Neocons in the Age of Trump? The Case of the FDD and Iran’s “Fake Opposition”
By Muhammad Sahimi February 19, 2020
Neoconservatives and like-minded hawks have sought to burnish their public images in the wake of President Trump’s bumbling foreign policy moves, presenting themselves as reasonable counterweights to an out-of-control administration. However, as the case of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies demonstrates, there is always more than meets the eye with the neocons
(The Militarist Monitor) Shortly after President Trump’s decision to remove U.S. forces from northern Syria and effectively green-light Turkey’s offensive against erstwhile U.S. allies, the Kurds, neoconservative pundits went on an offensive of their own, attacking the president for “leaving America’s allies to be slaughtered and enabling the return of ISIS,” as Rep. Liz Cheney tweeted. All of sudden there was a new war in Washington: “Trump battles neocon wing,” read one Fox News headline. With fallout from the president’s Ukraine shenanigans still dominating headlines, many neoconservatives and like-minded hawks, including former National Security Adviser John Bolton, have seen their public images improve as fears grow of an out-of-control president.
Of course, anyone with even a smattering of awareness of recent history will know that the neocons excel at exploiting division. And just as they sought to enlist “liberal interventionists” in their campaign to attack Iraq after 9/11, they are now seeking to exploit the unraveling of the Trump administration to promote their radical Middle East agenda, all the while seeming to be the “adults in the room.” But just as we saw with the “war on terror,” there is always more than meets the eye when dealing with the neocons.
A perfect case in point is the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. FDD, which was founded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has long been obsessed with Iran and has vocally opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement between Iran and 5+1 group of nations. It has sought to burnish its public profile with claims that its core mission is an old-fashioned American ideal, the “defense of democracies.” But the folks at FDD, like CEO Mark Dubowitz, have a habit of routinely undermining this seemingly harmless agenda by embracing concepts like “inclusive authoritarianism.”
Among Dubowitz’s stable of stable of pundits and ideologues, few so perfectly demonstrate the radicalness of neoconservative advocacy as much as Saeed Ghasseminejad, Dubowitz’s right-hand man whose work has gone largely unnoticed as better known FDD figures, like former Trump National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, get public attention. Nevertheless, an examination of Ghasseminejad’s record can help provide an important corrective to any softening of the neocons’ image.
Ghasseminejad, who has championed “cleansing the streets of Islamist beasts” and frets about an impending Iran-fueled “Shiite apocalypse,” holds the title “Senior Iran and Financial Economics Advisor” at FDD. But more important than this title is Ghasseminejad work on behalf of Iran’s “fake opposition,” a loose assortment of reactionary activists who support economic sanctions and military pressure against Iran but whose politics stand in stark contrast to “true opposition” groups within Iran and their supporters in the diaspora, which is comprised of a broad coalition of labor and teachers’ unions, human rights groups, women’s rights and social activists, radical reformists, nationalists, secular leftists, and religious-nationalists.
Ghasseminejad was a civil engineering student at the University of Tehran, which—with the exception of the short-lived government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1951-1953—has always been a hotbed of anti-government activities. In 2002 Ghasseminejad and another student, Amir-Hossein Etemadi, a U.S.-based supporter of Reza Pahlavi, the son of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, published a student newsletter called Farda [“tomorrow”] in which they espoused “liberalism,” by which they meantilitary adventures of the kind envisioned by neoconservative supporters of “liberal intervention” in order to spread democracy by force. Ghasseminejad supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and in an article entitled “Why U.S. will attack Iran,” he implicitly advocated military attacks against his native country.
In June 2003, after sporadic demonstrations against the government in Tehran, Ghasseminejad was detained briefly. In a press conference after his release, he apologized to Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, promised to be “a good citizen,” and stopped his political activities. Two years later, in the spring of 2005 Ghasseminejad and a small group of other students began publishing another newsletter called Talangar [roughly, “wake-up call”], which focused on criticizing leftist students and the newsletters that they were publishing.
