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IRAN: A defector from the hardline camp tells his story

July 9, 2009 |  1:54 am


Photo 842a It started out as a frantic Facebook message plea for help about a tense confrontation at an airport in Istanbul between Amir Farshad Ebrahimi (above, right) and Turkish security officials in March 2008.

Over the course of more than a year's worth of phone conversations with Ebrahimi, 33, and a visit to his Berlin home a few months ago, his amazing story, detailed in Thursday's Times, emerged: from pre-adolescent Basiji warrior on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war to hardline militia member who hobnobbed with the likes of Mojataba Khamenei (above, left), the son of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to jailed dissident, to exiled blogger.

“His story does really crystallize the disillusionment of the children of the revolution,” said Pooya Dayanim, a Los Angeles-based Iranian opposition activist who befriended Ebrahimi over the years.

Some elements of his extraordinary story are difficult to confirm. But much is verifiable through documents and photographs he provided, including rare 1990s photo of Mojataba above, and accounts in the Iranian press. 

20 As a onetime member of the Revolutionary Guard, he says his military superiors were impressed by his enthusiasm and writing skills and one day, they recommended him for the Quds Force, the unit described by U.S. officials as the Islamic Republic’s elite branch for overseas subterfuge. The 19-year-old readily agreed.  

Ebrahimi’s claim of having been a Quds Force member is difficult to verify. Iran has never officially acknowledged that the unit even exists. 

Though ostensibly in charge of photocopying press clips for the ambassador in Beirut in 1997 to 1998, he says he had a weightier portfolio: helping oversee Hezbollah’s procurement of medium-range missiles transported via buses from Syria, and sending Shiite militiamen to Iran for training. 

Image0001 Ebrahimi offers evidence of his work, including a document he says was the equivalent of his discharge papers (at right), evidence that he lived in Beirut and training manuals he designed. 

But he says many of his records and personal effects were lost in several raids on his parents’ home in Tehran. 

His time abroad, he says, showed him how Iran funds and supports allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in the Gaza Strip. He believes Iranians wanted to ensure maximum deniability while building up long-term loyalty. 

Image0010 “Iranians don’t send the weapons directly,” he said. “We give you money. You want to build hospitals, or buy missiles? If you want to build missiles, here’s a contact that will help.”

Farshad (225) One day, he recalled, an argument had broke out between the Beirut Quds force commander and Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon, some minor point about domestic Iranian politics.

He watched as his boss humiliated the ambassador, who apologized and gave way to the military man.

Repeatedly he said he saw how Iran’s secret organizations lord over its visible institutions. 

Repeatedly, the patrician ambassador in Beirut told him and his Quds Force colleagues to keep his dealings with Hezbollah out of the embassy walls. And repeatedly the 20-something men ignored and laughed at him.

Image0012 From the beginning, the Quds Force worked to tap Ebrahimi’s communications gifts. He claims he was placed in the directorate of intelligence and operations and quickly sent off to North Korea for six months of training in counter-intelligence and propaganda. 

His instruction centered on "soft power": interrogation techniques, crowd control and media strategies.

Ebrahimi snickered at some of the lessons. “For example there’s a war and there’s no food and the people are getting angry. What should you say?” he recalled. “They suggested announcing falsely that there are 10 boats full of food coming. But I don’t think this would work. People are too sophisticated.”

Image0010 Based on his lessons in North Korea, he was asked to design a course to train recruits in Iran. He authored course materials on subjects such as “psychological operations” or “propaganda and its role in foreign affairs,” copies of which he provided to the Times (at right). 

His says trainees included other members of the Quds Force and Revolutionary Guards, as well as officers in the foreign affairs ministry and intelligence services.  

Before he headed back to Tehran, he befriended Ali-Reza Asghari, a commander in the Revolutionary Guards, who by day tried to find components such as rocket fuses for weapons and by night eagerly took part in Beirut’s nightlife, despite the Islamic Republic’s puritanical image. 

“There was a lot of womanizing and drinking” in Beirut, Ebrahimi said. “Not everyone. But a lot of us would.”

Asghari would later defect to the West, taking all his secrets with him.

-- Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photos: At top, a photo of Amir Farshad Ebrahimi (right) and a man he describes as Mojtaba Khamenei, the hardline cleric who is the son of Iran's supreme leader and is said to be behind the crackdown in Iran. Credit: Ebrahimi

Second, a photo of Ebrahimi in his Berlin flat. Credit: Borzou Daragahi / Los Angeles Times.

Third, a photo Ebrahimi says shows him as a member of the Revolutionary Guard. Credit: Ebrahimi

Fourth, a document Ebrahimi describes as the equivalent of his discharge papers. Credit: Ebrahimi

Fifth, a photograph Ebrahimi says shows him with other hardline militia members. Credi: Ebrahimi

Sixth and last, documents that Ebrahimi says were from training manuals he designed based on courses in psychological warfare and population control he received while in North Korea. Credit: Ebrahimi