Monday, December 10, 2007

Saker interview with Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich

I have recently posted an interesting piece by Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich entitled "Iran Intelligence Report: Another Psychological Warfare?". This was not the first time I had read Soraya's very interesting and insightful articles about Iran and this latest piece prompted me to contact Soraya and ask her for an interview. Soraya kindly agreed to my request and it is my real pleasure today to resume my "Saker interviews" series with a (virtual) conversation with her.


Q: First, could you please introduce yourself in a couple of words. I know that you have an interesting bio and that you lived in several countries, including Iran. Could you please give us some details about yourself?

A. I am an Iranian-American with a degree from International Relations from U.S. As an independent researcher, I have focused on U.S. foreign policy towards Iran and Iran’s nuclear program and the role of lobby groups in foreign policy decisions. I think of myself as a peace activist and have become a ‘political essayist’ because I think that building awareness is important and people can make a change. I am also a public speaker and radio commentator.

Q: Also, just to set the record straight, do you consider yourself a supporter or an opponent of the current government of the Islamic Republic of Iran?

A. I support a secular democracy. Having said that, I must emphasize that there is a clear distinction between Iran as a country, as a nation with over 10,000 years of history, and the current government policies. While I disagree with the internal policies of the Islamic Regime of Iran regarding human rights and democracy, I strongly support Iran's right for independence, national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Q: In your article you mention the Mojahedeen-e Khalgh (MEK) group. In the western corporate media it is very rarely mentioned. This group is listed on the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations but a number of observers have also alleged that this group is supported by the USA and especially the CIA. What can you tell us about this group, its activities in Iran and its relationship with the USA?

A. Mojahedeen-e Khalgh/National Council of Resistance (also known by their acronyms MEK/MKO/NCRI) is a terrorist group in every sense. U.S. and EU also consider them as a terrorist group, and yet they are supported by the United States. In act, it is such an irony that Mr. Bush declares a war on terror, depletes our treasury, American soldiers die in order to keep us safe from ‘terrorists’, yet our tax dollars are being spent not on keeping terrorists in comfort. Upon invading Iraq, 3800 MEK terrorists were given ‘special persons status’ by the orders of this administration. When this order was issued, there was considerable surprise even at the State Department briefing (source: US State Department Daily Briefing).

The so-called political arms of the group solicits funds in Washington. They have major backers such as Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson who in May 2003, Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson recommended that “when the secretary of state next decides whether or not to re-certify the MEK as a terrorist organization,” that official “should come to the sensible conclusion that it poses no threat to the security of the United States or its citizens.” Pipes and Clawson went on to praise the MEK as a potential U.S. ally.

These sentiments are echoed in Europe where their leader roams around the European parliament. Hardly the treatment a terrorist should receive.

As for their relation with Iran - The MEK is deeply hated by the majority of Iranians because of their [alliance] with Saddam Hossein during the Iran-Iraq war. The MEK are responsible for killing Iranians and the American government now thinks they can install them as a substitute to the Iranian regime.

The MEK claims to have exposed Iran’s nuclear plant under construction – however, Sy Hersh exposed their Israeli connections. And the essay I wrote, further exposed the role the US/Israel has in mind for them.

Q: Even before the publication of the 2007 NIE it was quite obvious that all this nonsense about an alleged Iranian nuclear weapons program being developed right under the noses of the IAEA inspectors was just a pretext for "regime change" in Iran. But what about the accusation that Iran is training, funding, arming and even possibly directly supporting various Shia factions in Iraq, including the Badr Corps and the Mehdi Army? What do you make of the US accusation that the Pasdaran's Quds Force is operating in Iraq against US occupation forces?

A. I have not seen any credible evidence to support these accusations. But, the Iraqi government at the highest level such as Prime Minister Nouri Maleki, Minister of Foreign Affairs Hoshyar Zebari, all have repeatedly appreciated Iranian cooperation for Iraq's stability and security. However, I just find it odd that the U.S. is always losing military equipment. Not only was the war planning poor, but it seems that the arms are coming from the US, and not from Iran. In the latest scandal it has been discovered that $1 billion in military equipment is missing in Iraq.

Laura Strickler, CBS News, said, "Tractor trailers, tank recovery vehicles, crates of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades are just a sampling of more than $1 billion in unaccounted-for military equipment and services provided to the Iraqi security forces, according to a new report issued today by the Pentagon Inspector General and obtained exclusively by the CBS News investigative unit."

Q: In his testimony to Congress General Petraeus said: In the past six months we have also targeted Shia militia extremists, capturing a number of senior leaders and fighters, as well as the deputy commander of Lebanese Hezbollah Department 2800, the organization created to support the training, arming, funding, and, in some cases, direction of the militia extremists by the Iranian Republican Guard Corps' Qods Force. A Hezbollah "department 2800" directed by the Quds Force, that sounds very specific. What do you make of that accusation?