Despite expressing his “love” for democracy and human rights and presenting himself as a “classic liberal,” Ghasseminejad has repeatedly embraced authoritarianism. In an article, entitled “What do we learn from Lenin,” published in Talangar, he expressed admiration for Vladimir Lenin and his concept of “democratic centralism.” He once referred to Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator, as “the departed dear [leader] who saved Chile … and was much better than Salvador Allende,” the Chilean Socialist President who, similar to Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup in 1973.
Ghasseminejad also spoke out in favor of the slaughter of Egyptians during protests after the coup by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013, writing in his Facebook page, “I just thought I should come to Facebook and express my appreciation for the Egyptian Army cleansing the streets of the criminal Islamic fundamentalists.” He added, “As a matter of fact, the right question is not why the Egyptian Army cleans Egypt of Islamist beasts, rather why the Iranian army allowed the Islamists to take control of our country” during the Iranian Revolution.
Hence, Ghasseminejad demonstrated that not only is he ignorant of Iran’s history, but also that he does not care about the slaughter of his own compatriots, since at least 3,000 people were killed during the Iranian revolution by the army. In addition, Ghasseminejad and his ilk have remained silent about the dictatorship of el-Sisi and the fact that Egypt has tens of thousands of political prisoners.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ghasseminejad began espousing the idea that “the engine for Iran’s political and social developments has been transferred to outside the country, and its democracy movement has been tied to the political developments in the Middle East and the U.S. interest and policy toward the region.” He left Iran in 2008, ostensibly for continuing his education, first moving to France and then to the United State. Since arriving in the U.S., he has relentlessly advocated economic sanctions and war against Iran.
In an open letter to President Obama in November of 2011, Ghasseminejad and like-minded “liberals” wrote, “We all know that the world’s inaction over the past decade led to the creation of a nuclear-armed North Korea. We believe that the Islamic Republic of Iran getting nuclear and other types of unconventional weapon would be repeating the same mistake, and must be prevented.” The letter warned that Iran’s response to Obama’s efforts at negotiation was “advancing its nuclear program toward weapon making.”
This was clearly false as four years earlier in November of 2007 the National Intelligence Estimate had declared that if Iran did have an active program of research for making nuclear weapons, it stopped it in 2003, an assertion that was reconfirmed in 2010 and 2012.
Ghasseminejad has clearly and repeatedly laid out his misleading, notoriously hawkish, and frequently patently false vision of Iranian politics in a series of articles he has written over the last decade.
In various articles published before JCPOA, for example, Ghasseminejad’s constant theme was that Iran has a military nuclear program, and that military confrontation with Iran will ultimately be unavoidable. In an article published by the now-defunct Persian website Rooz, he wrote, “Ultimately, sanctions will not force Iran to give up its program for nuclear weapons. … Making nuclear weapons is a goal that Iran will not stop pursuing. … The international community must choose between a nuclear Iran and confronting it militarily. I believe the world will not accept a nuclear Iran and, therefore, we will move toward military confrontation.”
After the IAEA issued a report in November 2011 about Iran’s nuclear program, Ghasseminejad and a group of like-minded Iranians issued an inaccurate statement declaring that “The new report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) presents evidence that the [Iranian] government’s determined efforts for diverting its nuclear program to a military one have reached a decisive stage.” The statement also contained a brazen lie: “Through a hostile discourse and not cooperating with the Agency the current rulers increase day by day the possibility of military confrontation with Iran.” This was while Iran’s program had been under tight inspection by the IAEA since February 2003.
In an interview with the Clarion Project, an ultra-right website, Ghasseminejad and Sara Akrami, an Iranian who has occasionally written for the Front Page Magazine, the National Post, and the Jerusalem Post , stated: “Imagine the time when the Iranian government achieves its dream of completing its so-called “peaceful nuclear program” or, what we call it, a nuclear bomb. The entire region will definitely be set on fire.”
After President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel as his Defense Secretary in January 2013, writing in Times of Israel,Ghasseminejad declared, “The mere prospect that Hagel will fill the job is already harming efforts to convince Iran to stop its nuclear weapons program; it sends Iran a signal that President Obama is not serious about his stated opposition to the regime’s nuclear weapons program.” Note that this was over five years after the National Intelligence Estimate of November 2007, in which the U.S. intelligence organizations unanimously declared that if Iran had ac nuclear research program for producing nuclear weapons, it stopped it in 2003. Ghasseminejad apparently would like us to believe that he has privileged access to data that the U.S. agencies do not have.
