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Beware the Foreign Regime Change Charlatans

Ahmed Chalabi's imitators are still trying to pressure America into war with Iran.

Bijan Kian, a business associate of President Donald Trump’s disgraced first national security advisor Michael Flynn, will likely soon go to jail for violating federal lobbying laws. Together with Flynn, Kian worked on behalf of the government of Turkey. But long before he was peddling Turkish interests, Kian was one of many in Washington taking advantage of America’s military might to settle his personal scores. In his case, he wanted revenge against the clerical regime in Iran.

The tragedy of U.S. foreign policy has been that in its quest to do good globally, it has invited all kinds of charlatans to lobby Washington to do their bidding. The language of these actors is seductive and frequently plays on Americans’ reverence for freedom and democracy. In the Middle East, the cacophony of voices demanding U.S. support has time and again entangled America in regime change wars that can’t be won.

While these foreign actors purport to support U.S. interests, their narratives are often self-serving and their policy alternatives detrimental to the livelihoods and democratic aspirations of regional peoples. Indeed, the track record of U.S. interventions is pretty poor, especially for the Iraqi and Iranian people, who for years have suffered under the weight of policies spearheaded by Washington-based special interests and expats.

The most infamous figure in recent years to gain lasting influence over American Middle East policy was Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi mathematician who teamed up with neoconservatives to pressure the United States into liberating Iraq. Chalabi, who before the war had not been to Baghdad since 1958, espoused erroneous information about the alleged threat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, including lies about stockpiles of chemical and nuclear weapons. He portrayed himself as a unifying figure who had organized the Iraqi opposition in his “Iraqi National Congress” (INC).

According to former CIA official Bruce Riedel, Chalabi “promised George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that a war to depose Saddam Hussein would be welcomed by the Iraqi people, lead to peace with Israel, and open the door to regime change in Damascus and Tehran.” His promises fell flat on all counts.

While a powerful smooth talker in his own right, Kian tried but never managed to be as successful as Chalabi. In April 2003, just after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he assumed the presidency of the Iranian Council of the Republican Party, which advanced a Chalabi-like agenda of “coordinating and harmonizing with President Bush and the Republican Party in implementing freedom and democracy inside Iran.” In a 2004 interview with the U.S.-funded Radio Farda, he went so far as to deceitfully discuss “Iran’s spread of nuclear weapons.”  

But Kian is far from the only one who has sought to tip the U.S.’s enmity with Iran towards open conflict. Kian’s friend Reza Pahlavi, the son of the last Shah of Iran, has also tried to promote himself as able to, with support from the United States, replace the Iranian government with something more to America’s liking. After Trump’s election, Pahlavi penned him a congratulatory letter. In a subsequent interview with Breitbart, he called for “tacit support from other freedom-loving countries and governments.”

At a recent talk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Pahlavi contended that he has “historical meaning” among Iranians and presented himself as an arbiter to bring about a “secular democratic” Iran. “I think we are in fact very close to the state of explosion,” he proclaimed. He further claimed to have had contact with “fairly” high-ranking elements inside the Iranian government “that are sending these messages that we want to be able to be part of the solution.”

Pahlavi’s exhortations are nothing new. In 2009, he also claimed to have had “contact with members of the Revolutionary Guard” who informed him that “things are no longer tenable.” During the Bush administration, he and Shahriar Ahy, a former official in the royal court of Pahlavi’s father, eagerly sought to emulate Chalabi and his successful lobbying in Washington.

According to a New Yorker profile, Ahy openly lamented the fact that Iran had not been invaded after Iraq, stating, “And it would have been [next], if Iraq had been a slam dunk.” Ahy and Pahlavi even formed a “national congress” in the vein of Chalabi’s INC to organize the Iranian opposition. In 2006, just as he does today, Pahlavi promised that the Iranian regime’s collapse was imminent, stating that “this is not an open-ended debate. We have a timeline of six months.”

Notably, Ahy, who the New Yorker described as Pahlavi’s “political strategist, mentor, speechwriter,” once ran a multinational media company out of Saudi Arabia. Pahlavi’s ties to autocratic Arab leaders have long been a subject of scrutiny. According to Fereydoun Hoveida, whose brother was the Shah’s prime minister, Pahlavi “visited the emir of Kuwait, the emir of Bahrain, the king of Morocco, and the royal family of Saudi Arabia to ask for funds and was successful.”

Autocratic regional allies have long been aggressive in pushing the U.S. towards conflict with Iran. As former secretary of defense Robert Gates said in 2010, the Saudis “want to fight the Iranians to the last American.” In his memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, Gates also recalls a 2007 meeting with the Saudi king who threatened that Saudi Arabia would “go our own way” if the U.S. did not go to war against Iran. Gates was furious. He charged that the Saudi king was “asking the United States to send its sons and daughters into a war with Iran…as if we were mercenaries.”

Former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry has also said that during the negotiations that led to the July 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, regional states such as Saudi Arabia and Israel pushed the U.S. to abandon diplomacy and instead “bomb Iran.” These efforts led President Barack Obama to conclude by the end of his presidency that America’s regional partners were “high-maintenance allies seeking to exploit American muscle for their own narrow and sectarian ends.”

Today, Trump’s Middle East policy stands at a crossroad. Recognizing the folly of forever wars in the Middle East, he has decided to pull out of Syria, much to the chagrin of war hawks like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo who have sought to walk back his decision.

No doubt, the people of Iran deserve freedom, dignity, and a representative government that empowers rather than represses them. But the regime change cottage industry in Washington is not dominated by genuine democrats. It is in the hands of exiled wannabe rulers like Kian and foreign powers like Saudi Arabia, which, like Bolton and Pompeo, seek to misuse America’s military might for their own ends.

Sina Toossi is a research associate at the National Iranian American Council. Trita Parsi founded the council and is the author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.