When Iranians decide to go to the streets to protest the regime that oppresses them, they know they may meet their death, be disappeared, tortured, raped, or executed. They know their families may be tormented by the regime for years. Still, they go. They are taking risks unfathomable to people in the free world because they are determined to join it.
Yet horrifically, as protesters risk their lives, some of the regime’s most loyal servants are living the good life in the United States, where they pose as dispassionate “sources” or “analysts” of a regime whose crimes they personally facilitated. Recently on Twitter, for example, it was exposed that Mehdi Ansari, the former head of the Basij at Sharif University, where students were viciously attacked and beaten by the regime, is living in the United States.
The Basij are a paramilitary militia of young ideologues who pride themselves on their everyday thuggery and beating and killing of protestors under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). During his tenure as head of the Basij at Sharif, Ansari organized against reformists including through demonstrations for students from Sharif and other universities in Tehran. He also penned a personal letter of loyalty to Qassem Soleimani, proclaiming himself to be a jihadi.
Ansari’s history as a member of the Basij force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, an entity on the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, did not prevent him from obtaining a visa for graduate studies in the United States at the University of Minnesota in 2017. Since living in America, he has also worked at the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and the International Monetary Fund. There is no indication that Ansari has renounced his views as a jihadi. (Ansari could not be reached for comment.)
Social media accounts like Rich Kids of Tehran expose the children of regime elites living hedonistic lives in the West as their parents feign piety at home and deny Iranian youth even the most basic freedoms. Others have shown how the regime infiltrates the United States through a web of mosques, abusing America’s religious freedom to indoctrinate children into obedience of the ruling clerics in Iran and give cover to regime operatives.
That former officials of the Islamic Republic and regime thugs are not only living in the United States but working at places like the Federal Reserve Bank as well as teaching at prestigious universities should be particularly concerning. A former regime diplomat who served in Germany during the Mykonos terror attack on dissidents is today at Princeton University as part of a program on “global security.” The regime’s former ambassador to the United Nations during a 1988 prison massacre that took thousands of lives is teaching as the “Professor of Peace” at Oberlin College. The Alavi Foundation, an arm of the regime, is believed to fund similar appointments.
The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit claiming to be a membership organization for Iranian-Americans, has been operating as an extension of the Islamic Republic’s foreign ministry since its inception in 2002, faithfully parroting regime talking points, particularly about the need to lift sanctions. Iranian activists and the Iranian-American community which NIAC purports to represent have sustained a #NIACLobbies4Mullahs and #IranLobby campaign such that in Persian “NIACey” has become the term used when describing Islamic Republic collaborators and apologists. Yet NIACeys continue to hold prominent posts at think tanks in Washington, where they have been instrumental in giving propaganda quotes to U.S. newspapers in support of the so-called Iran Deal, which represents a life-line for the regime.
America’s “newspaper of record”, The New York Times, is the print outlet most consistently under fire from Iranians for pro-regime bias. The #NYTimesPropaganda hashtag on Twitter, an open letter of protest to the paper from family members of those killed by the regime on flight PS752, and a billboard sponsored by activists outside The New York Times building all sought to show how the paper depicts regime leaders as normal and respected by the Iranian people and repeats NIAC disinformation, absolving, for example, President Rouhani of culpability both for the massacre of protestors in 2019 and for the shootdown of Ukraine Airlines flight PS752. The paper’s Iran reporter, Farnaz Fassihi, has been regularly depicted by Iranian dissidents inside and outside Iran as a modern-day Walter Duranty. In response to these criticisms she has blocked even the most prominent and impartial of democracy activists on Twitter and called her critics trolls.
That the regime manages to sustain its rule not only through brute force on the streets and in the prisons but also through appendages of power and ideology beyond its borders and in even the most democratic societies enrages ordinary Iranians. As they come out into the streets to take back their country, they also come to social media to expose the regime’s network of nefarious influence. Their hope is that policymakers and ordinary citizens living in the West will understand how they are being manipulated to accept and appease their tormentors.
Because of the Islamic Republic’s transnational repression of dissidents, it takes courage to reveal and counter the regime’s network of nefarious influence in the United States and other democracies. Recently, the prominent activist Hossein Ronaghi wrote from inside the country for the Wall Street Journal about how the reality of life in Iran is whitewashed by a slew of propagandists who work for universities, the media, think tanks, and even human rights organizations outside Iran, particularly in the United States. Ronaghi was tortured for many years before he broke the ultimate redline of writing for a U.S.-based newspaper about not only the regime’s abuse of the Iranian people but also about how American institutions are complicit. He is back in prison now, where he is denied medical care. He has had both his legs broken and has been throwing up blood as a result of torture.
Ronaghi risked his life to write for an English-language audience because it is that important to the Iranian people that others know how adept the regime is at manipulating opinion. People around the world have come to support the Iranian people’s revolution to take back their country from Islamist brutality. One of the most important ways they can be helpful is to scrutinize those living in their own democratic societies who continue to serve the regime by cautioning against providing support and solidarity to the protestors.
Mariam Memarsadeghi is Founder and Director of the Cyrus Forum, Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and a leading advocate for a democratic Iran.