Has Washington found its Iranian Chalabi?
By Laura Rozen


This past summer, an op-ed appeared in the Washington Post under the byline
of Richard Perle, the influential former Pentagon adviser who was a chief
booster of Ahmed Chalabi in the run-up to the war in Iraq. As he had prior
to the invasion of Iraq, Perle urged the Bush administration to shun
appeasement and take an uncompromising stand toward Tehran; as with Iraq, he
argued that a hard line was critical to help the population overthrow a
brutal regime. And once again, Perle had an exile leader he wanted America
to know about: Amir Abbas Fakhravar, "an Iranian dissident student leader
who escaped first from Tehran's notorious Evin prison, then, after months in
hiding, from Iran."

Fakhravar, Perle wrote, had believed George W. Bush's promise to Muslim
dissidents that "when you stand for liberty, we will stand with you." Now,
as the administration was mulling whether to negotiate with Iran, Perle
worried that "the proponents of accommodation with Tehran will regard the
struggle for freedom in Iran as an obstacle to their new diplomacy."

It was a rousing call to arms for conservatives, many of whom are convinced
that American interests in the Middle East depend on fomenting an uprising
in Iran, and who have been frustrated in their search for just the right
allies. The Iranian opposition is deeply fractured, and a number of its
leading figures are explicitly against U.S. intervention. Iran's best-known
dissident, journalist Akbar Ganji, rejected invitations to meet with
administration officials on a recent U.S. visit, and asked instead to see
the United Nations' Kofi Annan and Noam Chomsky. "I advocate change of the
regime in Iran," Ganji told me in July. "But that regime must be changed by
Iranians themselves."

Enter Fakhravar, who is more inclined to say exactly what the hawks want to
hear. He told me that Iran's president wants to wipe Israel off the map, and
that "any movement or any action whatsoever" by the United States would
"help or enhance the people to rise up." All the student movement in Iran
needed to overthrow the regime, he said, was "a little bit of coordination,
organization, and training."

A virtual unknown both inside and outside Iran when he arrived in the United
States in May, Fakhravar has in the months since then ascended to prominence
at a dizzying clip. By midsummer he was rushing from testifying on Capitol
Hill one moment to an Iran opposition gathering at the White House the next,
meeting regularly with policymakers and influential advisers, chatting with
the former Shah's son on his cell phone, and generally being touted as the
young, idealistic face of the movement to overthrow the mullahs.

But Fakhravar may be a false messiah. In interviews with more than a dozen
Iranian opposition figures, some of them former political prisoners, a
different picture emerged-one of an opportunist being pushed to the fore by
Iran hawks, a reputed jailhouse snitch who was locked up for nonpolitical
offenses but reinvented himself as a student activist and political prisoner
once behind bars. Fakhravar and his supporters vehemently deny such
allegations, saying that the attacks are motivated by petty jealousy and a
vendetta by Fakhravar's enemies on the Iranian left.

For those like Perle who want the United States to eschew diplomacy in favor
of backing regime change, Fakhravar is an essential link in the argument for
confrontation with Iran. Rather than reminding Americans of Chalabi, who is
now known to have orchestrated much of the Bush administration's bad wmd
intelligence, they'd like to summon memories of the 1980s, when Ronald
Reagan sought to embolden and unify dissidents in the Soviet Union. But by
choosing Fakhravar, they may have inadvertently accomplished the opposite,
exposing the ruptures in the pro-democracy movement and throwing into
question the notion that America's problems with Tehran will be solved by a
saffron revolution.

By all accounts, Perle's rapport with Fakhravar started more than two years
ago, when Fakhravar was in and out of Evin, the infamous Tehran political
prison where Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi was tortured to death in 2003.
From prison, Fakhravar had been calling the Persian-language pro-monarchist,
anti-regime satellite stations broadcast from Los Angeles. Manda Shahbazi,
an L.A.-based businesswoman and exile activist, told me that she heard one
of those calls, was moved by Fakhravar's plight, and managed to contact him.
She then talked to Perle, who promptly mentioned the Fakhravar case at an
Iranian opposition forum in Los Angeles in May 2004. In short order,
Fakhravar called Shahbazi and asked to be put in touch with Perle. When
Fakhravar left Iran this past April, his first stop was a Dubai hotel room
where he met Perle.

"In my eyes I saw the prince of light," Fakhravar told the New York Sun a
few weeks later. "I could see in his eyes he is worried for our people as
well as the American people and this is very important and this is very
special." Perle helped arrange for Fakhravar's entry into the United States
and organized a private lunch for him at the American Enterprise Institute;
among those attending were State Department and Pentagon officials, selected
journalists, and prominent Iran hawk Michael Ledeen.

Shahbazi, meanwhile, was working to connect Fakhravar with top exile leaders
in L.A. and around the world. She had platinum contacts through her father,
Yaddolah Shahbazi, a prominent businessman who served as an adviser to the
Iranian prime minister during the twilight of the Shah's regime (and who,
for Iran trivia fans, launched a shipping company together with Iranian and
Israeli investors that at one point employed Manucher Ghorbanifar, the
Iran-Contra arms dealer).

Shahbazi also did some contact-building of her own: In August 2005,
according to filings with the State Department's Office of Protocol, she
gave Liz Cheney-the vice president's daughter and a senior State Department
official overseeing the Iran-Syria Operations Group-a Persian carpet valued
at $4,000, as well as a glass plate engraved with a quote from Dick Cheney
about Iran. The rug was among the dozen most valuable gifts bestowed on U.S.
officials by foreigners in 2005. When I asked Shahbazi about it, she said
she didn't remember it.

In July of this year, Fakhravar joined Ledeen and other Iran experts in
testifying before a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs
subcommittee; that appearance caused him to miss the gathering of Iranian
opposition activists the White House had convened that day. It was an only
slightly extraordinary day in a schedule replete with official meetings and
engagements at Iranian opposition gatherings, where Fakhravar regales
audiences with tales of his time in various prisons and his escape, along
with his plans to unite student activists.

For Mohsen Sazegara, it all seems a bit much. A soft-spoken Iranian
dissident thrice imprisoned in Iran and now based in Boston, Sazegara was
reluctant to comment on Fakhravar, saying he had nothing against the young
man. When pressed, he told me that Fakhravar was at best a marginal player
whose life story has been exaggerated by his allies. For instance, no one
"escapes" from Evin prison, Sazegara said; instead, Iranian political
prisoners can apply for temporary furloughs, and on one of them, Fakhravar
simply decided not to go back. Cina Dabestani, a Virginia-based exile who
sometimes translates for Fakhravar, told me that Fakhravar attended law
school while in prison, and, at Shahbazi's urging, went awol after an exam.
His escape from Iran-which Fakhravar has claimed was undertaken despite an
order to have him shot on sight-involved a regular flight from Iran to
Dubai, according to several sources.

Iranian journalists and former fellow inmates also claim Fakhravar was never
a political prisoner to begin with, but was locked up for a nonpolitical
crime-"unchaste acts" involving fellow students-and then cultivated
friendships with student dissidents. "Student circles and journalistic
circles don't recognize him as a student leader," says Najmeh Bozorgmehr,
the Financial Times' Tehran correspondent who closely followed the 1999
pro-democracy student protests, the Tiananmen Square of Fakhravar's
generation of Iranian dissidents. Adds Hassan Zarezadeh, a journalist and
human rights activist who now lives in Canada, "He accidentally got arrested
and got interested in politics and opportunistically tried to get close to
the center of power and get famous that way. He was never part of the
student movement."

Even more suspicious to some dissidents is the story of how Fakhravar first
connected with his U.S. supporters. "I have been arrested 12 times since
1999, and I have never seen anything like this," says Zarezadeh. "It's
impossible for a political prisoner to have a phone," he adds, let alone use
it to call the foreign press, the exile broadcasters, and a top Pentagon

Some dissidents believe they do have an explanation: "As far as the other
political prisoners were concerned, he was an antenna for the security of
the prison and for the security services," Bina Darab-Zand, a recently
released human rights activist, told me when I reached him in Tehran in late
August. Nasser Zarafshan, one of Iran's most prominent human rights
attorneys and also recently released from Evin, echoed that claim. "He has
been working for the police," Zarafshan says. "In prison, everybody knows
that." Perle's office referred questions to Shahbazi, who told me that
Fakhravar got the phone by paying bribes; she refused to discuss details of
his escape from Iran, saying that it would make it harder for other
political prisoners to get out.

I met Fakhravar recently in an office lent to him by the Foundation for the
Defense of Democracies, a small Washington think tank that promotes U.S.
intervention to support reform in the Middle East. With his gray suit,
freshly shorn hair, and eager-to-please manner, the 31-year-old cut a figure
remarkably different from the Fabio-like photos on his website (whose tag
line reads "Love, Iran, Freedom"); he could have been a newly minted Ph.D.
moonlighting on the Hill. But there was also an air of anxiety about him, a
kind of Talented Mr. Ripley quality, as if he were struggling to perform a
role. He spent the better part of an hour recounting his life, primarily a
series of prison stints he said he had endured starting when he was 17 and
in medical school. During the '99 uprising, he said, he had been serving his
compulsory military service in a Tehran clinic, but had managed to be in
contact with the student protesters.

When I asked about his critics' claims, Fakhravar threw his arms up in
frustration. He said that among Iranian political prisoners, there is deep
division between liberal and leftist blocks, and that Zarafshan and other
leftists had "started rumors" about him that were "all false." He opened his
laptop to show photos of himself on a New York street talking with the
dissident Ganji, then autographed a copy of his book, Scraps of Prison,
printed by an L.A.-based Persian publisher. It is one of three books for
which Fakhravar says he has been persecuted, though none of them appear to
be widely known. On his website, Fakhravar says he was on the shortlist for
a literary prize, the Paulo Coelho award, but there is no evidence that such
an award exists-a point first raised on the blog "Moon of Alabama."

Fakhravar urged me to call exile leaders, including the Shah's son, who
would vouch for him. The people he claims as his allies back in Iran,
however, seem less than eager to embrace him. Ahmad Batebi, one of Iran's
best-known student leaders-pictured on the jacket of Scraps of Prison
alongside Fakhravar-has distanced himself from him on his blog. Another key
activist whom Fakhravar says he worked with, Akbar Mohammadi (the two are
shown together in a picture on Fakhravar's website), recently died on a
hunger strike in Evin prison. When I tracked down his sister, Nasrin, she
emailed me that Fakhravar and her brother were "not very close." Fakhravar,
she wrote, "is a young man seeking for fame."

Laura Rozen reports on national security and foreign policy from Washington,
D.C as a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a contributor to
other publications. She writes the blog War and Piece.