside on this nuclear issue.

Ironically, it could be pressure from the West that saves Ahmadinejad’s political skin. It could also gain him support from the people. It’s early morning at Tehran’s bazaar, and Hussein Hadad is opening up his shop. Hussein is a metalworker. I met him early on in my trip at Friday prayers. A politically conservative and religious man, Hussein begins his work day by reading the Koran. He didn’t support Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections. In fact, he campaigned on behalf of his main rival. But that has now changed.

REPORTER: Even though you didn’t vote for him in the last election, do you now call yourself a supporter of Ahmadinejad?

HUSSEIN HADAD (Translation): Yes.

REPORTER: Why, what’s changed?

HUSSEIN HADAD (Translation): We don’t trust global imperialism.

The threats from America have convinced Hussein to now support the President.

REPORTER: Does the majority of the bazaar still support President Ahmadinejad?

HUSSEIN HADAD (Translation): The victory of the revolution proves that everyone supports it and this is what we’re seeing in Iraq now. American soldiers breaking into people’s homes by force. Can we really trust the Americans?

PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: Millions of Iranians, millions and millions of Iranians would rally behind the Islamic regime if it is attacked by the United States or any other foreign power. It is one thing for me to criticise Ahmadinejad, but if Ahmadinejad is attacked by the United States, I am the first person who will defend Ahmadinejad, who will rally behind Ahmadinejad, I have no other choice.


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Iran: Women’s Taxi Company

“Iran: Women’s Taxi Company”

Dateline, SBS Television. 25th April 2007

Take a ride with the newly formed “Women’s Taxi Company” in Tehran. On board with a female driver and only female passengers, you’ll get a glimpse of the daily lives and challenges faced by Iranian women.

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TRANSCRIPT

REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock

Narges Ganeii is just 20 days into her new job – as a driver for the newly formed Women’s Taxi Company in Tehran. The only company of its kind in Iran, it only employs female drivers and only picks up female passengers. Narges is 1 of around 20 women who’ve just entered this once exclusively male domain.

NARGES GANEII, TAXIDRIVER (Translation): Some men, including the male taxi drivers, are quite happy about our entry into the industry and have accepted us as colleagues. There may be some people who are not happy about all this. They argue that men are more skilful in driving and technical matters. I disagree with that point of view.

Iran is officially an Islamic state, so separation of the sexes is the norm. On public buses, for example, men sit in the front, and women sit up the back. But taxis have always been the exception. They operate here on a group share basis, with men and women all squeezing in together. It’s the closest many women will ever physically get to a man who’s not their relative or husband, and anecdotal evidence suggests that some men just don’t behave.

NARGES GANEII, (Translation): I haven’t been harassed by a male driver myself, but as a passenger, I’ve been harassed by other passengers. A lot of men don’t behave correctly in taxis or in private vehicles acting as taxis.

Narges’s first passenger today – a doctor – agrees that men make bad travelling companions.

DR BOKHARY (Translation): They sit badly and make you squeeze into the corner because they want to make themselves comfortable.

Dr Bokhary is a regular client. She chose the service for comfort but also for safety. Iran’s traffic is notorious – an astounding 26,000 people are killed in car accidents ever year. After a shift at the public hospital, often treating road accident victims, the doctor wants a safe ride home.


DR BOKHARY (Translation): I’m always worried and stressed when I’m in a moving car. Even when cars get close to each other, I feel scared and anxious.

NARGES GARNII (Translation): I think I’ve really scared you…

DR BOKHARY (Translation): It’s because we see many car-crash victims in hospital. For this reason we have this entrenched fear of car crashes. Usually women drive more carefully than men, so I feel safer when a woman is driving.

SAMIRA RAHIMI, WOMEN’S TAXI COMPANY (Translation): Hello, madam. Is that Mrs Derafsheh? I’m calling from the ladies’ taxi service.

At the headquarters of the Women’s Taxi Company, only women can work as telephone operators.

SAMIRA RAHIMI, (Translation): Yes, my pleasure. God bless you.

Samira Rahimi has worked here for the last two months.

