L.A. Is a Den of Iranian Intrigue and Ambition
Roozbeh Farahanipour was jailed and beaten during student protests in Iran in 1999. Today, he sits in a cramped office above a Persian-language bookstore on Westwood Boulevard, speaking in low tones about the pro-Tehran “agents” he says still dog him.
Two years ago, after hostile men confronted his Iranian activist group at public forums, he walked down the bustling avenue -- past Persian restaurants, Persian pop music vendors and the publisher of the 1,200-page Iranian Yellow Pages -- to the FBI office a few blocks away.
There, he said, U.S. agents pressed him for details on espionage and provocateurs.
Such relationships are the political currency of the real-life Casablanca that is “Irangeles,” the largest Iranian community outside Iran. Here, across miles of urban sprawl, from Encino to Beverly Hills to Westwood, intrigue over who might be spying on whom abounds.
Los Angeles has become a key location for gathering intelligence on Tehran. A CIA station here has spent a decade recruiting informants among Iranian expatriates and businessmen who travel to Iran. The local FBI field office is wooing Iranians as sources -- and investigating others as potential terrorists or spies.
This activity is growing in intensity as the Bush administration tries to learn more about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and possible Iranian-sponsored terrorism in this country.
A mix of political causes and personal ambitions fuels Irangeles. As the Iranian New Year dawns, Reza Pahlavi -- the late Shah of Iran’s heir to the Peacock Throne -- is holding court in Beverly Hills. Exile activists from as far away as Paris are meeting in Woodland Hills to create a “coalition of liberation.” Iranian intellectuals in the San Fernando Valley are debating pro-democracy petitions circulating half a world away in Tehran.
Faced with the sudden prospect of relevance, exile activists are jockeying for recognition from U.S. policymakers. They are touting contacts with the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA.
They boast of tete-a-tetes with members of Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff, and drop the name “Elliott” -- as in Elliott Abrams, Bush’s deputy national security advisor. They prominently display Christmas cards from Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, an early backer of legislation that would provide financial support to the Iranian opposition. In Washington, they’re making the rounds like actors looking for an agent.
Some Iranian exiles speculate that someone among them could emerge as the next Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi opposition leader who helped to spur the American invasion of Iraq with his now-discredited intelligence indicating that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed chemical and biological weapons.
It is precisely the specter of Chalabi that makes many U.S. officials cautious about appearing to endorse the Iranian exiles volunteering themselves now.
Gary Sick, who served on the National Security Council under presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan and was the principal White House expert on Iran during the hostage crisis, said he was skeptical that Los Angeles exiles could provide valuable intelligence.
“I just have very low regard for the quality of analysis and opinion coming out of the expatriate community in Los Angeles,” said Sick, now a professor at Columbia University. “They despise the mullahs. They want to see them gone. And I think their wishful thinking overcomes rational analysis.”
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer and Iran specialist, shares Sick’s skepticism but said it is possible that the CIA will obtain valuable intelligence from its contacts in Los Angeles.
“A lot of interesting Iranians travel outside of the country,” he said. “A lot of Iranians come to the United States. There is a definite flow, and some of them may have information that is valuable.”
In the political salons of Irangeles, it can be difficult to distinguish fact from rumor, boast from reality.
Over glasses of strong tea in Westwood, some activists brag about recruiting people back home to gather information on internal opposition and the Islamic republic’s nuclear program -- information they say they hand over to the CIA.
Farahanipour, 33, who worked as a journalist in Iran, flies to Washington regularly to appear on panels and meet with U.S. officials.
He is among the Iranian exiles who say they have lobbied U.S. officials to deny a visa to Iranian dissident Mohsen Sazegara, a founder of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards -- and to grant a visa to a recent emigre who worked at a nuclear installation.
“We sent some e-mails to the administration to let them know,” Farahanipour said. “We call them and give them guidance.”
Bush administration officials acknowledged conferring with him but asked not to be quoted by name. “The reluctance you’re seeing is people don’t want to seem like they’re endorsing one group over another,” one official said. “Some of the meetings are just, ‘Let’s see what they’ve got to say.’ ”
Living in Two Worlds
Neon lights in Persian script dance outside Farahanipour’s office in the Westwood business district that is the heart of Irangeles, a visible manifestation of the diverse and complex ties between Iran and Los Angeles.
