Friday, May 12, 2006

Spying on Iran: Penetrating a Mysterious Regime

Kenneth R. Timmerman, News Max:
An Iranian opposition group has asked a French court to dismiss fraud charges against three of its members, claiming that they are victims of an Iranian government intelligence operation. READ MORE

"The disagreement between us and the Islamic Republic is the old dispute between the Iranian opposition and the regime," a leader of the Organization of the People's Fedaii Guerillas of Iran (OPFGI) wrote to the French judge this week. "Our conflict with the regime will not be settled outside of our country ... I hope that European governments would show a better understanding of the situation in Iran, and above all, that they would stop defending a feudal power."

At stake is $12.4 million an Iranian government bank claims the opposition activists embezzled from their Paris branch, but also the ability of the Iranian opposition to operate freely in France.

The case also provides a window on the extraordinary intelligence war under way for more than two decades between the Islamic Republic of Iran and a sophisticated opponent that has bribed, corrupted, and tricked top regime officials.

French lawyers for the Iranian government-owned Bank Sepah (Army Bank) claim the bank was swindled by a currency trading office in Paris that was established by the OPFGI as a cover for illicit activities.

In an extraordinarily detailed letter to the French judge, obtained by Newsmax, the OPFGI leader acknowledged that he had established the currency office as a cover, but claimed the money was transferred into secret accounts controlled by Iranian officials as part of an opposition effort to penetrate the regime and gather intelligence on its arms procurement networks in Europe.

"I even gave orders to return 13 million French francs belonging to the Iranian embassy to Hamid Reza Assefi, the ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Paris," he wrote the judge. Worth approximately $2.5 million at the time of the operation in 1995, the money had been deposited with the group's currency exchange office, Sedigi.

"The only reason we returned this money was because I did not want to have a financial dispute with the Iranian regime in France."

The OPFGI leader, who goes only by the nom de guerre, "Bahram," detailed three assassination attempts against him he believes were carried out by intelligence agents sent by the Iranian regime to kill him.

"The Iranian regime calls these intelligence agents "unknown soldiers of the 12th Imam," he said, explaining that the phrase was a play on words. "These ‘unknown soldiers' are all secret agents. Because they are ‘unknown,' they can carry out any crime with complete impunity."

The Marxist-oriented Organization of the People's Fedayeen Guerillas of Iran was already at war with the Iranian government of the Shah. The group's leader, Bahram, spent five years in the Shah's prisons in the 1970s, where he got to know members of the future, Islamic regime.

He and other leaders of the group fled Iran in the early 1980s, after the takeover of Ayatollah Khomeini. Accepted in France as a political refugee, Bahram went to work as a currency trader and later set up front companies he used to entrap top regime officials and to gather intelligence on their activities.

Two months before the assassination of former Iranian prime minister Shahpour Bakhttiar in August 1991, Bahram told the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire – the French counter-espionage service, known by its initials, DST – that the Iranian regime had placed a mole in Bakhtiar's office.

"We told the DST that this man, Fereidoun Boyer-Ahmadi, was getting $1000 per month from the Islamic Republic embassy in Paris," he told Newsmax in an interview. "Our currency exchange bureau, Sedigi, changed the money for him at a very good rate," he added.

Boyer-Ahmadi was later accused by the French government of complicity in Bakhtiar's murder, but fled the country before he could be arrested.

The OPFGI disrupted Iranian regime operations in Europe by launching a series of commando-style raids on Iranian embassies and consulates, during which they seized highly-classified intelligence documents and made them public.

Many of the documents published by the OPFGI from Iranian embassies in France, Belgium, Germany, Norway, Holland and the regime's consulate in Geneva, Switzerland, involved secret arms deals and bank accounts used by regime officials to stash money they had received as commissions and bribes. The group has also published lists of Iranian government intelligence operatives, many of them working under cover in Iran Air or as carpet merchants.

In his letter to the French judge, Bahram revealed that he has led "a clandestine life" for the past thirty-six years. "Naturally, the revolutionary struggle imposes on me a certain life style. I do without many things and appear rarely in public places," he wrote. "When I enter into a relationship with someone, it is only within the framework of my political responsibilities and to achieve my goals, nothing else, especially if that person is a member of the regime – a regime whose members all graduated from schools of criminality."

In the mid-1990s, Bahram explained, he sought to cultivate the manager of the Bank Sepah in Paris, Heydayat Ashtari Larki. "I learned that he was a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran… and that he had just been appointed as number two for Iranian intelligence in France."

As their relationship developed, Bahram learned that Ashtari Larki's wife's family in Iran wanted to buy a house but was short of money, so he asked members of his group in Iran to raise the money so they could make the purchase. "Thus, by financing the purchase of a house in Iran for the family of an ‘unknown soldier' of the regime, I managed to consolidate my relationship with Ashtari," he wrote the French judge.

Ashtari became a key informant, and provided the opposition group with intelligence on regime arms purchases. "In Room number 222 of the Hotel Concorde Lafayette in Paris, he was a member of the group that negotiated the purchase of Rasit radar" from a French defense contractor.

Fearing his colleagues in Iranian intelligence had learned of his involvement with the opposition group, Ashtari fled France and joined Bahram and other OPFGI activists in Spain, where he remained for a year. In July 1996, Bahram published information on the Rasit radar purchase, as well as documents Ashtari had obtained on a scheme by the Bank Sepah in Paris to take hundreds of millions of dollars of precious stones on deposit, using them as collateral to open lines of credit to purchase aircraft and weaponry from France.

In another scheme that formed the basis of the Bank Sepah lawsuit against Bahram and his opposition group, Ashtari explained that "a senior regime leader" had earned $8 million in commissions on the deals with France and wanted to send them to Iran. "He asked if we could carry out this operation," Bahram wrote the French judge.

On orders from Tehran, he explained, Bahram had the Sedigi currency exchange office send the money, $2 million at a time, to a variety of different bank accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere around the world, before eventually sending it to accounts in Tehran.

In Iran, we have a proverb," Bahram explained to the judge: ‘a liar has no memory.'" Thus, before each transfer, Sedigi provided Bank Sepah with a $2 million check as guarantee. But once they went to the French court, the bank "forget to say that after each operation, they returned our security deposit" without ever attempting to cash them. "The lawyer for the Bank Sepah, who receives substantial payments from the Iranian regime, tries to say nothing about this, because he knows that he would be lying."

Bahram also revealed that a company owned by two Americans and a Pakistani, Aura Investment, paid a commission of 750,000 French francs (around $150,000) to the Bank Sepah through the group's currency trading office, which the OPFGI used to purchase an apartment in Paris for the Iranian bank manager to further corrupt him.

The French court handed down a one-year suspended sentence against Bahram and two other OPFGI activists in 2002 for their actions against the Bank Sepah and froze several million dollars of property and bank accounts belonging to the group in France and in Switzerland.

Bahram apologized to the French judge for not personally appearing in court, but explained that he feared that regime agents would assassinate him if they could discover his true identity.

Richard Hailey, of the Indianapolis-based lawfirm Ramey and Hailey, met Bahram in Europe recently in connection with a lawsuit he and other firms are pursuing against the Islamic Republic of Iran for its alleged involvement in the September 11 attacks on America.

"I was absolutely fascinated by Bahram," he told Newsmax. "He was careful, but detailed. Listening to him was tantalizing - like reading a book that's so good you can't stop turning the pages. Here is somebody who operates beneath the radar screen, a real pro. You felt he would just vanish into thin air the minute he walked out of the room."