Raymond Tanter’s Quest to Free Iran

Irving Kristol, a founder of neoconservatism, once said that a neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality. At Georgetown, we have Raymond Tanter, a conservative who’s had his bike stolen. After the theft, he got a new chain intended for motorcycles, which looks more appropriate in the hand of a wrathful Hell’s Angel than a dapper Georgetown professor.

“That’s a heavy bike. The lock is over here, you’re not even reaching the lock, he said before leaving campus to bike to Capitol Hill to talk with members of Congress (he wouldn’t reveal their names) about his plan for solving America’s problems in Iran and Iraq: relying on a group the State Department calls terrorists.

As the president of the Iran Policy Committee, a non-profit organization that promotes using Iranian oppositionists against Iran, Tanter is a tireless booster for the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), an armed group of Iranian exiles that seeks to overthrow the Iranian government. Its efforts are hampered by its placement on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, a classification Tanter says should be reversed so the MEK can counter Iran. Still, dressed in a matching plaid blazer, pants and bow tie, Tanter doesn’t look like a Washington lobbyist. Only the phone clipped to his belt suggests that he is tied to a worldwide effort to change U.S. policy on a controversial army that the Council on Foreign Relations estimates has 10,000 members. Tanter does not consider himself a lobbyist”because the MEK is considered a terrorist group, advocacy on their behalf is illegal. The Thinker Professor Raymond Tanter says the Iranian rebel group Mujahedin-e-Khalq can reduce Sunni terrorism in Iraq and counter Iran’s ayatollah regime.   EMILY VOIGTLANDER “I’m not an advocacy group either, I’m 501©(3),” he said, referring to the tax provision for non-profit groups. The Iran Policy Committee is a 501©(3). We educate the public, we don’t advocate.”   Tanter has been busy educating people on both sides of the Atlantic in the past year. In addition to meeting with Congress, Tanter spoke in the British Houses of Lords and Commons last year and met with members of the European Parliament in Belgium. At the beginning of February, he held a press conference in France calling for the delisting of the MEK-linked National Council. I’m on a roll, don’t you think he said of his recent activities abroad.  The MEK has been on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations since 1997 and has been blamed for killing civilians and American military personnel before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. A one-time ally of Iran’s religious government, the MEK was exiled and fought on the Iraqi side in the Iran-Iraq War. The group, which has a largely female officer corps, has been tied to numerous violent incidents; a 1981 bombing attack of the Iranian government killed 70 high-ranking officials. The MEK also allegedly helped Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the bloody suppression of Kurdish and Shia rebellions in 1991, though the group denies involvement. Recently, the MEK has provided the United States with information about sites suspected to be involved in an Iranian nuclear program.  During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the American military bombed the MEK camp until a ceasefire was reached with the group that allowed it to keep its camp in exchange for not fighting Coalition forces. The MEK was not disbanded after the war, avoiding the fate of much of the Iraqi military, and Human Rights Watch reported in 2005 that the MEK’s base was used to hold prisoners for the U.S. government. While the United States and the MEK coexist in Iraq, their relationship is different in this country. In 2002, the State Department shut down the Washington offices of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella group to which the MEK belongs. According to Tanter, treating the MEK like terrorists is counterproductive to American interests. In his evocatively-titled books Baghdad Ablaze and Appeasing the Ayatollahs and Suppressing Democracy, he promises a plethora of benefits to come from removing the MEK from the terrorist list: it would wean Sunnis from the insurgency and break the cycle of sectarian violence in Iraq and help democratic forces establish liberty  in Iran.

Alireza Jafarzadeh at the National Press Club. Next to him (l to r) are Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney (ret.), Bruce McColm and Professor Tanter.


When he taught at the University of Michigan, Tanter helped convince prospective athletic recruits to choose the Wolverines. Now that he’s at Georgetown, he insists he’s not trying to recruit his students to his school of thought. “I’m not a preacher, I’m a scholar,” he said. In his class, Terrorism and Proliferation, Tanter uses an aggressive cold calling technique, imploring some students to “be Googling!”, others to challenge their classmates and one girl to smile. Tanter uses his connections with special guests to surprise his students, he once made them present threat assessments to Iranian dissident Alireza Jafarzadeh and former Spanish president José María Aznar.

during another class, former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski discussed threats from Iran and Russia, and complimented the class on their presentations (he offered to send one student’s analysis to the Polish foreign minister).

“I’m probably in over my head,”  Devon Cohen (SFS “˜10), one of Tanter’s students this semester, said, “But I love the class.” Tanter is aggressive about his views in class, according to Cohen. “It’s kind of his way or the highway in his perspective,” she said.  Tanter runs his class imperiously, telling students and presidents alike to speak louder or stand up when they talk.   “I do sound like a general, don’t I? Maybe a colonel,” he said, adding that despite his work on Iran he remains dedicated to teaching. Tanter and his students frequently refer to his books about Iran and the MEK in class, though some question his estimate of the MEK’s power to change Iraq and Iran. Russ Greene (SFS “˜09) critiqued Tanter’s optimistic assessment of the group’s abilities in class, noting that It kind of sounds like [Tanter is] a lobbyist for the MEK.” “I forgive you for calling me a lobbyist,” he replied.  Once, while Tanter was a professor at Michigan, pro-Palestinian activists disrupted a speech he was giving.  “The protesters laid down on the ground and forced the security people to pick them up,” he said. “They put on YouTube that this was violence against students.” While nothing similar has happened at Georgetown, some on campus, like Daniel Byman, the director of Georgetown’s Center for Peace and Security Studies, oppose Tanter’s positive view of the MEK. 50,000 Strong for the MEK Last June, 50,000 Iranians rallied in Paris for Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the MEK.  Courtesy THE NATIONAL COUNCIL OF RESISTANCE OF IRAN  “I generally agree with the U.S. government’s view that it is a terrorist organization,” he said, adding that he did not think the MEK should be taken off the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. “It would anger some Shia groups we’re having trouble with.” Byman did not discount Tanter himself, though, saying that despite their different views, he considers Tanter “serious.”  “I work in hot topics,” Tanter said, trying to explain the breadth of issues he has covered in his government and teaching jobs. Tanter’s career plays like a highlight reel of American foreign policy crises: he has written books about Lebanon, Vietnam and rogue states, and was the personal representative for Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger at multiple arms control meetings. Tanter came to Washington after 9/11 because he “wanted to be closer to the action.” Here in D.C., besides teaching and running the Iran Policy Committee, Tanter has worked with the Department of Justice on terrorism issues.

