Wrangling over Regime Change
Keith Weissman on resisting the regime change agenda, espionage charges, and making a living.
[ feature ] With the election of George W. Bush, the events of 9/11, and the invasion of Iraq, Iran became front and center for Weissman at AIPAC. "Iran came back in a big way after the invasion of Iraq, because you had all these guys running around saying, ‘Next stop Tehran!’ and all that," says Weissman. Many within AIPAC, and some of Israel’s top Iran-watchers, wanted to push hard for Iraq-style regime change in Iran, too, beginning with overt and covert support for dissidents, minority groups, and exile militia such as the Mojahedin-e Khalgh (MKO).
"You should see the people who crawled out of the woodwork to talk to me! I talked to monarchists, to socialists, to communists, everybody. And they all wanted AIPAC to support regime change," remembers Weissman. "Israel was also trying to unduly influence the United States, too. They were sending a lot of Iranian exiles to the United States from Europe to give talks, purporting to be Iranian leaders. A lot of times, I remember, when I went to Israel Uri Lubrani would take me to meet these people who were stashed in various hotels all over Tel Aviv and he would always make me switch cabs on the way, that kind of thing! This culture of regime change was very strong, very powerful, inside elements in Israel, and the Pentagon, the neoconservatives, a lot of pundits here."
But Weissman says that AIPAC and other organized Jewish groups in the United States avoided direct calls for regime change, and he takes credit for restraining AIPAC in that regard. "A Jewish organization would not so much get up and say, ‘We want regime change.’ They might say, ‘We need to contain Iran,’" says Weissman.
"[Support for regime change] was the personal opinion of many people in AIPAC, but it never uttered the words ‘regime change.’ And I think my efforts were part of the reason why they never did," he says, adding: "How would it look anyway? This is what makes it so stupid! The American Jewish community choosing the next government of Iran? Helping to change the next government of Iran? How can that government have any legitimacy? It’s completely ridiculous. And I think the arguments that I raised against it convinced AIPAC, no matter what they personally thought, they realized that what I was saying was right."
It was at this time that the AIPAC-Franklin espionage controversy erupted. What happened and why? Perhaps the full story of the Rosen-Weissman case, Franklin’s involvement, and what role was played by AIPAC and by Israel will never be known. So far, it’s never been proven that either of the two AIPAC officials either received or passed on any classified documents, either to Israeli intelligence or anyone else. According to Weissman, they merely engaged in what every Washington insider does, namely, meeting with and sharing gossip with U.S. officials, embassy officials, and journalists. Franklin, the Pentagon Iran analyst, never gave Rosen or Weissman any actual documents, Weissman says, though he did try to get the support of AIPAC and a handful of neoconservative outsiders for the Pentagon’s battle with the State Department over policy toward Iran.
There’s a clear difference between spying and trading information, of course. If the FBI and the Justice Department had evidence that Franklin, Rosen, or Weissman were engaged in classical espionage, they presumably would have said so, and charged them accordingly. Had Rosen and Weissman conspired with the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, in a scheme to ferret out U.S. secrets, and had that scheme been uncovered by the FBI, then the two AIPAC officials would have been charged with spying. But there’s no evidence that anything like that happened. Instead, if Rosen and Weissman simply met with Franklin — and other U.S. officials — and then shared what they learned with Israeli embassy officials and others, including think tank types, then it’s hard to argue that any laws were broken. That’s what Rosen and Weissman’s lawyers argued, and in any event the case was eventually dropped.
So what does Weissman think was going on? He believes that U.S. law enforcement officials, including the FBI, and CIA officials were so angry over the role of neoconservatives in backing the war in Iraq that they launched an investigation that sought to link Wolfowitz, Feith, and other Jewish Pentagon officials to Israeli intelligence, AIPAC, and a panoply of neocons at the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, and other think tanks in Washington.
"I don’t think it had that much to do with Iran," says Weissman. "It had to do with Iraq." The FBI and the CIA believed, according to Weissman, that neoconservatives, AIPAC, and others were responsible for the Iraq debacle, and that they were out for payback. "This investigation was part of a much larger effort aimed at neoconservatives and AIPAC, not just Steve Rosen. Everybody in Doug Feith’s office had to hire an attorney: [David] Schenker, Rhode, Michael Rubin, Mike Makovsky, all those people had to hire attorneys." They were being investigated, Weissman says, especially because many of them had ties to and contacts with Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi wheeler-dealer who led the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and who was a principal advocate for regime change in Iraq from the 1990s onward. "They were being investigated because of Chalabi," he says.
Chalabi and AIPAC did have relations before the invasion of Iraq, of course. But Weissman was highly skeptical of Chalabi. "Chalabi came to AIPAC in the late 1990s," he recalls. "I’ll never forget sitting across the table from him, and he said, ‘If I ever become president of Iraq, one of the first things I’ll do is to recognize Israel.’ And I think to myself, ‘The second thing you’ll do is, you’ll get a bullet in the back of your head.’ And I walked out of the room. I knew he was a complete idiot. Or a liar."