SAMIRA RAHIMI (Translation): Obviously, women in our society are Muslim and as such, adhere to certain religious values. The contact that may eventuate in a taxi environment is an issue for them. In terms of physical closeness, Iranian women don’t like their personal space to be violated.

While the drivers and phone staff are all women, the board and the managing director of the company are all men. Managing director Mohsen Oroji says demand is growing and he plans to expand to all of Iran, and if he can, other Gulf countries. While there’s no doubt the company is a source of empowerment for women drivers, some observers have noted that it also further entrenches the segregation of women in society. The managing director rejects this.

MOHSEN OROJI, MANAGING DIRECTOR (Translation): This is an option. People have a right to choose. The service is designed to serve those women who prefer to travel with women. There’s no obligation to use them. Anyone can use any service. There’s no restriction on those things in Iran.

For Narges – the daughter of a bus driver – this job gives her the chance to learn the more technical skills that were once closed to her.

NARGES GANEII, (Translation): Now we can become more familiar with a lot of problems hat may arise when driving a car. For example, getting a flat tyre is something that might only happen once a year when you drive your private car. Or other technical problems that arise when you drive your private car.

OK. Should I be there at 4 o’clock? Fine.

While many of Narges’s clients are regulars, she’s just received a call to go and collect a new passenger.

NARGES GANEII, (Translation): Salam Aleikonm, Hale Shoma, Hale shoma,

ZAHRA ALI AKBARY (Translation): How are you? I’m fine, thank you.

REPORTER: Oh, you speak English!

ZAHRA ALI AKBARY: Yes, very good. My name is Zahra Akbary.

To our surprise, this passenger is blind. She’s going from her job at the Education Department to her home. Zahra Ali Akbary says in this chaotic city, it’s difficult for her to take normal share taxis.

ZAHRA ALI AKBARY (Translation): Because I’m visually impaired, no services are available to me. Unfortunately, I cannot make short trips like other people. It’s not that I can’t but I have to wait half an hour at every intersection for someone to help me cross the road. And there are a lot of obstacles in my way because there are no provisions or the handicapped, especially for blind people, in Iran.

Like other women, Zahra Ali Akbary has also had problems with men in normal taxis.

ZAHRA ALI AKBARY (Translation): For example, once I wanted to pay this man. He took my hand and squeezed it. I can tell you as you’re a woman. On another occasion, I was firmly grabbed from behind. Another time they touched my chest. I’m a very sensitive person. You may find it hard to believe, I was about to explode and the only thing I could do was to go to the toilet at work the next morning and just weep. I felt I had no other refuge.

As we drive her home, Zahra tells Narges about her astounding life – as a blind woman navigating her way through working in Tehran, and living alone, away from her family.

ZAHRA ALI AKBARY (Translation): There are times when you have no other choice. It’s just forced upon you. I prefer to choose the bad if the alternative is worse. Either I accept this life or return to my town and sit at home.

By the end of this trip Narges and Zahra are making plans for a regular pick-up and drop-off. For Narges, it’s another passenger to add to her already hefty workload that sees her working six days a week, often more than 12 hours a day.

NARGES GANEII, (Translation): It’s tiring, but I think it’s a lot better than a lot of office jobs in Iran. You have your independence and no-one tells you what to do. No one’s keeping tabs on you. In addition to that, it’s an opportunity to help a fellow woman in an independent manner and prove that women can contribute alongside men to the development of the society.


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Iran’s Jews – Shalom Saalam

“Iran’s Jews – Shalom Saalam”

Dateline, SBS Television. 16th May 2007

Synagogues and Kosher cafes are not what you’d expect to find in the Islamic Republic of Iran, but the country is in fact  home to the largest Jewish community in the Middle East, outside of Israel. This story gives a rare insight into this community, who as you’ll see live with both freedom and fear.

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TRANSCRIPT

REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock

It is Thursday night in central Tehran and inside this unmarked, nondescript building a special event is under way. Some of Iran’s 25,000-strong Jewish community are celebrating the festival of Purim, commemorating the ancient tale of a plot to kill all the Jews of the Persian Empire. It’s a story of survival that shows the deep Jewish roots here going back more than 2,500 years.