A. This is curious indeed. World Public Opinion came out with a poll taken in 4 Moslem countries, Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia, and Pakistan. With a vast margin, they all thought that the US is seeking to undermine Islam. Every time there is news of an incident, it is reported as ‘Islamist radicals, Islamist terrorist, racial Islam’ and so forth. Not a single terrorist is identified by his or her nationality, they are always identified by their religion, I presume because we lack the intelligence to identify the perpetrator’s nationality – unless we want to make a point about Islam being a terrorist religion. – which could explain why the Moslem world is so apprehensive about America. So I am dumbfounded how in Iraq, General Petraeus who I dare say is the Green Zone, managed to know exactly who is training a specific group in such minute detail. One must also understand that Hezbollah has fought hard to become a legitimate group in Lebanon – it is one thing to fight against Israel as a force, another to be ‘terrorists’ in Iraq. Moreover, if Iran wants to do something in Iraq, regretfully, it has its own people.

Q: The Neocons have succeeded in getting Congress to pass a resolution declaring that the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (Pasdaran) is a 'terrorist' organization. Since the latter are under the direct command of Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, does that not amount to declaring him and the entire Iranian government as 'terrorist'?

A. Since Ayatollah Khamenei is the chief commander of Iranian Army and Revolutionary Guards as well, then one might assume that Ayatollah himself is accused indirectly. I forget how many years it has been since they have said Iran is a state sponsor of terrorists. But, I don't think those who passed this resolution, really meant the Ayatollah. I think the main purpose of this resolution is to create a dispute between the two main branches of Iranian military organization--the regular Army and the Revolutionary Guards on one hand and also to justify economic pressure on the Revolutionary Guards, such as blocking its assets outside Iran.

However, Mr. Rafsanjani (the former president and the current Chairman of the Assembly of Experts) responded to this law that it is against the entire Iranian nation. And even the moderates such a former president Khatami expressed almost the same opinion, but in a different way. Moreover, it seems that there is not much enthusiasm to enforce this resolution.

Q: Speaking of Ali Khamenei, he is a very interesting figure. According to Wikipedia, he is not Persian but Azeri and even though he is at the helm of a majority Persian country he is also the spiritual leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah (even though most Lebanese Shia are followers of Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, a Lebanese Arab). What is your take on this little know personality (at least in the West), on his role in today's Iran, and on his relationship with President Ahmadinejad?

A. Yes, that's true Ali Khamenei as a religious leader and as an Ayatollah has many followers and not just in Lebanon. In Shia, there is no Pope-like figure that everyone follows. All Shia Grand Ayatollahs, whether Arab or Iranian, while they have common and extremely close perception of Shiism even as they hold different view in many details. For example, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf, who was born in the Iranian city of Mashhad is the most influential man in Iraq, who can send shockwaves through Iraq with a Fatwa. All Iraqi Shias listen to him and follow his command in despite of Iraqis being Arabs.

So, the same holds for Lebanon; many Shias despite being Arabs follow Ayatollah Khamenei as their spiritual leader while others follow Grand Ayatollah Fadl-Allah - These two are close friends. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah is a political leader and not a spiritual leader, though he is a medium rank Shia cleric. Nasrallah came out as a hero for defending Lebanon against Israel during the 33-day war – Ahamadinejad is a hero to many for resisting the U.S. intimidation and defending Iran’s sovereign right.

Q: There have been a number of changes at the head of the Pasdaran recently with Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Jaafari replacing Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi who was appointed to the position of Senior Advisor to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for Military Affairs. Similarly, Saeed Jalili has replaced Ali Larijani as Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator. What do you make of these changes? Are they are reflection of infighting among various groups inside the Iranian government?

A. It is hard to say, it could be because of many reasons. As you may know, it is a policy in any country that no one should occupy a key position, specially in the military and security for a long period. That is what happens and even in the U.S. high-ranking generals, in spite of their loyalty and service are replaced all the time. I think, this could be the main reason for the recent changes in Sepah (the IRGC or Pasdaran. VS), though, I do not exclude other possibilities.

Q: What kind of political opposition is there in Iran today? What has been going on between the 'Conservative' and 'Reformist' parties in Iran? What about the so-called 'ultra-conservatives' lead by Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi? It is often said that President Ahmadinejad has disappointed his supporters? Is that true and, if yes, who do you believe might succeed him?

A. "Ahmadinejad: rock star in rural Iran" (see CS monitor article)

Q: According to Wikipedia, Iran is only 51% Persian. The US has often used the ethnic diversity of the countries who dared to refuse its supremacy to break them apart into smaller, subservient, parts fully dependent on Washington's goodwill. One only needs to see how the US financed and supported the various nationalist movements in the former Soviet Union or former Yugoslavia to impose its rule by the old 'divide and conquer' tactic. Is there are risk that the USA might repeat this with Iran?

A. Wikipedia is not a very reliable source. As you know, very often some people might change and edit the posted material. Furthermore, nobody knows exactly the precise percentage of ethnic diversity of Iran. Even the Iranian government can’t give the exact figure, what is at hand is based on guestimations. For centuries, Iranians have intermingled from different parts of Iran, greater Persian Empire and even different parts of the Middle East. So, it is really foolish to map out Iran based on ethnicity.

But, the second part of your question about the possibility of creating ethnic problem for Iran, I say yes, there might be small groups of western-supported separatists, like PJAK [Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan] who commit terrorism. Please see the article Movers and Shakers of U.S. foreign Policy

But the analogy of the former Soviet Union or even former Yugoslavia is not appropriate here. The former Soviet Union was made of different Nations occupied by Russia. The former Yugoslavia came to existence only after World War I. On the other hand, Iran has been a nation for more than 2500 years. The sense of national pride and long history is very strong amongst the vast majority of Iranians.