New Front Sets Sights On Toppling Iran Regime

By Marc Perelman

Published May 16, 2003, issue of May 16, 2003.
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A budding coalition of conservative hawks, Jewish organizations and Iranian monarchists is pressing the White House to step up American efforts to bring about regime change in Iran.

For now, President Bush’s official stance is to encourage the Iranian people to push the mullah regime aside themselves, but observers believe that the policy is not yet firm, and that has created an opportunity for activists. Neoconservatives advocating regime change in Tehran through diplomatic pressure — and even covert action — appear to be winning the debate within the administration, several knowledgeable observers said.

“There is a pact emerging between hawks in the administration, Jewish groups and Iranian supporters of Reza Pahlavi [the exiled son of the former shah of Iran] to push for regime change,” said Pooya Dayanim, president of the Iranian-Jewish Public Affairs Committee in Los Angeles and a hawk on Iran.

The emerging coalition is reminiscent of the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, with Pahlavi possibly assuming the role of Iraqi exile opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi, a favorite of neoconservatives. Like Chalabi, Pahlavi has good relations with several Jewish groups. He has addressed the board of the hawkish Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and gave a public speech at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and met with Jewish communal leaders.

Pahlavi also has had quiet contacts with top Israeli officials. During the last two years, according to a knowledgeable source, he has met privately with Prime Minister Sharon and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Israel’s Iranian-born president, Moshe Katsav.

In another parallel to the pre-invasion debate over Iraq, an intense policy battle is heating up between the State and Defense departments over what to do in Iran.

“The president, the vice president and, even more so, the Pentagon support regime change,” said a source who follows the internal debate closely. “But State does not want to meddle in Iran, so you have a big fight right now within the administration.”

As was the case during the Iraq debate, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol is leading the charge for a more aggressive policy on Iran. In the magazine’s May 12 issue, he wrote an editorial pushing for covert action and other steps to trigger regime change in Tehran.

Advocates of a more restrained policy note that American and Iranian officials meet regularly, but say that the disappointing performance of the reformist camp in Iran has undercut their efforts to promote American engagement with Iran.

“Some people at the Pentagon have concluded that the reformists are just mullahs with smiling faces and that regime change is the only way,” said Gary Sick, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University and an advocate of engaging Iran. “They believe that Iran is ripe for revolution, but I think this is highly questionable.”

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputies Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith are known to support regime change, although they have been much less vocal about Iran than Iraq.

At a lower level, two sources said, Iran expert Michael Rubin is now working for the Pentagon’s “special plans” office, a small unit set up to gather intelligence on Iraq, but apparently also working on Iran. Previously a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, Rubin has vocally advocated regime change in Tehran. He did respond to e-mails seeking comment.

Intelligence sources have complained about what they describe as the tendency of the secretive office to color intelligence on Iraq according to its hard line. “The office of special plans has been interviewing people and gathering intelligence on Iran in order to be ready to support democracy,” a hawkish source said. “They have spent much more time doing that than the State experts on Iran.”

Meanwhile, in Congress, Democrat Rep. Tom Lantos of California is sponsoring a resolution supporting the people of Iran against the regime. Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas has introduced an amendment that would set aside $50 million to fund Iranian opposition television and radio stations in Los Angeles — most of which promote a restoration of the shah’s monarchy — as well as human rights and pro-democracy groups.

Supporters of the shah’s son, Pahlavi, have been supporting Brownback’s amendment, know as the Iran Democracy Act. So has the main pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“We support efforts to encourage the people of Iran to cut the regime’s ties to terrorism and its pursuit of nuclear weapons,” said Rebecca Dinar, a spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. While Morris Amitay, a former Aipac director and active hawk on Iran, told the Forward that it would only be natural for Jewish groups to openly back regime change in Iran, most prefer to keep a low profile on this issue.

For example, Pahlavi was slated to meet Iranian Jewish members of Aipac at the group’s annual conference this spring. But Aipac officials, worried that it could be seen as inappropriate, scuttled the plan, two sources said.

“The Jewish groups are telling Reza that they will give him private support and help arrange meetings with U.S. officials,” one of the sources said.

Iranian Jewish groups are playing a key role in forging the relationship. The Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee’s Dayanim, a regular contributor to the National Review Online, has been one of the most active hawks. He argued that support for Pahlavi among Iranian Americans may have less to do with deep pro-monarchist feelings than with his status as the most recognizable opposition figure among immigrants.

Still, Dayanim acknowledged that many Iranian Jews were “in love with Pahlavi” because they see his father’s reign as a golden era for Jews. Pahlavi has expressed support for democracy while calling for a referendum restoring the monarchy.

One key Pahlavi supporter who has become popular in Iranian American circles is former Reagan administration official Michael Ledeen, now a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

In numerous addresses and articles, Ledeen has been arguing that the mullah regime is on the brink of collapse and that the time has come for Washington to push it over the edge. He has joined with Amitay, ex-CIA head James Woolsey, former Reagan administration official Frank Gaffney, former Senator Paul Simon and oil consultant Rob Sobhani to set up a group called the Coalition for Democracy in Iran. Several of them took part May 6 in a one-day American Enterprise Institute conference titled “The Future of Iran.” During the event, Ledeen argued that help from outside actors was needed to help ignite revolutionary changes in Iran.

While Ledeen has not called for military action, some of his declarations appear to suggest that aggressive action could be taken.

Last month, Ledeen gave a speech to a pro-monarchist crowd in Los Angeles. In the question-and-answer session, he reportedly said that with $20 million, there could be a “free Iran” — and that he knew how best to use the money.

Ledeen, who was involved in the Iran-contra scandal but never charged, declined comment.

Asked about the possibility of covert action, a member of the Pentagon-linked Defense Policy Board answered with one word: “maybe.” He refused to elaborate.

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