HAROUN YASHYAEI, JEWISH COMMUNITY LEADER, (Translation): Iran is, in fact, the cultural homeland of Judaism. It’s interesting to note there are even more sites relating to Jewish history in Iran than there are in Israel.

For almost 30 years though, Iran’s Jewish community has lived in an Islamic State. Synagogue board member Robert Khalder believes the Islamic Revolution of 1979 was good for their faith.

ROBERT KHALDER, COMMUNITY LEADER, (Translation): I think that a positive outcome of the Islamic revolution for the Jewish community is that most Iranian Jews in Iran have become more religious. Obviously, living in a religious environment is more conducive to becoming religious than a non-religious environment.

Robert Khalder is one of few people here who agreed to speak with me.

ROBERT KHALDER: She is my mother.

Iranian Jews prefer to keep a low profile, and are uneasy about foreign journalists constantly asking what’s it like to live in an Islamic state.

ROBERT KHALDER (Translation): I don’t know why it’s so important to the people of the world. We are comfortably doing everything we want to do here. We can perform all our religious, cultural and traditional celebrations. Our schools, our holy days, we have all those in complete freedom. But as I said, maybe this is not projected in the West.

The existence of a Jewish community here has long fascinated the West primarily because of the Iranian Government’s hostility towards the Jewish state, Israel. And Iranian Jews recently came to international attention when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described the Holocaust as a myth. For Iran’s only Jewish Member of Parliament this was too much. Maurice Mottamed describes himself as Iranian first and a Jew second, but felt compelled to speak out.

MAURICE MOTTAMED, MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT, (Translation): When Mr Ahmadinejad, in his capacity as President of Iran, denied the appalling tragedy of the Holocaust, I issued a statement which was distributed worldwide, objecting to his assertions about the Holocaust because the Iranian President attempted to deny and reject the most awful tragedy known to human history. And I publicly declared there and then that this was a huge insult to all Jewish people around the world.

Despite the controversy caused by Ahmadinejad’s comments, Maurice Mottamed says the President was not supported by other Iranian politicians, and later appeared to modify his views.

REPORTER: Holocaust denial is frequently linked with anti-Semitism. Did the President’s comments make you feel insecure about the position of the Iranian Jewish community?

MAURICE MOTTAMED, (Translation): Fortunately there was never any threat to the safety of the Jewish community. The main reason for this is that the general policy of the Iranian Government has never entailed anti-Semitism and hopefully that will continue to be the case in the future.

In modern-day Iran there are virtually no cases of anti-Semitic violence of the kind you hear about in some parts of Europe, indeed all indications are that Jews and Muslims live harmoniously. Nowhere is this better illustrated then here, at this Jewish hospital in southern Tehran. It’s one of only four Jewish charity hospitals in the world and reputedly one of the best hospitals in the country. I’m shown around by a Muslim man who’s worked here for two decades.

MAN: Intensive care unit.

Staff here are Muslim and Jewish, as are patients. Farangis Hassidm, a Jew, is in charge of administration.

FARANGIS HASSIDM, HOSPITAL ADMIN: Whoever comes to our hospital we are asking, “What is your pain? What is your suffering?” We are not asking what’s their religion, or how they think, or what’s their ideology, no. And most of the patients, more than 95 patients that we are treating in this hospital they are not Jewish.

The hospital runs primarily on donations from Jews both in Iran and abroad, though recently the government of President Ahmadinejad made a donation of 25 million tomans, or A$32,000.

DR SIAMAK MORSEDEGH, DIRECTOR OF HOSPITAL: 25 million tomans is not a significant payment, a significant amount according to our costs. But in the other hand, as a part of this donation, it have a cultural effect on us and says that government wants the hospital to persist and to work and to serve Iranian population.

REPORTER: So it was a positive message as well actual..?

DR SIAMAK MORSEDEGH: Yes, it is a positive message. This message say to us that conditions is not very bad and there is not a specific problem between Iranian Jewish society and Ahmadinejad Government.

All around Tehran there is a significant, albeit discreet, Jewish presence. Inside this building is a Jewish library with books in Hebrew and in Persian, where pictures of Islamic revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini and Moses sit side by side. There’s a kosher butchery where kosher meat is served up by Muslim butchers. And there is also at least one kosher restaurant. It’s here I try and talk to some young Iranian Jews who believe their country is misunderstood in the West.

WOMAN, (Translation): They think Iran is undeveloped and backward but that is not the case.

But before we get too far, our interview is stopped by a member of the Jewish community.

MAN, (Translation): You should stop filming now. That’s enough. Stop, please. You only have a permit from our council.

INTERPRETER, (Translation): But we got the permit.

MAN, (Translation): They gave you a permit to film in the synagogue, that’s all. Please stop, we have problems. If our members happen to say the wrong thing by mistake. This woman is very cluey. I’ve listened to her. She’ll go to the other side of the world, something will be printed and we’ll get in trouble for it.

Free speech is limited for everyone in Iran, so this incident is not necessarily evidence that Jews are being singled out. However, a US State Department report has noted that Jews here are reluctant to talk about mistreatment, fearing government reprisal. Moses Baba, a well-known Tehran identity and antique dealer, is a good example of the fact that Iranian Jews enjoy a degree of freedom that would surprise many in the West. In recent years, Jews like Baba have been allowed to freely visit Iran’s archenemy, Israel.

MOSES BABA, (Translation): They came to our synagogues on Saturdays and told us, “You can go to and from Israel as you please.” They promised we would have no problems. Every year, I first go to Turkey. Turkey, then Israel, then the US, then back to Turkey, then Iran.

While many Iranian Jews are now travelling freely, statistics show that the number leaving for good is actually falling. Despite the fact he has children and grandchildren in Israel, Moses Baba says he isn’t going anywhere.

MOSES BABA, (Translation): Because I love Iran. I swear to God. Each time I go abroad, I stay 20 days, then run back. There are some fantastic Muslim people here, unique in the world. They are faithful, God-fearing, they respect me a lot.

Amazingly it was the Islamic revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, who paved the way for the protection of Jews in the Islamic state. Haroun Yashyaei is a Jewish community leader who was in contact with Khomeini back in 1979.

HAROUN YASHYAEI, (Translation): The Imam’s clear and unequivocal view was that Zionism is a political ideology and of course he was opposed to Zionism. Judaism is a religion, which he respected. And Iranian Jews, as he stated in one of his speeches, are citizens of Iran, and their rights as citizens are respected just like those of all other Iranians.

Iranian Jews have certainly fared better than some other religious minorities in Iran, such as the Baha’i. But Maurice Mottamed, the Jewish Member of Parliament, says discrimination does exist.

MAURICE MOTTAMED, (Translation): But if you want to compare the rights of religious minorities with those of mainstream Muslim populations, we have to say that there are some glaring differences. We have successfully abolished some of them and continue to pursue solutions to our problems.

These problems include a law that says if one member of a Jewish family converts to Islam, then they will inherit over the other members. There’s also discrimination in the workplace – Jews can’t take sensitive positions in the armed forces or intelligence and have problems rising to higher levels of management in some government departments. Down the road from the synagogue a mural celebrates armed attacks on Israel.

REPORTER: Does it trouble you that the Iranian Government, at the very least, verbally support groups that attack and kill Jewish civilians in Israel?

MAURICE MOTTAMED, (Translation): As representative of the Jewish community in the House I have always opposed violence and bloodshed towards innocent people on both sides, Palestinians and Israelis.

For Mottamed, or any other Iranian Jew, supporting Israel is absolutely out of the question.

MAURICE MOTTAMED, (Translation): Currently, Iranian foreign policy is opposed to recognising the state of Israel. Politics may dictate, from time to time, flexibility, and at other times it may dictate aggression. In any case, we are a section of this community and must be in agreement with Iranian policies.

Perhaps to Westerners used to the scenes of conflict between Jews and Muslims in Palestine, the concept of Jews living happily in a Muslim state is a strange one. But here in Iran it doesn’t appear unusual.

HAROUN YASHYAEI, (Translation): No-one says “I’m a Muslim and you’re a Jew.” Iran’s cultural link with its Jews is stronger than the link with its Muslims. You see, the common points of agreement between Judaism and Islam are a lot closer than with other religions. Jewish theology is in complete harmony with Islamic theology.


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