Strategic Deception and Islamic Republic of Iran’s Lobby in the West

By Hossein Azadi


The Islamic Republic regime in Iran has always tried to avoid normalization of relations with West – particularly the US – in order to evade any strategic change in its behavior and to continue the same antiquated revolutionary ideals. To that end, the regime is trying to create a vast lobby and network of influence in the West.  The main objective of this lobby is, in complete alliance with the main objective of the regime’s security apparatus, to promulgate and advance a strategic deception. In other words, this strategy involves creation and promotion a deceptive image, and as a result, foster trade relations, technology transfer and international recognition attached to that. The West is supposed to believe that Islamic Republic is changing and reforming itself and will ultimately behave like a normal governance. This article will investigate the notion of strategic deception as of Islamic Republic authorities see it, followed by an overview of creation, funding and the calculated objective of the Iranian regime’s lobby enterprises in the West.

What is Strategic Deception in the eyes of the Islamic Republic Regime?

Concealment, imitation, and disinformation were tactics that comprised a concept known as maskirovka (Russian: маскировка, lit. ‘disguise’). They were part of a Soviet doctrine used by their military and intelligence services, namely the KGB and the GRU. The principal military purpose of maskirovka was to mislead an enemy regarding the disposition, composition and intentions of its forces. Under the Russian Federation, the term maskirovka has evolved from tactical camouflage in military operations to a broader set of means of denial and deception on a strategic level including political, economic and diplomatic measures to achieve international goals.

Key measures of maskirovka include:

  • Concealment or camouflage of military assets and positions with consequent measures to prevent a leak of information about them
  • Simulation of false objects and activities
  • Distractive activities and maneuvers to draw an enemy’s attention away from one’s true intentions; and
  • Disinformation operations

All of these measures require coordinated efforts of numerous organizations and structures under centralized command and control. The Supreme Leader of Islamic Revolution, Ali Khamenei, who surrounds himself with security and military advisors, knows quite well that to achieve his regime’s foreign policy goals, utilizing traditional Russian political maneuvers are not sufficient and require more sophisticated methods and modern technology. Unlike what many intellectuals and analysts have said, Khamenei does not want to be totally despised and abhorred by the international community the same way North Korea is. For the global public opinion and particularly on international media platforms, the regime wants to present itself as a legitimate government committed to international laws and human rights, respectful to its neighbors with no intention to interfere in their domestic affairs. In other words, he does not wants to world to see the Islamic Republic as a revolutionary and fundamentalist regime. That said, the regime needs a strategic deception to continue its revolutionary policies and simultaneously free itself from international pressure or at least reduce it to a tolerable and manageable level. To realize the concept of strategic deception in the eyes of the Islamic Republic leadership, let us refer to their sources. The Tehran International Studies and Research Institute (TISRI) is a soi-dissant research institute that belongs to the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence. This institute and other similar ones like the Research Institute of Strategic Studies are intended to meet the research needs of Islamic Republic security apparatus and also guide and fashion the scientific, political and foreign policy literature in directions that favor the regime. On that account, beginning in 2004, TISRI started to publish a series of books name Soft War. In 2009 and in the wake of the disputed presidential election that was followed by widespread protests, soft war become the favorable term for the Khamenei. The fourth volume of these book series focused specifically on psychological operations and strategic deception. The authors meticulously examined possible definitions of strategic deception and presented an intriguing final definition: “the operation of strategic deception is a series of organize and secret actions and intended to influence the adversary’s mindset and its main objective is to distort the decision-making of the enemy by presenting the pack of guided information to compel him or her to act against their own interests or not to act against the interests of their enemies.”

Book cover for the 4th volume of Soft War, which focuses on strategic denial and deception.

Strategic deception is a complex operation and in order for it to succeed, the planner not only must create and disseminate disinformation (the easy part), but also needs to decide whether that disinformation will be accepted by the targeted audience. If not, the next step is to seek and send additional messages and information in order to make the original ones believable. ”Islam is a camp, the Islam-camp make preparations for 10, 20, 50, 100 years. Yes, this is not just the enemy that sees the next 50 years, we see next 100 years,” Khamenei once said. With this notion in mind, we will now show examples of the regime’s strategic deceptions. However, before that, it imperative to review the history to find out how and where Islamic Republic learned this strategy.

