When the invitation to attend a human-rights workshop in Dubai in the United Arab
Emirates came, it was a complete surprise for Nilofar, an attractive Iranian woman
in her early 30s who works for an international organization in Tehran and claims
to be apolitical.
Nilofar told Asia Times Online over a series of three interviews from last
September to February: "When I arrived in Dubai, the other participants
were very surprised to see me and told me that these workshops are only for
activists. So I don't know how I got in, really, except if their selection process
is not as stringent as they would make it out to be."
Once in Dubai, Nilofar was booked by one of two organizations running the program
into the Holiday Inn. She recounts that the course organizers were a mixture
of Los Angeles-based exiled Iranians, Americans who appeared to supervise the
course and whose affiliation remained unclear throughout, and three Serbs who
said they belonged to the Otpor democratic movement that overthrew the late
Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
The highly secretive nature of the workshops meant that they were misleadingly
advertised in the lobby of the hotel as a conference by the "Griffin Hospital".
The organizers, instructors and students identified themselves through aliases
and were instructed to communicate with one another after the course was over
through Hushmail accounts, an encrypted e-mail service that claims to be hack-proof.
In class, the Serbian instructors organized role-playing games in which the
participants would assume the personas of characters such an Iranian woman or
a Shi'ite cleric. Throughout these exercises in empathy and psychology, stress
was laid on the importance of ridiculing the political elite as an effective
tool of demythologizing them in the eyes of the people.
"They taught us what methods they used in Serbia to bring down Milosevic,"
Nilofar said. "They taught us some of them so we could choose the best
one to bring down the regime, but they didn't mention directly bringing down
the regime - they just taught us what they had done in their own country."
Cyrus Safdari, an independent Iranian analyst, said: "As I gather,
the idea was to fund and train activists to be agents provocateurs along the
lines of the Otpor movement in Serbia. Their job was to utilize various techniques,
such as anti-government graffiti etc, to embolden the student movement and provoke
a general government crackdown, which could then be used as a pretext to 'spark'
a mass uprising in Iran that appeared to be spontaneous and indigenous."
Nilofar's invitation to attend the Dubai sessions arrived last July, several
months before the administration of US President George W Bush requested an
extra US$75 million of funding from Congress to accelerate its efforts to achieve
regime change inside Iran.
Last week, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli announced that
a newly established Office of Iranian Affairs within the department would focus
on introducing democracy in Iran. The top officials behind the new policy are
said to be Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, Elizabeth
Cheney (Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter), Scott Carpenter and David Denehy,
in addition to the secretary of state herself, Condoleezza Rice.
Composed of up to 15 Farsi-speaking officers spread across US diplomatic posts
neighboring Iran and in European capitals with large Iranian communities, the
office would aim to develop Iran experts whose "primary language would
be Farsi", Ereli said.
"We need to develop a cadre of foreign-service officers who speak Farsi,
who understand the region - not just Iran, but the region where Iran has influence
and reach - and understand Iran," Ereli said.
"The logic of putting people out in the field [is] to use the language,
to develop the on-the-ground expertise so that 10, 15, 20 years from now, we've
got - just like we have Arab experts ... we used to have Soviet experts - we've
got a cadre of Iran experts."
The Iran office representative in Frankfurt, for example, will "be working
with the Farsi speakers in Frankfurt and monitoring developments in Iran from
that location", Ereli added.
According to Henry Precht, a former US diplomat who presided over the Iran
desk during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, the State Department intends "to
beef up the training of officers in the history, language and culture of the
country and put them in touch in Dubai with oppositionists".
The State Department's initiative will presumably complement the Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA) officers specializing in Iran who are based out of neighboring
countries, such as the UAE, Turkey and Azerbaijan.
One such agent was Reuel Marc Gerecht, a CIA case officer in the 1980s who
worked under diplomatic cover in the US Consulate in Istanbul. His job was to
debrief would-be Iranian defectors and - as he describes in his book Know Thine
Enemy - it often felt like a "chance to play God".
"I'd let hundreds of desperate Iranians languish in Turkey. People who'd
given me insights never found in books. I'd watched mothers with children drop
to their knees and beg for my help," he wrote. "They didn't want money,
just a little kindness, a visa out of their personal hell ... [they met] a sympathetic
man waiting in a warm room full of food, coffee, tea, alcohol and cigarettes.
A US official who'd politely strip them of all their memories and every corpuscle
of information and then reopen the street-side door."
Whether the State Department's new initiative proves successful or not, the
huge publicity and acute suspicion that already surround it can only make its
"I guess the whole program had developed some serious leaks," commented
Safdari, the Iranian political analyst, "since I heard about it repeatedly
from various guests at various Iranian social functions who wanted to show off
about how well connected to the CIA they had become."
Safdari added that the inspiration for the workshops such as the one in Dubai
may find provenance in one of the right-wing Washington think-tanks that has
a proven track record of providing inspiration for Bush administration policy
initiatives in the Middle East.
As for the funding, he believes that it may come "only indirectly from
the US government ... I'm not sure if that meant the project belonged to some
'political entrepreneurs' acting independently of the US government, or if these
are just standard measures intended to create plausible deniability".
Nilofar is similarly unimpressed by the caliber of the trainees that she encountered
in Dubai. She describes the majority as "power-hungry", mahrum - a
Farsi word meaning deprived - and beset by temper tantrums.
"Of the political activists now in the country, many come from lower-class
families who have been deprived of everything and now they've decided to overthrow
the government," Nilofar said. "But what they don't understand is
that the idiot students who are being beaten up now, they will not be tomorrow's
leaders, they'll be pushed aside.
"The Iranians kept on drinking and drinking and drinking," Nilofar
said. "And they made endless phone calls, thinking that the Americans would
pay for them. But in the end, they didn't."