“I think Professor Tanter has played an important role in igniting a debate in Washington about a policy option that was before him limited to Congress,” Alireza Jafarzadeh, a former spokesman for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the umbrella group that includes the MEK which had its Washington office closed, said. In 2002, Jafarzadeh gave the United States information which he said demonstrated a budding Iranian nuclear program.

“There was a lot of talk in the U.S. Congress supporting the idea of regime change through relying on the Iranian opposition,” Jafarzadeh said. “But Professor Tanter made that an academic debate, a debate among the think tanks, the experts doing research on it, giving it much more depth than it was before.”

Tanter can’t remember when he started wearing bow ties, which have become, like the MEK, linked to his public persona. “I’ve been bow-tieing forever, “ he said. The bow ties have contributed to Tanter’s reputation as a snappy dresser””in an article on the MEK, MSNBC called him “nattily dressed.”

After working for the Department of Defense and teaching at several American universities, Tanter was appointed to Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council in 1981 (he also worked on Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign). Asked if he knows anything about rumored negotiations between Ronald Reagan’s campaign staff and the Iranian government to hurt Jimmy Carter’s chances in the election, Tanter laughed and said he didn’ t work in that part of the campaign””then pointed out that he didn’t deny or confirm the rumor.

Journalist Yvonne Ridley thinks Tanter’s   claims about the MEK are ridiculous. Courtesy YVONNE RIDLEY During the campaign, Tanter worked with Zalmay Khalilzad, the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Tanter called Khalilzad his friend, then backtracked, saying “When someone is a friend who goes higher [professionally], you can’t really call them a friend anymore.”  Watching Khalilzad deliver a speech about the Middle East in Gaston Hall in November, Tanter knit his fingers under his chin, pointing out when the Ambassador echoed a point Tanter made in Baghdad Ablaze. When Khalilzad mentioned “internal elements in Iran,” Tanter leaned over excitedly and whispered “Did you hear that? Internal elements in Iran.” Despite this possible nod to the MEK, Tanter said he does not think his opinions have been adopted by the Washington foreign policy establishment.  Working in the Reagan administration gave Tanter access not only to Khalilzad, but also other influential Republicans who continue to influence foreign policy. In the acknowledgments chapter of his book Who’s At the Helm?: Lessons of Lebanon, he thanks Ronald Reagan, Donald Rumsfeld, and George Bush for being “supportive of [his] professional development.”

Still, Tanter’s connections and history with Republicans haven’t been able to get him a meeting with the woman who could most help him get the MEK delisted: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“I’m trying to get a “˜date’ with her,” he said, “But her staff is keeping me away.” Since the State Department decides what groups are designated as foreign terrorist organizations, one good meeting with Secretary Rice could mean new resources and status for the MEK and vindication for Tanter.

Tanter last visited Iran in 1975 when it was still ruled by the pro-Western Shah. After the Shah’s repressive regime was overthrown by a coalition of bourgeois intellectuals and fundamentalist Shia ayatollahs, the ayatollahs gained the upperhand and turned against the Shah’s foreign backers, including the United States.

“I’ve gotten invitations from the Iranian regime to come, which I consider to be””gick!” Tanter said, drawing his hand across his neck and making a noise like his throat was being cut. “They ask me to come on Iranian television all the time. No, I don’t want to give them the legitimacy.”

At least some in Iranian television aren’t eager to give him legitimacy, either.

“You’d have more chance of seeing the Pope’s b**ls [sic] than seeing this lot being taken seriously by anyone,” journalist Yvonne Ridley wrote in an e-mail. Ridley hosts a show on Press TV, an international television channel funded by the Iranian government.  Ridley also questioned Tanter’s claim that the MEK can bring change to Iran. “The Iranian Government hates them, the pro-Shah/return-the-Peacock-Throne lobby hate them. Saddam loved them and they were part of the famous “˜Saddam’s Tank Girls,’” she wrote, referring to the large number of women in the MEK army. Tanter’s personal conversation continually echoes his professional interest; he lists Lawrence of Arabia, a film whose hero gains his government’s support for a rebel movement in the Middle East, as one of his favorite movies, and he can turn anything into a metaphor about Iran. He plays tennis twice a week, and is quick to draw an analogy between this hobby and his passion. “In tennis, stroke the ball leaning forward, not on your backfoot,” he wrote in an e-mail, “Similarly, the Iranian regime is leaning forward by building the Bomb, destabilizing Iraq and threatening its neighbors.” Even the air he breathes is fodder for a metaphor””Iranian meddling in Iraq “is like oxygen fanning the flames of conflict in Iraq.” Despite his relentless focus on Iran and the MEK, Tanter says he will not let his work as an educator suffer. “I’m still committed to my teaching, even though I’m involved in all this transformational business,” Tanter said. Whether in the classroom, Congress, or Europe, Tanter’s work is teaching. Speaking about his research on Iran, Tanter said, “You don’t have to buy mine, just do yours.”  Will Sommer – georgetownvoice – March 5, 2008


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