The 1979 revolution that overthrew the shah of Iran forced many of his supporters into exile in this country. Subsequent waves of immigrants have included many who initially welcomed the shah’s ouster but became disillusioned by the fundamentalist turn of the revolution.
If one thing unites them, it is that many have a foot in both countries. When the Iranian soccer team wins a match in Tehran, people in Encino stand up and cheer. Students in Tehran use cellphones and e-mail to provide people in Los Angeles eyewitness accounts of protests.
People in Tehran call satellite television shows in the Valley to sound off -- and are heard by viewers in Iran. Jewish Iranians re-create their Tehran communities at ballroom bar mitzvahs in Beverly Hills -- and pressure Tehran to release Jews jailed as spies half a world away.
The opposition group with the most U.S. congressional support -- the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or MEK -- has been designated a terrorist group by the State Department.
Founded by leftists in the 1960s, the MEK allegedly supported the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. Though its leaders deny it, it has been accused of involvement in the murders of Americans in Iran. The group became an opponent of the Iranian government, forged an alliance with Hussein and took refuge in Iraq, where it surrendered voluntarily to U.S. forces in 2003.
In Los Angeles, it has a shadowy presence, with some sympathizers but a low public profile.
America’s history in Iran is hardly unblemished, as Iranians of all stripes are quick to point out. In 1953, the CIA engineered a coup that ousted a democratically elected leader and reinstalled the shah.
That intervention and subsequent U.S. support for the shah left a legacy of relationships between U.S. intelligence agencies and Iranians loyal to the shah’s heir, Reza Pahlavi, who agitates against the Iranian regime from Washington.
“There is a bridge that has never been broken,” said an Iranian exile leader with historic ties to the shah. He spoke over kebabs and basmati rice at a Persian restaurant on Westwood Boulevard, a posh place with polished concrete floors and brushed aluminum accented by red and orange abstract paintings. Rhythmic rai music played in the background.
“We have a good relationship with the agency here. Any time we have good information on the regime, we give it to the agency,” he said, referring to the CIA.
The leader, who asked not to be identified, pulled out four cellphones from the pocket of his Italian-cut navy blue suit and placed them side by side on the white tablecloth.
“I only have to answer two of them,” he said. “Those are the ones used by my sources in Iran. We’ve received some information on the nuclear program, and it needs to be verified.”
He said he meets with CIA officers in a West Los Angeles office or at the offices of his exile group to discuss how they can gather information on nuclear facilities or Taliban leaders from Afghanistan who have taken refuge in Iran.
“He passes the information to the agency, and they verify it,” said his partner, a smartly dressed businessman who also claims to have regular contact with CIA officers.
The conservative leader pulled out a fax, written in wavy Persian script, from a “cell,” dated Feb. 2. Its writers had identified more supporters in Tehran and had organized new cells in Isfahan and Shivaz.
The CIA declined to comment.
Courting Iranian Exiles
FBI officials view Los Angeles as a potentially rich intelligence source -- a logical place for Iranian operatives to hide and raise money for Hezbollah, a Shiite extremist group backed by Iran that operates mostly in Lebanon. They’re also afraid that if the U.S. attacked Iran, Hezbollah might stage an attack in Los Angeles or another city.
“The best place to hide a tree is a forest,” said one counterterrorism official. “And in Los Angeles, we have a big Iranian forest.”
So FBI agents give speeches to community groups, recruit covert informants, track suspected Iranian intelligence agents and investigate criminals and terrorists.
They also keep tabs on the temporary Los Angeles polling places set up so Iranian expatriates can vote in elections in Iran.
“When we located them, we would watch them and find out who was sponsoring each station,” a former FBI agent said. “And we would investigate them and the people around them.”
The FBI also tries to cultivate expatriates who travel between Iran and the United States so it can ask them to collect information.
“We were looking for where [Iran] was building nuclear facilities,” the former agent said. “So you would ask these people to ask their friend in the industry for information.”
The FBI’s highest-profile investigation in Los Angeles has focused on the MEK. Seven Los Angeles-area residents have been charged with providing “material support” to the MEK through donations collected at Los Angeles International Airport. The Justice Department alleges that the money was used overseas to buy rocket-propelled grenades. The defendants say the donations went to destitute children in Iran.
Among those who have been entangled in the government’s investigation of the MEK were the four Mirmehdi brothers. Jailed for the past 41 months by federal authorities on grounds that they had terrorist ties to the MEK, the brothers were released Wednesday.
The government’s change of heart was so sudden that it left the Mirmehdis stunned, and elated. They plan to get on with their lives selling real estate in the Valley as they continue fighting the government’s efforts to deport them.
“It was all very strange,” said Mohsen Mirmehdi, 37. “After being locked up as terrorists for almost four years, we were told to leave the jail, or they would kick us out.”
Los Angeles is not the only seat of intrigue.
In San Francisco, an Iranian student named Rooz found himself the subject of FBI scrutiny when he wrote a letter to a friend last year criticizing U.S. human rights abuses during the war in Iraq and stating that it was time for students to “get back to our mission.”
His San Francisco attorney, Banafsheh Akhlaghi, said the FBI interpreted that language as a call to terrorism.
Rooz, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be revealed, said his statement referred to reviving a dormant student website.
The next thing he knew, Rooz, 25, a legal U.S. resident for 19 years, was jailed at an immigration facility in Florence, Ariz., while Department of Homeland Security officials tried to have him deported as a national security threat. Akhlaghi said it took her a month to persuade officials that Rooz was not, and he was freed.
FBI agents think twice before attempting such heavy-handed tactics in the upper echelons of Los Angeles’ Iranian community, whose members live in Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Encino and Santa Monica.
In a guest house behind the Tarzana home of a leader of the Constitutionalist Party of Iran, party members who favor a constitutional monarchy have set up a nerve center for their efforts to oppose the country’s Islamic government.
“We have to keep the office secret because of the terrorist regime,” said Farzad Farahani, an officer of the party, in a reference to the Iranian government. “We don’t want a Molotov cocktail or an assassination.”
Inside, a poster-sized photograph of Pahlavi -- who the group would like to see crowned king of a future Iran governed by a prime minister and parliament -- dominated the room. The television was tuned to a Fox TV program on “The Hunt for Bin Laden.”
Foad Pashai, the secretary-general of the party -- whose father-in-law’s portrait of the shah’s widow, Farah Pahlavi, dominates his living room -- offered to call pro-democracy activists in Tehran. The phone rang a few times and a young activist named Mohammed answered -- though he didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear.
Mohammed said there were few supporters of the monarchy in Iran, and “I don’t trust them.”
The constitutional monarchists in the room, who believe the shah’s son has a place in Iran’s future, exchanged chagrined glances.
“The only trustworthy group is the student’s movement,” Mohammed said. “The students never worked with the regime or the shah. Iranian people trust them.”
Recent arrivals from the student movement in Iran, such as Farahanipour, try to maintain a friendly distance from the Los Angeles monarchists and the MEK.
His group, whose English name is Iranians for a Secular Republic, envisions an Iran free of undue Western influence and its current religious leaders.
But fleeing into exile has not meant leaving behind Iran’s historical baggage.
During Iran’s June 2001 presidential elections, Farahanipour said, a member of his group was punched in a melee between supporters of the Islamic Republic and opponents at an absentee polling place set up at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel.
Almost every day, Farahanipour watches as a dapper elderly man -- who people say was once a torturer for the secret police of the shah -- takes his afternoon stroll in front of Farahanipour’s office.
“They say he was a torturer for the Savak,” Farahanipour said, referring to the shah’s intelligence agency. “We see him all the time. Most people hate him.”
In Irangeles, dreams of Iran’s future are as pervasive as reminders of its past.
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An Iranian presence
Estimates of the number of Iranians in the U.S. and in Los Angeles vary widely. Not all Iranians indicate their Iranian heritage on census forms, and the diversity of Iranian ethnic minorities -- including Jews, Armenians and Kurds -- makes it difficult to identify Iranian surnames. Some estimates:
Iranians in the U.S.
Census Bureau: 330,000
Iranian Interest Section*: 900,000
Iranians in California (most are thought to live in the L.A. area)
Census Bureau: 159,016
Unofficial estimates: 500,000or more
Iranian American Jewish Federation
Iranian Muslim Assn. of North America
Iranian American Republican Council
Iranian American Democrats of Los Angeles
In the Iranian Yellow Pages**:
20 Iranian television stations
2 Iranian daily newspapers
10 weekly and monthly magazines
200 Iranian attorneys
350 Iranian physicians
150 Iranian dentists
nearly 100 entertainers
* Represents Iran in Washington, D.C.
** Most listings are in Southern California.
Sources: National Iranian American Council; Iranian Yellow Pages
Graphics reporting by Anne-Marie O’Connor
Times staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.