On April 22nd, Canadian police foiled a terrorist plot to derail a Toronto-New York train and arrested two men. Canada declared that the plot was backed by Al-Qaeda elements residing in Iran. The US authorities confirmed that one of the suspects had travelled to Iran in the past two years.
Two months earlier, Masoud Jazaeri the deputy commander of Iran's military forces had warned that Al-Qaeda will soon expand its operations to hit American and European targets.
Canada cut diplomatic ties with Iran in March. Foreign Minister John Baird said that Canada viewed Iran "as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today".
This view is shared by US government. According to the US Department of State’s Country Reports on Terrorism: “Iran remains the most active state sponsor of terrorism... Iran’s financial, material and logistic support for terrorist and militant groups throughout the Middle East and Central Asia had a direct impact on international efforts to promote peace, threatened economic stability in the Gulf, and undermined the growth and democracy.”
On 16 February 2012, the US Department of the Treasury designated the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence for providing “support to terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda and allowing it to operate a pipeline moving money and fighters to support Al Qaeda activities in South Asia”.
Furthermore, the 9/11 Commission Report, published in July 2004, documents several instances in which Iran has lent support to Al-Qaeda, enabling the group to conduct attacks more effectively whilst avoiding US and coalition counter- terrorism efforts.
The foiled plot in Canada has once again underscored the threat posed by Iranian terrorism. This short report outlines the Iranian regime's political and religious web of influence in US and raises concern that this network could be used by Tehran for terrorist activities on US soil.
Iranian regime's web of influence in US could serve its terrorism
Iran has forged alliance with various political, social, religious and cultural organizations in the West to further its political agenda. This network of groups and organizations constitute an broad and effective web of influence for the Iranian regime in US and Europe.
The intention of these groups and individuals who are part of the advocacy and influence web for Tehran range from steadfast support of the Iranian regime to naive advocacy of peace. History of political and social struggles is full of examples of the groups and individuals whose actions benefit the wrong side.
While these groups' alliance and connections with the Iranian regime primarily serves Tehran's political goals, it is however highly probable that Iran use these connections to infiltrate them, recruit among them, use their networks to facilitate travels for their terrorist agents, gather data, get access to sensitive officials and government institutions and other logistic support for its terrorist activities.
A cursory review of the Iranian regime terrorism, particularly in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s certainly verifies the statement above. Tehran has repeatedly used its diplomatic missions, false-flag business entities, religious venues, and cultural centers to help plan, prepare and execute terrorist attacks and subsequently to help the terrorists escape.
Before Canada cut ties with Iran, the regime was able to send its agents to Canada using its diplomatic and financial power to create a vast network of cultural and religious centers that are safe havens for Iranian terrorists. The Iranian Quds force and intelligence ministry have also established a large number of "business" entities in Canada that will eventually provide material support for future terrorist attacks as they did in Germany in the 1990's. This Iranian web of influence in Canada is a threat to both Canadian and US national security.
Iranian regime's presence in the US is much weaker than in Canada but is provides opportunities for its future terrorist plots. Understanding the Iranian web of political and religious influence in the US is key to evaluating and identifying vulnerabilities to Iranian terrorism.
* See Congressional report on Iranian intelligence ministry, December 2012
Also, Roya Hakakian, Assassins of the Turquoise Palace
Iran's influence in the American Muslim community
The Islamic Republic's popularity and influence in the Islamic world has decreased considerably during the past several years due to repression within its own borders, its support for terrorism, flagrant anti-Semitism and for advocating a violent interpretation of Islam. Supporting the Syrian government in massacring its people has further increased the Muslim community's animosity towards the Iranian regime.
However, by presenting itself as a defender of the Palestinian cause and an ardent enemy of the US and Israel, Iran has been able to maintain limited influence amongst European and Americans of Middle Eastern origin. The 1989 death fatwa issued by Khomeini against Salman Rushdie, the author of Satanic Verses was also a recruiting factor amongst reactionary segments of Muslims from the Indian peninsula.
Iran exploited this influence to create a network of religious and cultural centers in Britain and Canada, where large Muslim communities reside. The Quds day (Jerusalem day) demonstrations in London and Toronto each year illustrate Iran's influence and its ability to mobilize forces in these countries.