Ghasseminejad presents himself as an expert on economic corruption in Iran. Khamenei is, of course, a dictator, and by helping Ahmadinejad come to power he was instrumental in abetting the systemic corruption that the Ahmadinejad administration left behind, which is why a very large majority of Iranian people despise both. Thus, given what the public already knows, there is no need to exaggerate anything or lie about the corruption. But, even here, Ghasseminejad lies. For example, he has propagated the notion that Khamenei’s wealth is close to $100 billion, which is supposedly stolen from the Iranian people. The reality, however, is quite different. The Islamic Republic’s Constitution has bestowed upon Khamenei the control on several large foundations whose assets are worth about $100 billion. But, the assets are not Khamenei’s and belong to the state. He appoints their directors and other key figures. While the Rouhani administration has still no control over these foundations, ever since he was elected in 2013, Rouhani has been pressing them to pay taxes on their net income, with some recent success as the idea of paying taxes has been accepted, although the amount of tax has not been decided yet.
Ghasseminejad’s campaign of falsehoods continued up until the JCPOA was signed in July 2015, which temporarily silenced Iran’s “fake opposition.” But, after President Trump was elected in 2016 and made it clear that he would take the U.S. out of the JCPOA, Ghasseminejad and his ilk suddenly intensified their campaign again.
Citing a Congressional source who had received a closed-door briefing by State officials, The Independent reportedthat “one individual” from FDD and another element of Iran’s “fake opposition,” the E-Collaborative for Civic Education, were being funded by the State Department to undertake an “Iran Disinformation Project.” This “E-Collaborative,” co-founded by Iranian-American activist Mariam Memarsadeghi and her husband Akbar Atri, is known in Farsi as Tavaana. It was supposedly founded to counter rhetoric emanating from Iran’s government. However, it eventually became warped into a vehicle for attacking all Iranians, Iranian-Americans, and Americans who oppose Trump’s “maximum pressure policy” toward Iran, or who are not “sufficiently supportive” of it. The project became so embarrassing that the State Department had to suspend its funding, said to be $1.5 million. Negar Mortazavi, the lead author of The Independent article, told LobeLog that she was told by one of the Congressional staff who attended the briefing that the individual was indeed Ghasseminejad and that he “worked for” one of the project directors, Iranian-American activist Mariam Memarsadeghi. Several of his pieces have, at least, been cross-posted at both the Iran Disinformation Project and FDD’s website.
Memarsadeghi—who once claimed that the “Iranian people love it when they hear what John Bolton and Trump say about Iran”—has said that “war is a prelude to peace” and that “peace for the sake of peace is boring.” Seemingly trying to justify military attacks on Iran, Memarsadeghi said in a speech, “If we take a look at history, [we see that] war has always been the beginning of improving lives and [the state] of countries and nations. … War is certainly terrible [and] we should try not to ever get there, but for many, for a variety of conditions, regaining their human dignity is not possible without war. I would also like to add that peace by itself, peace for the sake of peace, is very boring. As Mark Twain said, why would I go to heaven; I’ll be bored there” [Twain did not actually say that].
That Ghasseminejad would choose to work on a project with her would suggest that FDD’s “top” Iran expert holds similar extremist views. FDD, it should be noted, has denied any organizational connection with the Iran Disinformation Project.
More recently, as Trump has shifted to declaring that he does not want war with Iran, the “fake opposition” has begun changing its tune … again. The tactic that the “fake opposition” uses is a dual approach of writing one thing in Farsi about an issue that sounds very “moderate,” but completely the opposite of it when writing in English. For example, when Ghasseminejad writes in Farsi, he sounds like a moderate, writing on twitter, “The sanctions will weaken the Islamic Republic. Increasing diplomatic pressure will weaken it. Military pressure against it in the region will weaken it. [But] none of them will topple the Islamic Republic. Ultimately, it is up to the Iranian nation to either topple it or live with it.” However, what he writes in English is quite different. Immediately after this tweet, writing in English, Ghasseminejad claimed that “Tehran sees its attacks in the Persian Gulf have made Washington more eager to negotiate & its tone softer; it also notices an army of commentators try hard to argue that Tehran could not be behind the attacks. The only conclusion Tehran can make is that attacks are working.” In other words, Washington should get even tougher with Iran.