Where did Islamic Republic learn Strategic Deception; An Overview

In 1921, an important Soviet figure named Alexander Yakushev separated himself from Soviet delegation and secretly met with a Russian dissident based in Estonia whom he knew from before the Bolshevik Revolution. Yakushev told the exiled dissident that he and many others in the Soviet Union had come to the conclusion that Communism had brought the country’s economy on the verge of collapse; that farmers did not deliver their products and soldiers were rioting. He also said many in governmental and military apparatuses were prepared to overthrow the revolutionary-Communist regime and take over control. The exiled opposition figure, shared these news with his colleagues. Western intelligence also received this information. Yakushev’s claims were consistence with the views of Western economic analysts, as divisions between Bolsheviks deepened in the wake of economic hardships that ultimately compelled Vladimir Lenin to declare a New Economic Policy (NEP) that gave a little more room to the private sector and foreign investments. Yakushev’s opposition group had an underground, clandestine newspaper in the Soviet Union. During the next few weeks, about 6 government and military Soviet officials contacted the opposition groups and made the same claims. They had coordinated their efforts in a municipal building in Moscow knows as TRUST. In 1922 in Berlin, Yakushev convinced exiled opposition groups to act as their proxy group inside Russia and get their assets or family members out of the country. To prove itself, TRUST armed the opposition inside the Soviet Union and allowed anti-Bolshevik groups in Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Helsinki to use its resources inside Russia. TRUST even brought some opposition figures inside Russia to monitor their secret and guerrilla warfare closely. They had seen themselves that TRUST members were attacking police stations, sabotaging critical infrastructures, and assassinating government figures. TRUST even procured fake passports and visas for exiled opposition members to come inside Russia and monitor the situation closely and to participate in their conventions.  The opposition also received valuable intelligence from TRUST and Western agencies, and were very well-paid. TRUST activities and intelligence caused the opposition to reach the conclusion that revolutionary communisms is ending in Russia whether by a Yakushev coup, or by implementation of a new moderate economic policy. In late 1920s, new problems emerged. Well-known Western agents and Russian dissidents such as Sidney Reilly and Boris Savinkov, respectively, were captured in Russia and sentenced to death. The intelligence they provided were proved to be fraudulent or distorted. Subsequently, underground press closed and new economic policy ended. Instead of reforming or collapsing, expected by so many experts and exiled opposition figures, the Soviet regime strengthened itself. In 1929, Edward Apperput had fled to Finland and disclosed that he and others like Yakushev were all directly working for Soviet intelligence (Cheka) under the supervision of Felix Dzerzhinsky. Thus, TRUST was a brief but highly-measured counterintelligence operation aimed at identifying and dismantling the Soviet opposition. TRUST took 7 years and did everything it could – including guerrilla warfare – to make its strategic deception believable. Additionally, Apperput said Cheka used the money earned from selling fake intelligence to the West and Russian opposition to fund secret operations in the West and for the construction of solitary confinements camps. The operation known as TRUST caused deep division and distrust within the opposition. Western intelligence services were dumbfounded. They could not believe that the Soviets had played them for 7 whole years.

Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the first Soviet intelligence known as Cheka

But how did Bolsheviks come up with this brilliant idea? The reality is that they were not the originators of this concept. Okhrana (Tsarist Russia’s intelligence services) had a long history of using undercover agents as opposition figures. Those undercover agents took big risks such as making explosions and assassinating government officials (those whom the Tsar decided to remove) to themselves become the leaders of opposition groups. These unorthodox methods helped the Russian Empire tighten its grip on power until WW-I degraded its security apparatus leading to the Bolsheviks taking over. Soviet intelligence was quite astute in controlling agents in Western territories for a long time and also to create fake opposition to confuse its adversaries.  

More importantly, the Bolsheviks showed they can create a vast network of influence in the West to broadcast a distorted image of the Soviet Union. This false image was intended to influence public opinion in the West and the conception of Soviet experts that revolutionary Communism was dying and therefore, it is harmless. The intent was to present a benign image of the Soviet Union in order for it to usher in more amicable economic relations, technology imports, and international recognition. Lenin ordering Dzerzhinsky to “create intelligences so Westerners could hear what they want to hear” showed he was very much familiar with this concept. The final hit of trust came when Apperput went back to Russia and worked at Cheka using a new identity. The Russians decided to expose TRUST in order to conceal a bigger operation, as NEP no longer served Soviet interests.