But he adds: "There were a lot of contacts between the Jewish community and the INC. In 2000, 2001, the INC spoke at the AIPAC policy conference. So there were links between the Jewish community groups and the Iraqi exiles, and also between the neocons and the Iraqi exiles." But Weissman insists that even so, the FBI and the Justice Department erred in believing that the contacts amounted to anything like espionage or a national security threat that required an FBI inquiry. Instead, he says, the FBI launched an investigation to go after what they saw as a conspiracy to support war in Iraq and, after that, regime change in Iran. Personally, Weissman believes that both the war in Iraq and regime change in Iran were wrongheaded. "I think that they were all bad policies, policies that a lot of people in the U.S. government badly wanted to discredit," he says.
The FBI’s investigation of AIPAC, including Rosen and Weissman, apparently went back to at least 1999, half a decade before the inquiry became public and charges were filed against Franklin and the two AIPAC officials. And although the CIA wasn’t overtly involved in the FBI investigation, Weissman says that there is clear evidence that the CIA was indirectly involved.
"Don’t forget, the head of the office that was investigating us had just come back there from two years helping the CIA with counterintelligence," says Weissman. That was David Szady, the FBI’s assistant director for counterintelligence from 2001 to 2006. During the period of the run-up to the war in Iraq, the CIA itself was virtually at war with the Pentagon, clashing over a wide range of intelligence issues. At the Defense Department, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, along with Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary, and Doug Feith, the head of the Pentagon’s policy shop, argued forcefully that Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and that Iraq maintained an aggressive program to develop and stockpile weapons of mass destruction. At the CIA, however, there was a great deal of skepticism over Iraq’s purported involvement with terrorism and WMD. And the fact that Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith — along with a passel of other DOD officials, including Rhode, Schenker, Rubin, and Makovsky — had allied with Richard Perle and other neoconservatives at the American Enterprise Institute alarmed the CIA.
Not only that, but since the early 1980s many CIA and FBI officials believed that Israel and AIPAC were engaged in gray-area espionage to acquire U.S. secrets and to obtain and pass around leaked information from classified files, says Weissman, citing a long list of past allegations. "I think the FBI counterintelligence people were just so frustrated that they could never bring a case against these people," he says.
And then the invasion of Iraq brought things to a head. "Now remember, at this time Iraq started to go really bad," says Weissman. "So by then a lot of these agencies were saying, ‘We told you so. We gotta stop these guys. They’re bringing us down. The Arab world is against us. They’re destroying American interests everywhere.’ They’re seeing all this stuff, they remember that after 9/11 the United States had the sympathy of the world, and they focused the blame on the neocons."
Weissman doesn’t dispute that the FBI, CIA, and others were correct in blaming the neocons for the debacle in Iraq. "I do," he says. "I agree with them."
To the extent that the Rosen-Weissman case was about Iran, not Iraq, it had to do with Franklin’s efforts to win support from AIPAC and others for a tougher U.S. policy toward Iran.
"Larry Franklin was the Pentagon Iran analyst," says Weissman. He was a fellow traveler with the neoconservatives, often appearing in the front row of the audience at American Enterprise Institute events on Iraq, sitting alongside Harold Rhode and other DOD officials. According to Weissman, Franklin (pictured whispering to Feith) was one of a handful of U.S. officials who felt that after what they saw as the successful toppling of Saddam Hussein, Iran was next on the list, not least because Iran was interfering in Iraq in a way calculated to undermine the U.S. presence there. "At that time American triumphalism was ridin’ high! And all those guys could see was Iranian interference with Iraq, backing of elements that were killing Americans. All they could see was an unpopular regime that was doing things that harmed American interests," says Weissman.
"One of the things that Larry came to realize, during the wars between the Pentagon and the CIA, was that they were the only ones who wanted to go after Iran. The Pentagon viewed the State Department [as] panty-waists who were gonna appease [Iran], always trying to undercut whatever the Pentagon did. Larry got the idea that he would bring AIPAC into that, trying to enlist AIPAC’s help in support of a much tougher policy toward Iran than the administration was pursuing at that time."
So far, Weissman says, Secretary of State Colin Powell had been able to steer American policy away from a showdown with Iran. "The neocons were so frustrated about this," Weissman says. "They hated Powell more than they hated anybody."
By 2004, Weissman says, the Bush administration hadn’t settled on a concrete policy toward Iran. "The White House never did anything about this because there was so much fighting about Iran. They were trying to write a policy document about Iran from the first day they started in power to, oh, the first day I met Larry Franklin in ’03. And they never actually wrote one, because neither side could ever agree."
Continues Weissman: "Larry thought he needed more ammunition in his holster, in his belt, to move the administration away from Powell and closer to Rumsfeld-Cheney. And he must have thought that AIPAC could help because of our power in Congress. So he sought us out. He pushed for the meeting and he asked a mutual friend of ours to set it up."