While Iran has no diplomatic missions in the US and no formal relations exist between the two countries, Tehran has managed to maintain limited influence in some segments of the American-Muslim community despite its unpopularity.
The case of New York based Alvavi Foundation is just one examples of this. In 2009, US authorities seized some assets of the Foundation which owns properties and spends millions of dollars each year to support universities, religious and cultural centers around the US. According to court documents, the Iranian ambassador to the UN supervised the allocation of funds to the grantees.
While little information has been provided to the public about the recipients of Alavi's funds and the basis of these donations, the Alavi case illustrates the Iranian regime's efforts to spread its political and religious influence within the US.
Another example of this is the support of the "Council on American-Islamic Relations” (CAIR) to the Iranian regime's cause. Court documents obtained during a defamation lawsuit show that CAIR participated in lobby activities to oppose US sanctions and pressures against Iran.
Following the US led invasion of Iraq, a vast and popular anti-war movement was created in the US that opposed George Bush's foreign policy in general and his Middle Eastern policy in particular. In 2005, after Ahmadinejad became president and Iran resumed its nuclear activities, the hostilities between Iran and the West increased and the fear of a new war in the region became more real.
Some of the American "left" and anti-war groups started a large scale campaign to oppose US policy toward Iran and claimed that the Iranian nuclear program or its alleged terrorism are pretexts used by Bush administration to wage a military attack against Iran.
In 2005 Iran launched an ambitious plan to connect with such anti-war groups, recruit amongst them and use their social network in a grass root lobby to influence public opinion and prevent tougher policies against Iran. *
Thus, the Iranian government created an organization called "Campaign against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran" (CASMII) in both England and the US. CASMII, which regards itself as "anti-Imperialist", has in partnership with Washington based National Iranian American Council (NIAC), been able to bridge Iran with US anti-war movements, successfully shaping the Iran debate within American left peace groups. **
In September 2008, 150 representatives of US peace groups participated in a reception with Ahmadinejad in New York, some of them praising the Iranian regime and pledging to help to combat US pressure and sanctions against Iran. (See related documents)
Since 2005, CASMII, NIAC and the Iran section of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) have sent hundreds of US activists to Iran in "peace trips" organized and monitored by the regime. Upon their return, many of these activists participated in grass root lobbying in favor of Tehran. (See related documents)
In February 2012, Iran utilized these friendly groups and successfully organized "anti-war" demonstrations in several US cities.
Public and court documents show that CASMII and FOR (Iran section) have worked closely with Ahmadinejad's office to recruit among US peace activists using them to lobby in the US. (See related documents)
Furthermore, according to these documents, CASMII and FOR (Iran section) have been member partners in a large coalition of US organizations (CNAPI) that lobby for friendlier policy towards Iran. (See related documents)
CASMII and FOR's close ties with Iranian regime and their access to US organizations and US government bodies should be setting off alarm bells. While Iran is using these connections to further its political agenda in the US, this network could be used by Iran for future terrorist attacks.
* See Iranian foreign ministry document projecting more support to anti-war groups in the West
** See this video in Farsi on CASMII. See also this email (court document) in which Baquer Namazi who worked with Iranian regime, explains NIAC and CASMII's joint campaign to use the American peace movement and create a pressure group in Washington
Latin American route
The US government has expressed deep concerns about Iran's presence in Latin America, its alliance with armed groups and drug cartels and danger posed by Iranian terrorists crossing the US southern border to launch operations on American soil.
Last December, President Obama signed the “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act” which gives the Secretary of State 180 days to provide Congress with an assessment of Iranian activities in the Westernhemisphere, and calls on the State Department to lead the creation of a “comprehensive government-wide strategy to counter Iran’s growing hostile presence and activity,” primarily in Latin America.
Since 2005, Ahmadinejad has formed robust new alliances with left-wing Latin American governments, donating and spending billions of dollars in these countries with no economic justifications. Reportedly, such generous donations to "socialist" governments has helped Iran connect to armed guerrilla groups and drug cartels.