After it was reported that the UAE has released $700 million of Iran’s funds that had been frozen there, Ghasseminejad, writing on twitter on 21 October, stated that, “UAE has been a transshipment center for Iranian export/import. UAE to Iran is going to be what Switzerland was to Nazi Germany?” He was using the same rhetoric that Netanyahu has used against Iran, namely, that “it is 1938 [again] and Iran is Germany.”
In another twit on 19 October, Ghasseminejad expressed once again his contempt for the JCPOA. Responding to Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security Adviser in the Obama administration, he wrote, “You and your boss allowed the IRGC, Assad, and Hezbollah to kill hundreds of thousands of Syrian women, men, and children so you could get that disastrous nuclear deal with the mullahs in Tehran” [emphasis with italic words mine]. He also called for intensifying the economic war against Iranian people. Writing in another twit [in English, of course!] on October 2, he demanded, “US has successfully curbed Tehran’s oil export, it is time for US to do the same with Petrochemical products where some of its allies are playing a very non-constructive role by bypassing US sanctions and buying from Tehran.” In another twit on October 11 he even provided an e-mail address, asking his readers to e-mail any information that they may have regarding export of Iran’s petrochemical products to China, so that the information can be used to intensify even further the economic war against the Iranian people. He even called on the Treasury to punish Chinese firms that buy Iran’s petrochemical products.
After the trump administration began targeting Iran’s construction industry that creates millions of jobs in Iran, and imposed sanctions on part of the industry, Ghasseminejad wrote in a twit, “I think sanctioning the whole industry would have been more effective. Foreign companies are active in the construction sector of Iran; the current sanction creates obstacles but does not ban their presence in Iran.”
While Ghasseminejad relentlessly advocates the harshest sanctions on the Iranian people, in a twit he expresses his fake sympathies for children and their parents. Writing on October 3 [in Farsai, of course] Ghasseminejad stated, “Since becoming a father, whenever I hear the cries of a baby, I have sympathy for the baby’s parents and would like to help them, if I can.” The fake sympathy and “moderation” are the hallmark of the dual approach of Iran’s “fake opposition:” a “moderate” with sympathetic ears when writing in Farsi, but an ultra-hawk when advocating confrontation with Iran in English. Ghasseminejad has no sympathies for millions of babies and young Iranians, as well as their parents, who are suffering from the effect of the illegal U.S. sanctions, yet expresses his fake sympathies in Farsi with straight face. I suppose Ghasseminejad and “would like to help them” by advocating even more sanctions.
The net result of efforts by Ghasseminejad and his ilk in Iran’s “fake opposition,” aside from getting them high-paying jobs with lavish budgets, is the creation of false narratives about Iran that serve their push for military confrontation. They pretend that there is no opposition within Iran to Khamenei and hardliners—hence, war and sanctions are viewed as the only way to topple the regime. They claim that moderates and reformists support Khamenei and present “an acceptable face” for him, a false claim espoused by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
However, there are in fact extensive discussions within Iran among reformists and other political groups about boycotting the parliamentary elections in early 2020, unless they are free. After scattered demonstrations in December of 2017 and January of 2018, the “fake opposition” made false claims about the extent of the support for the demonstration, whereas the middle class, the engine for the democratic Green Movement of 2009-2011, stayed homeand did not join the demonstrations, because it did not want Iran to become the next Syria.
Finally, the harsh illegal economic sanctions that Ghasseminejad and FDD have been supporting have forced the true opposition in Iran to constantly wage battle in two fronts: One against Iran’s hardliners and Khamenei, and a second one against the destructive effect of the sanctions and the threat of war on Iran’s economy and their daily lives.
Ultimately, efforts by the FDD and its Iranian “experts,” like Ghasseminejad, to advocate sanctions and war against a nation of 85 million people show the unlikeliness of the neocons and their allies successfully rehabilitating their warmongering image. One cannot be a “humanitarian” while pushing for economic sanctions and war against a nation that has not attacked and invaded another country.
Muhammad Sahimi is a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles