As a former aide-de-camp to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei and one of the founders of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Mohsen Sazegara was once at the radical, sharply anti-American vanguard of that country's Islamic revolution. Operating from Khomenei's exile headquarters in Paris during the 1970s, the U.S.–educated student revolutionary was so close to the theocrats plotting to overthrow the American-backed shah that he ﬂew into Tehran with Khomenei to launch the 1979 revolution -- and later served in several high-level political posts in the Islamic revolutionary government.
More than two decades later, Sazegara -- now 50 years old and wizened from two harsh terms in Iranian prisons -- has returned to the United States with a very different agenda.
Sazegara has taken up residence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he hopes to mobilize his fellow exiles and U.S. policy-makers in support of a new initiative to peacefully topple the regime in Tehran.
In recent months, he and his supporters have been calling for a nationwide referendum on Iran's constitution, timed to coincide with Iran's presidential elections in mid-June. Referendum organizers have gathered 36,000 signatures on their Web site, www.60000000.com (a reference to the more than 60 million Iranians living under the mullahs' oppressive rule).
Among the referendum campaign's most prominent backers, ironically enough, is Reza Pahlavi, son of the late shah whom Sazegara helped topple. He is now a resident of the Washington, D.C., suburbs, where he maintains his “secretariat.” Pahlavi, 44, has his own group of followers who are seeking to restore the dynasty founded by his grandfather (a goal neither endorsed nor renounced by the putative heir).
A nexus of monarchist Iranian exiles and American neoconservatives, the Pahlavi network was cultivated in the early '80s by U.S. ofﬁcials who wanted to explore options for overturning the Tehran regime. The aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal froze the network for almost two decades. But the network surfaced again with the arrival of George W. Bush, as neocons called for regime change. In 2002, Pahlavi himself authored Winds of Change: The Future of Democracy in Iran, which advocated peaceful, Serbian-style revolution in his homeland. (His publisher, interestingly enough, was Regnery, now famed for its connection with the Swift Boat Vets and POWs for Truth.)
The network brieﬂy gathered force following the fall of Baghdad. With protests sweeping Tehran in the summer of 2003, neocons urged action. But their momentum slowed with the regime's crackdown on protesters and then faltered after revelations of Pentagon contacts with Manucher Ghorbanifar, the notorious Iran-Contra arms dealer.
Yet recent moves in Congress to promote the “liberation” of Iran prove the continued vitality of the idea and its persistent sponsors. Over the course of nearly three decades, the same players continue to form the same coalition, pushing the same idea: a U.S.–sponsored campaign to destabilize the mullahs.
Having suddenly dropped into Washington's continuing debate over policy toward Iran, Sazegara faces decisions that could make or break his opposition movement. His mere presence at the Washington Institute, a think tank known for advocating pro-Israeli policy and the targeting of Iran, adds a new layer of potential controversy. But the embrace of his well-connected new friends has also proved very helpful.
Owing to his past ties to the Revolutionary Guard, which runs Iranian military and intelligence operations, he was initially refused permission to visit the United States. The Washington Institute's top Iran specialist, Patrick Clawson, lobbied hard for months to secure Sazegara's extended visa.
How did the former Revolutionary Guard connect with Washington's wealthy, Republican-oriented, and largely monarchist Iranian exile community? He says that when he was released from an Iranian prison last year to obtain medical treatment, an Iranian scholar who runs a Persian-language library in London introduced him to Shary Ahy, one of Pahlavi's chief political advisers.
It isn't clear whether Sazegara was fully aware of all the potential complications when he accepted the Washington Institute's generous fellowship offer. During a recent interview with the Prospect, for example, Sazegara criticized the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian terrorist organization that allied itself with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and was responsible for killing a close Sazegara associate. He was genuinely surprised to learn that ﬁgures associated with the Washington Institute -- including Clawson -- have long been pushing the Bush administration to rescind the State Department's long-standing “terrorist” designation of the MEK, to facilitate working with the group against the Tehran regime.