Simultaneously, Iran has created false flag "anti-imperialist" NGOs in Iran and assisted them in connecting to their Latin American counterparts, which have in turn been used to influence the left and anti-war movement in the US.
successful pro-Iran's anti-war demonstrations in Toronto, New York and several other US cities in February 2012 were partly down to these Latin American connections that mobilized the US anti-war groups.
While the American Left opposes terrorism, the Iranian regime's close ties to Latin American organizations provides opportunities for the Iranian regime in terms of logistics and provides a cover for its agents working abroad.
Exchange program, open door for Iranian agents
Since 2002, the pro-engagement lobby has supported exchange programs between the US and Iran. These programs have allowed the Iranian regime to send a large number of its pundits, high ranking officials and lobbyists to US think tanks, media and universities where they are recycled as respectable scholars and Iran experts.
While Iran is predominantly using this venue to further its political agenda in Washington, the presence of former high ranking officials in the US is alarming. For example, Hossein Mousavian, Iran's former ambassador to Germany at a time when the Iranian embassy was the central headquarter for Iran's terrorist activities in Europe in the 1990s, is currently residing in the US and working as a scholar at Princeton University. The red carpet laid out for Mousavian has provided him access to US government officials.
The case of Mousavian is by no means unique. A large number of Iranian officials have been welcomed in the US and freely lobby on behalf of Tehran. The US open door policy in respect of former and existing Iranian officials conceals the stark fact that Iran is sending its agents to US shores, has access to high ranking US officials and uses these channel for future operations. (See also, Abbas Maleki, advisor to Supreme Leader, fellow at MIT)
The Iran lobby in US
In 1997 the so-called reformist president Mohammad Khatami launched a charm offensive towards the West. American business circles seized this opportunity by initiating a large scale lobby campaign to change US policy towards Iran and to ease existing sanctions.
However, this pro-engagement lobby by US business interests needed the input and support of Iranian organizations for its campaign and to legitimize friendlier policies towards the Iranian regime.
The need to have an "Iranian voice" in Washington to promote such friendlier policies and to oppose sanctions was a sentiment shared by the Iranian regime. Thus, the common cause between Americans business interests and the Iranian regime helped create several Iranian-American organizations that received simultaneous support from Tehran and the trade lobby in Washington.
Financed by oil corporations, the American Iranian Council (AIC) was founded in 1997. AIC's president, Hooshang AmirAhmadi is a presidential candidate in Iran and has publicly declared himself a lobbyist on behalf of Iran. (See this document on AIC and also, see Amirahmadi's interviews here and here)
Later in 2002, AIC's director Trita Prasi founded National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which the official Iranian press itself labels as the "Iran lobby in US".
In September 2012, NIAC lost a defamation lawsuit it had brought against one of its critics. The court dismissed the suit and in a second ruling, the judge punished NIAC for discovery abuses and ordered them to pay a significant part of the defendant's legal expenses.
NIAC is one of the US administration's main interlocutor on Iran issues, with the US embassies continuously inviting Parsi to speak at events organized and sponsored by their embassies, where he has had access to and briefed State Department officials and delivered (paid for) classes to them. In turn, most prominent State officials speak at NIAC's events.
According to NIAC's internal documents obtained during the "lawsuit", Parsi and NIAC facilitated the track II meetings between the US delegation and Iranian officials in 2008-2009 in Europe. Moreover, State Department officials coordinated a joint lobby in Congress to raise funds for an initiative that would allegedly facilitate better relations between Iran and the US.
Between 2008 and 2010, NIAC coordinated a coalition of organizations that lobbied for a softer approach towards Iran. This coalition was the “Campaign for a New American Policy on Iran” (CNAPI) that brought together representatives from USA Engage (a pro-trade lobby), Open Society and peace and religious groups. On December 18, 2008, in their monthly meeting, the NIAC representative and coordinator of this coalition declared that the group is now the “center of gravity on Iran issues” in Congress.
While NIAC has access to the US administration and lobbies in the Congress, internal documents obtained during the lawsuit shows Parsi's collaboration with the Iranian ambassador to the UN.
