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L.A. Is a Den of Iranian Intrigue and Ambition

U.S. agents tap an incongruous mix of exiles for intelligence on Tehran. The jockeying for influence is intense, as is the skepticism.

March 20, 2005|Anne-Marie O'Connor, Greg Krikorian and H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writers

Roozbeh Farahanipour was jailed and beaten during student protests in Iran in 1999. Today, he sits in a cramped office above a Persian-language bookstore on Westwood Boulevard, speaking in low tones about the pro-Tehran "agents" he says still dog him.

Two years ago, after hostile men confronted his Iranian activist group at public forums, he walked down the bustling avenue -- past Persian restaurants, Persian pop music vendors and the publisher of the 1,200-page Iranian Yellow Pages -- to the FBI office a few blocks away.

There, he said, U.S. agents pressed him for details on espionage and provocateurs.

Such relationships are the political currency of the real-life Casablanca that is "Irangeles," the largest Iranian community outside Iran. Here, across miles of urban sprawl, from Encino to Beverly Hills to Westwood, intrigue over who might be spying on whom abounds.

Los Angeles has become a key location for gathering intelligence on Tehran. A CIA station here has spent a decade recruiting informants among Iranian expatriates and businessmen who travel to Iran. The local FBI field office is wooing Iranians as sources -- and investigating others as potential terrorists or spies.

This activity is growing in intensity as the Bush administration tries to learn more about Iran's nuclear ambitions and possible Iranian-sponsored terrorism in this country.

A mix of political causes and personal ambitions fuels Irangeles. As the Iranian New Year dawns, Reza Pahlavi -- the late Shah of Iran's heir to the Peacock Throne -- is holding court in Beverly Hills. Exile activists from as far away as Paris are meeting in Woodland Hills to create a "coalition of liberation." Iranian intellectuals in the San Fernando Valley are debating pro-democracy petitions circulating half a world away in Tehran.

Faced with the sudden prospect of relevance, exile activists are jockeying for recognition from U.S. policymakers. They are touting contacts with the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA.

They boast of tete-a-tetes with members of Vice President Dick Cheney's staff, and drop the name "Elliott" -- as in Elliott Abrams, Bush's deputy national security advisor. They prominently display Christmas cards from Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, an early backer of legislation that would provide financial support to the Iranian opposition. In Washington, they're making the rounds like actors looking for an agent.

Some Iranian exiles speculate that someone among them could emerge as the next Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi opposition leader who helped to spur the American invasion of Iraq with his now-discredited intelligence indicating that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed chemical and biological weapons.

It is precisely the specter of Chalabi that makes many U.S. officials cautious about appearing to endorse the Iranian exiles volunteering themselves now.

Gary Sick, who served on the National Security Council under presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan and was the principal White House expert on Iran during the hostage crisis, said he was skeptical that Los Angeles exiles could provide valuable intelligence.

"I just have very low regard for the quality of analysis and opinion coming out of the expatriate community in Los Angeles," said Sick, now a professor at Columbia University. "They despise the mullahs. They want to see them gone. And I think their wishful thinking overcomes rational analysis."

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer and Iran specialist, shares Sick's skepticism but said it is possible that the CIA will obtain valuable intelligence from its contacts in Los Angeles.

"A lot of interesting Iranians travel outside of the country," he said. "A lot of Iranians come to the United States. There is a definite flow, and some of them may have information that is valuable."

In the political salons of Irangeles, it can be difficult to distinguish fact from rumor, boast from reality.

Over glasses of strong tea in Westwood, some activists brag about recruiting people back home to gather information on internal opposition and the Islamic republic's nuclear program -- information they say they hand over to the CIA.

Farahanipour, 33, who worked as a journalist in Iran, flies to Washington regularly to appear on panels and meet with U.S. officials.

He is among the Iranian exiles who say they have lobbied U.S. officials to deny a visa to Iranian dissident Mohsen Sazegara, a founder of Iran's Revolutionary Guards -- and to grant a visa to a recent emigre who worked at a nuclear installation.

"We sent some e-mails to the administration to let them know," Farahanipour said. "We call them and give them guidance."

Bush administration officials acknowledged conferring with him but asked not to be quoted by name. "The reluctance you're seeing is people don't want to seem like they're endorsing one group over another," one official said. "Some of the meetings are just, 'Let's see what they've got to say.' "

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