In December 1961, a Soviet agent named Anatoliy Golitsyn went to the US Embassy in Helsinki to defect. He was working in the strategic planning department of the KGB and had a deep understanding of covert Soviet intelligence strategies. In January 1962, the KGB sent instructions throughout the world to to implement damage control. All meetings with important agents were to be suspended. The KGB made significant efforts to discredit and ultimately assassinate Golitsyn. Golitsyn constantly warned about Soviet deceptions particularly on Perestroika and Glasnost. Out of 194 predictions made in Golitsyn’s book (New Lies For the Old World), 139 had been fulfilled by 1993, 9 seemed ‘clearly wrong’, and the other 46 could not be debunked. On February 4, 1964, Yuriy Nosenko, a KGB officer, defected to Switzerland. His father, Ivan Nosenko, was Soviet Union’s Minister of Shipbuilding  during the Joseph Stalin era. Controversy arose within US intelligence over whether he was a real defector. James Angleton, the head of the CIA counterintelligence at the time, believed that Nosenko was a KGB plant, just as Golitsyn had warned. He was held in detention for over three years before he was finally accepted as a legitimate defector. After his release, he became a US citizen, working as a consultant for the CIA until his death in 2008. In 1962, two Soviet diplomats separately contacted the FBI and offered their services if they were granted asylum in the US. Aleksey Kulak with codename “Fedora” claimed there was a mole within the FBI. This caused a discord between James Angleton and J. Edgar Hoover. In 1977 in Moscow, Kulak provided a valuable list of Soviet scientists attempting to steal US scientific secrets, but the CIA director Stansfield Turner had already issued orders to the agency’s Moscow bureau to halt all contacts with undercover agents. Stansfield had concluded that Kulak was not an authentic defector. Kulak was a Soviet war hero and was awarded the Hero Medal. He died of natural causes in Russia in 1983. Another individual was Dmitri Polyakov with codename, “Top Hat” and a Major General of GRU. For 25 years, he remained a CIA informant and gave many valuable intelligence including the growing division between the Soviet Union and China. In 1988, Polyakov was sentenced to death for treason and subsequently executed. The secret dimensions of these classic cold war espionage stories were not exposed until Vasili Mitrokhin a senior archivist for KGB defected to the UK in 1992 after providing the British Embassy in Riga with a vast collection of KGB files. His files helped capture two Russian spies name Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames in the 1990s. Even after the collapse of Soviet Union, Russians kept their contact with their agents in the US. Mitrokhin reported that the TRUST files were kept in the special archival collections of the KGB at the Lubyanka.

Islamic Republic of TRUST: Strategic Deception and Islamic Republic Lobbies in the West

Reviewing these historical events do not mean placing the compare the Iranian regime with the Soviet Union and place it in the same caliber. After all, the Islamic Republic has never been a global superpower and unlike Soviet Union, it is claiming to be religious governance; a Caliphate of sorts. Nevertheless, times have changed. We are living in the era of digital revolution, in which almost everything from security, economy, research, education and journalism rely on the internet and online platforms. Although security competition still exists, unlike the Cold War there is hardly any need for fugitives and defectors to become spies or security agents. “The forms of cooperation, competition, conflict, and warfare in this world are changing as information technology is changing the way that we observe, understand, decide, and communicate. These changes are impacting every aspect of personal, corporate, and national security,” Edward Waltz said. Another unique characteristic of the present time is convenient availability of the means to conveying one’s message – that is, via cyberspace. It is indeed an actual space present in the day-to-day lives of the majority of people. Using cyberspace is a very efficient way of conveying one’s message to remotest parts of the world, and convey it to large number of people. Khamenei also considers it a “positive point” that must be exploited vastly.

Today’s “fake defectors” could come from all walks of life using various disguises: researchers, university professors, politicians, and human rights activists. The Islamic Republic has established good ties with Russia since the 1990s. The regime uses different mechanisms to penetrate the foreign-based opposition. It recruits former opposition members and/or people willing to cooperate with intelligence. Most have a similar story in that they are temporarily imprisoned and become known as “activists” opposed to the Islamic Republic. After some time, no one questions their previous political activities; being a political prisoner is enough to acknowledge them as a detractor of the regime. Activists outside Iran may help get such them out of temporary custody in Iran, typically with the assistance of an international organization. Likewise, the regime intelligence may send the prisoner abroad, calling him/her an “escaped seditionist.” This mechanism of releasing political prisoners and dispatching them abroad is one of the most important factors that sows mistrust within the opposition in exile.

Let us investigate some recent cases. In 2011, Mohammadreza Madhi a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander appeared on state television and claimed in a documentary titled A Diamond For Deceit that he had managed to infiltrate the Islamic Republic’s foreign-based opposition and prevented a plan to create what has been described as a “government in exile,” supported and promoted by regime’s enemies. This was exactly during the 2009 protests in the wake of fraudulent presidential election. In that same year Mahmoud Zamani, an advisor to Mehdi Karroubi (a former head of regime’s parliament and the leader of Green Movement) also appeared on state television and made similar claims. He said he was working for National Iranian Oil Company and had made numerous business trips to Europe and the UK. He claimed he was the trusted source by Western intelligence, Iran’s exiled opposition and protests leaders inside Iran. In 2018, Aryasb Bavand an apparent exiled opposition figure, made the same claims on state television. The last case was Rouhollah Zam, a dissident journalist based in Paris. In 2019, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) showed a so-called documentary named, The Last Station of Lie, in which footage of Zam’s conversations with a regime security agent. The documentary claimed that the agent deceived Zam by feeding him a great deal of disinformation for Zam to publish them in his popular Telegram channel, AmadNews. The intent was to discredit Zam in time. The IRGC intelligence ultimately convinced Zam to travel to Iraq only to abduct him in September 2019, transport him to Iran, and force him to confess to wrongdoing on state television. The Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Court sentenced Zam to death. On December 12, 2020, he was executed. It is important to note that not all Iranian opposition groups or figures or protest movements have been orchestrated and controlled by the regime, or that individuals like Madhi and Zamani have to be believed. It is merely to illustrate that these cases are examples of the how the Islamic Republic has replicated a novel version of the TRUST operation aimed to strategically deceive both the Iranian and Western public and political punditries.

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Mohammadreza Madhi, former IRGC commander

A more sophisticated forms of the Islamic Republic’s network of influence in the West is creation of pseudo-lobbies. The best example is the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). Founded by Trita Parsi, NIAC is ostensibly a non-profit organization working under US laws and aimed at improving US-Iran relations and understanding between the two nations. However, NIAC has close ties with the regime, particularly the so-called “moderate” faction. It has been claimed that NIAC was created under the direction of Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Islamic Republic’s representative to the United Nation at the time of NIAC’s founding and the current Foreign Minister. Zarif believed that Islamic Republic must organize Iranian-Americans and use them to advance the regime’s interests. but things changed later. When Mahmous Ahmadinejad became the Islamic Republic president and in the wake of the 2009 protests that ensued, many regime insiders who were largely adherents of the reformist camp left Iran for the West and the US. These individuals used organizations like NIAC to campaign against the Ahmadinejad administration with the aim of discrediting and crippling his presidency at any cost. To that end, they initially advocated for and supported sanctions against the Islamic Republic, as claimed by Houshang Amirahmadi, a self-appointed US-Iran diplomatic dealer and Parsi’s original mentor.

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Trita Parsi, founder and the first president of NIAC

Ironically, they now (and since the inauguration of Hassan Rouhani as the Islamic Republic’s president in 2013) vociferously oppose the same sanction and pressure regime enforced by the Trump administration. NIAC’s activities on behalf of the Islamic Republic led to a defamation lawsuit in US courts. In 2007, Hasan Daioleslam, an Iranian-American opposition activist, accused Parsi and his organization NIAC of lobbying for the regime in Iran. In reaction to Daioleslam’s claims, Parsi sued him for defamation. The court subpoenaed NIAC’s internal documents and since, they have been available to the public. Eli Lake, a Washington Times correspondent at the time, stated in an article that “a lawsuit has brought to light numerous documents that raise questions about whether the organization is using that influence to lobby for policies favorable to Iran in violation of federal law” and “if so, a number of prominent Washington figures could come to regret their ties to the group.” Despite being the originator of that lawsuit, Parsi used a series of delays that kept NIAC’s activities concealed from the court. Parsi truly thought he had a case against Daioleslam. Once those documents were reluctantly submitted, Washington DC District Court released its ruling in 2012 that Parsi’s operations under NIAC were “not inconsistent with the idea that he was first and foremost an advocate for the regime.” The decision from the appeals court, made by Judge Robert Wilkins, determined that NIAC had “flouted multiple court orders” and improperly delayed its delivery of documents to Daioleslam during the discovery portion of the lawsuit and even withheld certain documents. During the trial, Parsi had provided inconsistent statements about its internal computer system and recordkeeping, and then used those later-disproved claims to drag out the discovery process for years.

NIAC was also reluctant to produce its calendar records. Daiolelslam needed to show that it was not libelous to claim that NIAC was involved in lobbying on behalf of the regime in Tehran. Calendar records would show what NIAC staffers were exactly doing and with whom they were meeting. This information was crucial for the defense. Daiolelslam’s attorneys had requested them in March 2009. NIAC produced no calendar entries from before 2009. Of the entries it produced, 78 had been altered shortly before production, including two-thirds of those in Parsi’s calendar. The judge wrote that “a large proportion of the documents were modified shortly before production.” Furthermore, NIAC did not turn over masses of relevant documents. Awkwardly for Parsi, Daioleslam subpoenaed a number of third parties for NIAC documents that the organization itself had failed to produce in court including 168 emails NIAC received from Iranian-Americans expressing negative views of the organization. Also, An important document was mysteriously altered after the lawsuit was brought. Before launching NIAC, Parsi was affiliated with a group called Iranians for International Cooperation, which documents showed Parsi’s 1999 description of IIC, in the FAQ section of the organization’s manifesto, as a “lobby group.” A curious alteration had been made in the FAQ section. One version of the FAQ section that Parsi produced showed it was last modified in 1999 and retained this description. The second version he produced had last been modified in April 2009 and replaced the word “lobby” with “advocacy.”

Eventually, two circuit judges and a senior circuit judge forced NIAC to pay $183,480.09 in monetary sanctions to Daioleslam as reimbursement for the money he had spent fighting the defamation lawsuit NIAC brought against him in 2008. The case was dismissed four years later.

Due to NIAC’s malevolent activities and conduct, in July 2019, a number of the Iranians in the US and Canada gathered in protest in front of NIAC offices in Washington DC. A large number of Iranian-Americans believe NIAC is “the representative of the corrupt and brutal Islamic Republic regime” and not the voice of the Iranian-American community. Moreover, In January 2020, three US senators claimed that NIAC has violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) and is “amplifying regime propaganda in the United States”. They requested the US Attorney-General William Barr to “evaluate whether an investigation of NIAC is warranted for potential FARA violations and to ensure transparency regarding foreign attempts to influence the US political process.

Mention must be made that NIAC played an important role in finalizing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015. In Washington, to have the policies you advocate implemented with the full support of the US president counts as an enormous victory. Victories like these mean power, as well as access to funds, which flows naturally to reinforcing power and reinforcing. It also promotes reputations and provides the ability to reward friends and punish enemies.

Parsi and NIAC have consistently minimized the magnitude of the Iranian regime’s threat and at the same time blame most of the Middle East’s troubles on US policies vis-à-vis the region. NIAC has a Canadian version/counterpart known as the Iranian Canadian Congress (ICC). It overtly supports the regime in Tehran. For example, in July 2018, when the Canadian Parliament with liberal majority passed a motion to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization, the ICC actively opposed the legislation. For obvious reasons, Parsi and NIAC also adamantly opposed this designation by the US government. These lobbies don’t work alone. They operate as an intricate network of civil, media, political and business activists. They also have propaganda cells inside the US. For instance, SahraTV is a television channel based in Scottsdale, Arizona, which is home to a large Iranian-American community. As stated on its website, SahraTV is dedicated to fighting Iranian dissidents and opposition in the US and broadcasting the Islamic revolutionary ideals in America.

Another example is the fraudulent, manipulated poll from the University of Maryland, which is conducted with IranPoll Institute located in Toronto, Canada. The methodology for this so-called poll is absurd and simultaneously concerning. It could reveal and jeopardized the identity and the safety of respondents since they called their personal and home telephone numbers of people inside Iran and asked their opinion on very sensitive issues such as nuclear and ballistic missile program. That is why IRGC media outlets like Tasnim News and OfoghTV advertise it extensively and incessantly. The poll always shows people inside Iran favoring the regime’s nuclear program and to have deep reverence for senior IRGC figures (such as the slain warlord Qassem Soleimani), and staunch support for the Islamic Revolution and its Supreme Leader.

With these multilayer, sophisticated, long-term methods, the Islamic Republic tries to operate under the radar and aggressively lobby to advance its agenda in the free world, particularly in a powerful and influential country like the US.

“We should give rise to a discourse. When something becomes a discourse, it becomes public knowledge in a particular era and a particular society. It is not possible to achieve this goal though isolated and spontaneous measures. Creating a discourse requires active planning and measures,” Khamenei has said. A significant portion of these lobbyists or advocates of appeasing the regime were born and raised in the secular, democratic West and do not have a deep understanding of the malign phenomenon known as the Islamic Republic. Some of them sincerely believe their activities are helping their motherland and her people.

Lastly, there are institutions that conduct Tehran’s influence operations and each focuses on a specific task, though they largely overlap in what they do. Chief among these organizations is IRIB, the information apparatus of the IRGC, and a group of religious organizations such as the Islamic Development Organization, Al-Mustafa International University, and the Islamic Propaganda Office of Qom Seminary. Similar to TRUST, these organizations are not the first ones to operate collaboratively in such capacity and will certainly not be the last. The network that originates in Tehran, goes around the world, plants its seeds in Europe and North America, and circles back to the Islamic Republic is far too complex to be a novel or fragile phenomenon.

Financing of the Islamic Republic Lobby in the West

Aside from a network of political and media activists, the Islamic Republic lobby has a network of business operatives. The main financial source of this lobby is petroleum and natural gas revenue. This is the main reason regime’s lobby is against gas and oil embargoes, which precludes the Islamic Republic from the oil market and cut its main source of income. The regime uses complex, hybrid and multilayer methods to transfer funds from Iran to Western countries. Its security apparatus operates through a variety of methods. They may operate undercover as diplomats in Iranian embassies or in other occupations in corporations such as Iran Air, various branches of Iranian banks, or even in private businesses. These are the simple ways. More sophisticated methods are by using a pathway known as U-turn transactions. After the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran, US imposed a series sanctions on Iran called primary sanctions. After releasing the American hostages, Iranian banks have used U-turn transactions primarily through Swiss banks. In U-turn transactions, the buyer of Iran’s oil transfers the funds to a Swiss bank in Euro or other accredited international currencies such as British Pound Sterling or Swiss Franc. The bank then converts the payment from that currency to US Dollar (USD) and sends it to an Islamic Republic state bank accounts. Here, unlike the conventional trade models, instead of two parties, there are three. A mediator conducts the payment operation. In other words, Iranian banks have been using USD without passing through US financial system directly. If the transaction were to be conducted using USD, it is obligated to pass through US financial system.

In 2008, US Treasury banned U-turn transactions for Iranian banks. How does the Islamic Republic gets money to its lobbyists in West? Let us use an example. First, they send it as Euros to an exchange office in Turkey and then, transfer it to Sweden. In Sweden, they convert it to USD and send it to Canada and then the US. This way, even if American banks investigate the account, they would not find any trace of it from Iran. These are the more sophisticated U-turn transactions that involves 4 or 5 parties and payments. It is costly and time-consuming, but a secure method by which the regime transfer funds. In reality, many exchange offices in Western countries are working for the Iranian regime with the help of these sophisticated and indirect methods. A recent report by Canadian intelligence acknowledged this by exposing a Toronto currency exchange business that helped the regime to secretly wire millions of dollars into Canada in violation of sanctions.