In January 2013, the Library of Congress released a report prepared by the Pentagon on the Iranian intelligence ministry, and named London based [either say UK based or Leeds based – they are not in London] Massoud Khodabandeh and his wife Anne Singleton as recruits of the Iranian intelligence services (p.26-7). NIAC's internal documents obtained during a defamation lawsuit, (that NIAC lost) show a close collaboration between NIAC and these two individuals. In 2008, NIAC paid for the two to travel to an organized Congressional briefing in Washington, however the US Homeland Security intervened and prevented them from boarding the London-Washington flight.
It is astonishing how this type of an organization could have such an intimate relationship with US and Iranian governments at the same time.
Political confusion and vulnerability to Iranian terrorism
The vulnerability to Iranian sponsored terrorism could stem from the confusions about the nature and intentions of the Iranian regime and underestimating the threat posed by it. As a result, the West is not on high alert, thus failing to take the necessary steps to counter this threat.
The confusions about Iran are partly created and caused by powerful political and business circles that preach friendship and coexistence with Iran and attempt to present the Iranian regime as a rational and responsible partner in the world arena. This coalition is the pro-engagement or appeasement lobby with Iran.
The lobby has a large number of journalists, Iran experts and scholars who work relentlessly to exonerate the Iranian regime of terrorism, mask the threat posed by Iran and confuse policy makers.
Immediately after Canada announced the role of Iranian based Al Qaeda in the terrorist plot, an army of American pundits was already at work to acquit Iran. For example, Scott Peterson wrote an article titled: "Canada alleges Al Qaeda plot from Iran, but Tehran's involvement unlikely" in which he heavily refuted the suggestion of an Iran-Al Qaeda link.
Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council said “It frankly doesn’t compute for me,” adding that "If there is any link, I would think it was extremely tangential." She also noted that the Obama administration “may have overstated the case when designated Iran for having a ‘secret deal with Al-Qaeda allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory.’”
While the motto of good journalism is to 'question everything', one must also question why these pundits and 'Iran experts" jump to defend Iran so quickly at every opportunity. Last year, when the US government accused Iran in the assassination plot of the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Barbara Slavin was among the first to react. In an article she quoted a group of pundits and experts in an attempt to dispel any suspicion that Iran was involved in the plot.
Gary Sick, the director of the influential Gulf 2000 forum, is another example of this pro-Tehran campaigners. Regarding the plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador, Sick declared: “I find this very hard to believe. In fact, this plot, if true, departs from all known Iranian policies and procedures. To be sure, Iran has plenty of reasons to be angry at both the United States and Saudi Arabia. They attribute the recent wave of assassinations of physics professors and students, as well as the intrusion of the Stuxnet worm, to the U.S. and Israel. And the king of Saudi Arabia is reliably reported to have called for the U.S. to bomb Iran."
Furthermore, when the Library of Congress released a report on Iran's intelligence ministry, its operational web and its 30,000 staff in December 2012, Sick vehemently criticized the report and declared that "the entire Federal Research Division study has all the appearance of a very cheap piece of propaganda and should not be trusted." The report was specifically conducted to counter the Iranian threat and defend US National Security.
Again, following the enactment of a law to monitor Iran’s influence in Latin America in January this year, Sick declared that "there is some parallels with the 1950s, when many American politicians saw a communist under every bed, now they see an Iranian under every bed.”
There is no doubt that Sick, Slavin and other self-proclaimed "Iran experts" who work with the pro-engagement lobby, decrease political and public alertness regarding Iran's terrorist activities. This has also been the case with regards to Iran's controversial nuclear program. By presenting Iran's intentions as peaceful and benign, they have influenced public opinion and weakened the government's position to take adequate and timely measures against this program. While Iran's secret program was revealed in 2002, the first meaningful US sanction was not adopted until 2010.
The Iranian regime's web of influence in the US is designed to influence public opinion and decision makers in Washington and to serve Iranian strategic interests. However, past experiences of Iranian terrorism in Europe show that these political, religious and cultural networks could also serve Iranian terrorism. In order to prevent or diminish such threats, the US government must recognize the Iranian web of influence in the US and implement a counter strategy to prevent future threats.