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Tehran and the British Spy Game - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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It may take years before a full account of Iran’s current political crisis, triggered by last June’s disputed presidential elections, is written.

However, someone within the establishment in Tehran is already writing it in the style of spy thrillers.

According to that version, publicized by state media and peddled in show-trials, the crisis, whose outcome remains uncertain, was the fruit of plots by Western intelligence services whose secret aim was to transform Iran into “a secular republic”.

The storyline goes something like this: In the early 1990s, British Intelligence (MI6) persuaded the Clinton administration in Washington that the Khomeinist regime in Iran was ripe for a “velvet revolution” that is to say regime change without war. The Americans agreed, leaving the Brits in charge of the conspiracy.

The Brits started looking for someone to promote as a presidential candidate in the Islamic Republic in 1997. They contacted a number of young and ambitious Iranian politicians who dreamed of “Khomeinism with a human face.” These people secretly admired Western democracy but lacked the courage to abandon their Khomeinist illusions. They devoured the works of Western philosophers but also made sure of advertising their Islamic piety by sporting designer stubbles, fingering 99-bead rosaries, and shunning neckties. Their ideal situation was one in which they could live under Western conditions while the mass of Iranians survived within the narrow confines of Khomeinism.

The Brits’ first catch was a former Khomeinist firebrand known under the pen name of Abdol Karim Soroush. According to the Tehran thriller writer’s account, Soroush, a British-educated chemist and admirer of the liberal philosopher Karl Popper, was transformed into an international celebrity and presented by British and American media as “the Martin Luther of Islam.”

Through Soroush, the plotters recruited a number of people inside Iran, including one Saeed Hajjarian, a security official who had developed intellectual ambitions. Over the next few years, Hajjarian was transformed into the “architect of the reform movement” in the Islamic Republic.

Through Soroush and Hajjarian, the plotters identified a mid-ranking mullah, named Sayyed Mohammad Khatami, as the ideal presidential candidate.

According to Tehran’s Islamic Prosecutor Muhammad Sepehri, in 1994 an Australian philosopher, named John Keane, developed the so-called “civil society” project that was to become Khatami’s campaign platform. Hajjarian traveled to London and held two “working sessions” with Keane to fine-tune the project.

By 2006, Hajjarian had become the Svengali behind Khatami, transforming the smiling mullah into a credible politician with philosophical aspirations.

Khatami’s victory in 1997 was “arranged” by the outgoing President Hashemi Rafsanjani who did not want the hard-line candidate, another mullah named Nateq-Nouri, to win. Once elected president, Khatami was courted by the Western plotters who invited him to international conferences, including the World Economic Forum at Davos, and the annual gathering of the Bilderberg Group, identified by the Tehran media as “a Freemason lodge governing the world.”

At this point, the Tehran thriller writer’s account is de-routed by an avalanche of names and accusations.

We read of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas visiting Tehran and Qom in 2002 as part of “the plot” to seduce students of theology with Western philosophy. The late American philosopher Richard Rorty, who visited Iran in 2004, is also mentioned as one of the plotters along with another American professor, Gene Sharp of Harvard. Both are credited with teaching the “theory of soft regime change” to Iranians. More strangely, perhaps, we also see the name of Antonio Negri, the Italian Marxist who visited Iran in 2005.

The Tehran thriller writer does not realize that the people named belong to different schools of philosophy and are unlikely to work together in any secret plan.

The thriller includes a number of secondary characters.

Among these are Michael Ledeen, a scholar and former Pentagon official, the hedge-fund manager George Soros, the former CIA aide Gary Sick, and Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. They are accompanied by a number of Iranians and Iranian-Americans who have been jailed in Tehran during the past four years for up to eight months. At least two Iranian-Americans are back in jail because they were imprudent enough to return to the Islamic Republic to watch last June’s presidential election.

Franco-Iranian philosopher Daryoush Shayegan and his Irano-Canadian disciple Ramin Jahanbegloo are also included among the alleged plotters.

To make matters more interesting, the thriller also includes references to the Israeli secret service MOSSAD, albeit as second fiddle to the British arch-plotters. The Dutch secret services are also mentioned, mostly as sources of funding for opposition radio networks and websites.

If our thriller writer is to be believed, the British set up a special BBC television programme in Persian to coordinate the plot. They recruited a number of Khatamist journalists in Tehran and put a former official of Khatami’s administration in charge.

The Tehran thriller account tells us more about the mindset of the Khomeinist establishment than about what actually happened.

It is clear that the Khomeinist leadership is truly shaken by the spectacle of millions of Iranians pouring onto the streets to denounce the supposed “divine system” as if it were nothing but a vulgar Third-World style dictatorship. It is to restore part of its lost self-confidence that the regime is trying to blame foreign powers for the uprising.

The reader of the thriller would wonder how so many spies and plotters could come to Iran over more than a decade, hold dozens of meetings and address countless public gatherings without being noticed by the Islamic Republic’s nine different intelligence services.

The reader would also wonder how a small group of foreign plotters could persuade 20 million Iranians to elect Khatami twice and cast at least 13 million votes for Mir-Hossein Mousavi, according to official claims.

One may also wonder why it is that while the foot soldiers and some NCOs of the revolt are under lock and key, its supposed top leaders remain free.

The “foreign conspiracy theory” is an insult to Iran and Iranians and would be of no help to the Islamic Republic.

If two former presidents and a former prime minister, men who ran the Islamic Republic for 24 out of its 30 years of existence, are agents of foreign powers, something must be wrong with the regime itself. This is not to mention hundreds of former senior officials who are also cast as villains in the alleged “velvet revolution” plot. Moreover, if BBC television in Persian could persuade millions of Iranians into seeking regime change, then something must be wrong with the regime in Tehran.

The wisest course would be for the regime to acknowledge that the Khomeinist establishment today is split between two rival visions, represented by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mousavi.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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