Navid Mohebbi of the National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI) and an advocate for Iranian-Americans fighting for "justice, equality, and democracy in Iran," was interviewed in an April 29 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) by Benjamin Baird, deputy director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch project. Mohebbi spoke about his public opposition to the "barbarism" of Iran's "campaign of repression" of the Iranian people.
Mohebbi was arrested by the regime in 2010 as an 18-year-old blogger and charged with "insulting the Supreme Leader." Since escaping to the West, Mohebbi has been tracking the regime's "barbarism" while advocating for Iranian Americans in Washington, D.C. He said that Iran has increased its brutality in the past five years by "crushing ... dissident voices," most notably in 2019 when "the regime shut off the internet and massacred people in darkness," killing more than 1,500 protesters.
Mohebbi criticized the dearth of "international media coverage" at the time. Having spent his youth in Iran watching Voice of America Persian television and absorbing its message, he grew up believing that "America stands with freedom-seeking people all around the world." He experienced culture shock in the U.S. when he saw how the American media, or "people living in a democracy," could "push [a] regime-friendly agenda."
"I soon realized that the regime I had escaped from was very popular in the media, academia, and think tanks in the United States, which took me by surprise," he added.
Mohebbi estimated the Iranian diaspora in the U.S. numbers 1.5 million. The first "wave of immigration" occurred after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, followed by the second wave during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and the most recent wave after the Green Movement in 2009. Mohebbi said the common denominator among the "majority of ... very secular and highly educated" Iranian immigrants to the U.S. is that they experienced "political, religious, or socio-cultural" oppression under the regime. A 2019 Zogby poll found the "number one hope" Iranian Americans share is that U.S. foreign policy will "focus on human rights and democracy" for the Iranian people.
Mohebbi discussed the regime's soft power and influence in the U.S. among "media, academia, and think tanks." He was surprised by how little the U.S. government understands the extent to which the "Iran lobby" has been able to "push the interests of the Islamic Republic" into American institutions. Those serving the regime's agenda include a "massive network of journalists, academics, public figures, cultural and religious centers ... [and] civil society organizations." The regime's "strategy" effectively influences "mainstream media and major newspapers" to ignore the regime's human rights abuses against the Iranian people and "inject regime-friendly narratives." Mohebbi said that the regime is in contact with influential academics in U.S. universities that support policies favorable to it. The former U.N. ambassador to Iran "bragged" that the regime established "nearly fifty Iranian studies programs ... in major American universities."
One of the influential soft power organizations in the U.S. during the Obama administration was the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which coordinated meetings between Congressional members and Iran's foreign minister. NIAC's influence has declined since then because of the efforts of "Iranian dissident activists," and advocacy groups, combined with social media pressure, exposed the close association of NIAC's policy positions with those of the regime. Iran's attack on U.S. interests in the Middle East made NIAC's advocacy for the regime "indefensible" and further marginalized the group within the Iranian American community.
Tehran has been effective at harnessing political divisions in the U.S. to its advantage by exploiting "far-left groups or isolationist right-wing groups" aligned with some of the regime's positions. When asked how "Iran's proxy organizations" target Iranian dissidents living in the U.S., Mohebbi said the regime's "tremendous financial resources" silence them with "threats of lawsuits." He said the regime's "common practice" is to "create problems" for the employer of any Iranian American who speaks out against the regime. Iran will resort to any tactic to silence their U.S. opponents and "delegitimize dissidents." Last year it "attempt[ed] to abduct an Iranian-American journalist in Brooklyn, New York."
Mohebbi praised one of the ways in which the U.S. government counters Iranian disinformation, namely the funding of Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL). He considers himself a "success story" of Voice of America Persian television programming, but he said the station was "basically destroyed" during the "Obama era" because it avoided saying anything the regime would find offensive. Despite this, he was encouraged that at the time, Radio Farda – the Iranian branch of RFE/RL – "always remained professional." Mohebbi urged continued funding for the "democracy promotion projects ... started during [the] President Bush era," but recommended that the government monitor the projects closely. He revealed that many of them have been "infiltrated" by those who are not supportive of "freedom-seeking Iranian people."
Mohebbi stressed that, although Iranians living under the regime supported President Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign of crippling sanctions against Iran should continue, this deterrent is not "sufficient" on its own "to confront the regime." He said that NUFDI proposes "maximum support" for the Iranian people: "We all know that the U.S. government has many capabilities to support freedom movements around the world," and he would like to see the resumption of such support for the Iranian people.
He recommends that the U.S. intelligence community warn policymakers about the tactics employed against America by an adversary like Iran and that policymakers educate American citizenry about Iran's exploitation of the "openness" enjoyed in a liberal democracy to further its aims. He said the most effective way for any state to protect Americans "is to immunize them not to fall for foreign propaganda" or such "influence campaign operations." As an example, he described the U.S. government's approach towards China and Russia in which Washington exposes the methods each uses to advance its interests here. But "unfortunately," he said, that same approach is not "raising awareness" about the Iranian regime's influence in the U.S. Mohebbi recommends that "mainstream politicians ... should put aside their short-term goal[s] and work together on foreign policy and national security first."
Mohebbi claims that, in its eagerness to conclude another deal with the ayatollahs, the U.S. administration downplays Iran's obsession over a nuclear bomb with the excuse that the ayatollah issued a fatwa against it. However, he said one of Khamenei's former advisors recently admitted that "Iran has always had the intention of creating a bomb." Mohebbi pointed out that the Obama administration's "pressure campaign" against "fellow Democrats" who withheld support for the JCPOA in 2015 ultimately succeeded, and that these same Democrats who saw the deal undone by President Trump "are just trying to revive their own legacy" by supporting a new nuclear deal. The talking points they used were that the deal was "working," which prompted Mohebbi to rhetorically ask, "the deal was working for who, for people in the Middle East?"
Many U.S. intelligence community analysts who insisted the regime would change its behavior after the deal was sealed were mistaken. Mohebbi said the deal enabled the mullahs to "save the Assad regime" in Syria, which was on the brink of collapse and led to a "refugee crisis in Europe." Flush with "the billions of dollars" Obama sent the regime, the mullahs initiated the war in Yemen, "accelerated" support for Iranian proxies in Iraq, and strengthened Hezbollah and Hamas.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.