Sazegara is entering the debate about America's Iran policy at a critical juncture. The main issue, of course, is Iran's nuclear program. Iran recently declared at the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference that it is determined to pursue a “peaceful” nuclear program -- which may signal the breakdown of the European-led negotiations.
While the White House reviews options, hawkish members of Congress have taken advantage of the policy vacuum. Hardly noticed in last December's appropriations bill was a measure introduced by Senator Sam Brownback to provide $3 million to promote democracy in Iran -- the ﬁrst such U.S. funding targeted at Iranian internal affairs since the Reagan administration backed CIA programs to try to dislodge the mullahs.
Like so many aspects of U.S. policy toward Iran, the new funding has encountered both raised expectations and skepticism. “This is a good excuse for not having a policy, for not being serious,” says Manouchehr Ganji, a Washington-based Iranian human-rights and democracy activist who once served as minister of education in the shah's government.
Twenty years ago, Ganji ran a pro-democracy, anti-mullah, Farsi-language radio station from Paris that was funded by the Reagan and Bush Senior administrations. “What do they expect these people will do for $3 million?” he asks. “This is not being serious with a regime like that, which is armed to the teeth, which arrests people, tortures people … . To ask people to come and get a little money and get themselves killed, with no organization, no backing -- it's a criminal act.”
Still, Sazegara believes that his referendum bid can unite Iranians behind a platform that supports universal human rights, while leaving vague the details of post-mullah governance. Behind him are sympathizers who include everyone from monarchists to secular leftists. Although Sazegara is the movement's public face, the man actually coordinating that effort is the suave, MIT–educated Ahy.
The Pahlavi adviser speaks eloquently of the recent democratic upheavals in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, saying that the referendum effort should be understood in the context of those events.
“Twenty-seven years ago, it was a revolutionary paradigm sweeping Europe, and in Iran, it was [militant] revolutionaries that planned political change,” says Ahy. “Now, with events in Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, it is liberal democrats who plan political change, and execute it, and the process is going to be a liberal democratic process.”
With their patient discourse on liberal democracy, nonviolent change, and international human rights, neither Ahy nor Sazegara sounds like Washington's more belligerent advocates of regime change in Iran. Yet the fact that Pahlavi's operatives are quietly coordinating the referendum effort troubles some observers.
“They are very cute in their talk of the strategic uses of nonviolence,” says an American of Iranian descent who has been in contact with the extended Pahlavi network and asked not to be identiﬁed. “For instance, Pahlavi, in his recent book made a point of saying if Iran is struck militarily, it will set back the cause of regime change 30 years.”
At the same time, says this Iranian-American activist, the Pahlavi network and its American sponsors have been trying for a quarter-century to demonize the undoubtedly wretched Iranian regime in the American public mind to an almost cartoonish degree -- as if Iran's leaders “were Hitler,” he says.
Working mostly behind the scenes, the network brings to mind the covert intrigues of the Reagan era, which involved a constellation of monarchists, arms dealers, neoconservative ideologues, and Israeli intelligence agents. Back then, as Ganji recalls, Pahlavi and Ahy recruited him in a Rosslyn, Virginia, hotel room to run the Paris-based radio station with funds provided by Congress.
Today Ahy insists that the referendum effort is accepting no money -- or strategic direction -- from any foreign government. “In conversations that I have had with people in Washington, I have told them there are two red lines,” he says. “We cannot accept public funding from this or any other government. And we do not want legislation from Congress that discusses regime change.”
During a May interview shortly after his arrival in Washington, with limited signs that the referendum movement had achieved political traction, Sazegara sounded philosophical. The election's most likely outcome appeared to be the return of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the 70-year-old conservative hard-liner, former Iranian president, and a ﬁgure all too familiar from the Iran-Contra era.
“Our difﬁculty now is to give the people hope, to give the people something to believe in,” Sazegara mused. “To melt the ice. This is the reason that we need international support of the Iranian people -- not just lip service.”
Laura Rozen reports on foreign affairs and national-security issues from Washington, D.C. Jeet Heer, who is based in Toronto, frequently writes for The Boston Globe and the National Post.