Investigating this complex and excruciating process shows on the one hand, state-operated Persian-language media platforms inside Iran, the Islamic Republic tells the Iranian people that “reformists” (or in Western vernacular, the “moderates”) are interlocutors of the West aiming to overthrow the regime. On the other hand, through its vast network of influence in world medias outside Iran, the regime tries to persuade the West that it is reforming and the core power is in the hands of those “moderates.” Fake defectors who present themselves as civil or human rights activists or journalists are complicit in concoction and dissemination of this fraudulent duality. The regime tells the people inside Iran that NIAC is a pro-American institution, but conveniently leaves our the defamation lawsuit that exposed Parsi and his organization. The Islamic Republic uses its self-designated “moderate” faces outside Iran to advance its influence in the free world. According to Fardad Farahzad. a former BBC Persian reporter, most of the journalists BBC Persian recruited in 2009 once worked for reformists newspapers in Iran.  Of course, among them were some proclaimed regime detractors as well, but at the end, they merely want to reform the current regime (not change it), whether by reformist authority figures/theoreticians, or by other means. Naturally, Western public or the Iranian diaspora will be hesitant to accept an argument coming from someone with a “hardliner” or clerical appearance. So the regime needs to send these apparent defectors as moderates with modern appearances including with suits, neckties and without hijab. Khamenei himself understands very well the importance of these apparent intellectual and academic people: “The people of all ranks, especially the politicians, intellectuals, academics, writers, poets and artists, shoulder a heavy responsibility in this respect, since they are the ones who can influence the world public opinion.”

One of the main aims of Islamic Republic lobby in the West is to decrease the diplomatic pressure and sanctions, so regime can buy time and acquire enough resources. The intent is not to reform or to modify itself but to continue with the status quo of enforcing its revolutionary policies. The regime in Tehran does not need normalization or rapprochement with West or the US, but rather it needs a controlled and limited level of de-escalation in order to survive and tighten its grip on power. Hadi Mousavi, a former Iranian diplomat once said, “the Foreign Affairs Ministry is working diligently on public diplomacy. We have a plan to establish friendly ties with famous international figures such as actors and athletes to oppose sanctions against Iran. For example, we want to invite people like Slavoj Žižek to come to Tehran. He is famous and also, he is an anti-liberal. We have plans to get connected with Hollywood celebrities and even with some US senators to make an international campaign against sanctions.” The Islamic Republic lobby actively opposes maximum pressure and sanctions, while the regime itself is spending its money on costly launching of military intelligence satellites and building its nuclear program in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  While these lobbyists are enjoying the liberty in the democratic West and advancing the influence of a totalitarian regime, women in Iran cannot even choose their own dress and journalists cannot even have their own unions. If fake defectors really believed in reforming the regime, they would not have left Iran in the first place. They could have stayed in Iran and tried to reform the regime from within. Trying to reform the regime from the outside is why the Islamic Republic is irreformable. Offspring and family members of the regime’s former or current officials play an essential role in advancing this charade. It has been revealed that President Barak Obama granted US citizenship or permanent residency to 2,500 immediate family members of Iranian officials while talks on the JCPOA were ongoing. That is the reason why in September 2019, the US government suspended the entry of senior Iranian officials and their immediate family members inside the country. Maybe these people know Iran under the ruling of their parents is not a good place to secure their future, much like Sergei Khrushchev, the son of the former Soviet Priemier Nikita Khrushchev and Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, who immigrated to the US.

Let us once more review the definition of strategic deception again: “the operation of strategic deception is a series of organized and secret actions intended to influence the adversary’s mindset and its main objective is to distort the decision making of the enemy by presenting the pack of guided information to compel him or her to act against their own interests or not to act against the interests of their enemies. ” The strategic aim of Islamic Republic lobby in the West is to create and promote a deceptive image to say that the regime is reforming and therefore it is not a threat. Thanks to Petro-dollars, the Islamic Republic has been creating a vast lobby and network of influence in the West to shield itself from international sanctions and pressures. The end result will be quite lucrative for the regime, financially and in terms of solidifying its authority. As such, those who refer to themselves as reformists are not arbiters of change in the Islamic Republic, but rather they are token gestures, intended to raise false hopes in the West and strengthen the Iranian regime grip on power. Since the regime is using sophisticated and multilayered schemes in most cases, there is no direct evidence to link these lobbyists to the Islamic Republic, except for rare cases such as that involving Trita Parsi and NIAC. By these tactics, the regime wants to Balkanize opposition groups, whereby sending a signal that the Iranian opposition is controlled by regime, there is no alternative to the Islamic Republic, and therefore the West must learn to get along with the regime. In this regard, the best criteria to distinguish a fake defector from a real one is whether they are candidly supporting regime change, organized protest movements in Iran, or at least supporting the maximum economic and diplomatic pressure, which will result in maximum degradation of regime and its network of influence and lobby in the West.

Hossein Azadi is security analyst.

Published by US Iran Policy Observer

A Foreign Policy Forum for Iranian Americans

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