That friend, Weissman says, was Michael Makovsky, who worked in the Department of Defense. Currently, Makovsky is the project director at the Bipartisan Policy Center, an organization that has taken a hawkish position on policy toward Iran. Makovsky’s brother, David Makovsky, is a top official at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
For his part, Weissman was on Powell’s side. "There’s no question that I agreed with Powell’s set of beliefs, that we should try to encourage dialogue, to see if we could build on cooperation over Iraq," he says. "I thought that Powell was right." In response to Franklin’s entreaties, he says, neither he nor AIPAC provided any help.
"He wanted us to push for the creation of a document that would become U.S. policy," says Weissman. "The Pentagon was writing a draft of it, the State Department was writing a draft of it. The State Department finished its draft in the summer of ’02. The Pentagon was still writing its draft in the spring of ’03, right around the time of Iraq, and they were using Iran and Iraq as part of their ideological bombardment against what Powell wanted."
At the time, Weissman remembers, Iran was being especially cooperative with the United States. "There was a period of time, right after the war, when the Iranians though that they really were next," he says. "Remember, they asked if they could help pick up the downed pilots, there were whispers that there might be something to build on."
Ironically, Iran also sent to the United States the rough outline of a proposal for improved relations, often described as the Grand Bargain approach, in which Iran promised to suspend its nuclear program and modify its Middle East policies in exchange for recognition and security guarantees from the United States. The proposal, prepared by Sadegh Kharrazi, an Iranian diplomat, was forwarded to the United States through the offices of the Swiss ambassador. The arrival of the Kharrazi memo coincided exactly with Rosen’s and Weissman’s second meeting with Larry Franklin. "The second time we met Larry Franklin, Rosen and I had to cut the lunch a little short because we were meeting with the Swiss ambassador, who was bringing the Kharrazi initiative with him." Weissman isn’t sure if the Iranian proposal was legitimate or not, that is, whether it was written with the concordance of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, or whether it was more of a freelanced peace offering from an Iranian faction. Since then, there has been a lot of debate about the proposal, though most analysts believe that at the very least it was worth a formal U.S. response. Instead, it was ignored. Soon afterward, Weissman believes, the whole thing was overtaken by events. "In a matter of weeks, when the United States got more and more bogged down in the insurrection in Iraq, [Iran] started to realize that they could tweak us anytime they wanted, in Iraq," he says. "And probably did."
Weissman believes that at the time, and to this day, Iran is less concerned about a U.S. attack than it is about an aggressive American policy aimed at toppling the regime through support to dissident groups and ethnic minorities and propaganda beamed into Iran.
Weissman says that Iran was alarmed at the possibility that the United States might engage in overt and covert efforts to instigate opposition inside Iran. He says that many in AIPAC, especially among its lay leadership and biggest donors, strongly backed regime change in Iran. "That was what Larry [Franklin] and his friends wanted," he says. "It included lots of different parts, like broadcasts, giving money to groups that would conduct sabotage, it included bringing the Mojahedin[-e Khalgh], bringing them out of Iraq and letting them go back to Iran to carry out missions for the United States. Harold Rhode backed this…. There were all these guys, Michael Ledeen, ‘Next stop Tehran, next stop Damascus.’"
But when Franklin asked Weissman for help, he turned him down. "We didn’t do anything. We chose not to do anything. I told Rosen it was a terrible idea, and it wouldn’t work, and all it would do would be to make more trouble."
Unbeknownst to Rosen and Weissman, of course, their contacts with Franklin were being monitored by the FBI.
At the end of our interview, I asked Weissman how he managed to operate at AIPAC for so long with so many contradictions in his head. He was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and he had Palestinian and other Arab friends, yet he worked for an organization that single-handedly undermined the possibility that Palestine might emerge as a nation. Ideologically, he was much closer to Israeli doves and to progressives within the Labor Party, yet he was employed by a group that was hand in glove with the Likud and other far-right elements in Israel. And he was opposed to the war in Iraq and to confrontation with Iran, yet his bosses at AIPAC hobnobbed with Ahmed Chalabi and joined with neoconservatives to push for a showdown with Iran.
"They were doing it out of patriotism," Weissman says, even as he disagrees with their choices. "They thought they were doing it for the right reasons."
And Weissman? Why didn’t he just quit, and do something else? It turns out that sometimes the simplest explanation is the one that rings most true. It was a job. "Well," he says. "Two kids in college. I finally got up to over a hundred thousand dollars. I got to work on issues that I liked, and I was able to have some influence. I was listened to. I was able to keep AIPAC away from the Iraqi opposition in the 1990s, and to keep AIPAC away from regime change later on. Those were the things I liked, and those were the things I thought I did good on."
Finally, he says, "And I was looking for another job when all this happened."
by ROBERT DREYFUSS in Washington, D.C. – Tehran Bueau