The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has committed over $20 million to defeating the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. But that doesn’t mean its campaign has gone smoothly. One of the top challenges facing AIPAC is finding reputable ex-military validators to denounce the agreement.
With a plethora of experts signing letters in support of the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action—one signed by 36 retired top-ranking military officers, another signed by Jewish communal leaders (including AIPAC’s former executive director), and a third signed by 75 leading nuclear non-proliferation experts— AIPAC is dipping into the third or fourth string of “experts” to find anti-deal voices.
On Thursday, the AIPAC-funded Citizens For a Nuclear Free Iran (CFNI) released its third television commercial and its first attempt to put forward a retired military officer, Ret. Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, as a voice against the deal. But Deptula has a history of associating with extreme elements opposing diplomacy with Iran.
Deptula has appeared at multiple events supporting the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), a fringe Iranian opposition group that advocates regime change in Iran and, until 2012, was listed on the State Department’s terrorism list.
In April, Deptula signed on to a letter supporting the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade’s controversial decision to invite MEK leader Maryam Rajavi to testify. An Obama administration official told Al-Monitor at the time that, “[The MEK] has shown time and time again that they’re not the most credible voices,” and warned lawmakers to be wary of any claims made by Rajavi’s organization.
Deptula, on the other hand, vouched for the MEK’s intelligence-gathering capabilities on multiple occasions.
In February, 2012, according to remarks posted on an MEK website, Deptula praised the group, saying:
The MEK’s access to intelligence about all aspects of Iranian society are very important to countering the malicious aspirations of the current regime in Iran.
And, in May 2012, Deptula told a MEK-hosted Capitol Hill briefing:
It’s also important to recognize that the most secretive information about the current Iranian regime’s connection in international terrorism about its nuclear weapons program and about its menacing intentions for Iraq has to a large extent come from the Iranian opposition movement.
But the MEK has had a questionable track record when it comes to providing sound intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program.
In February, right-wing media outlets leapt at the MEK’s claim that it had evidence of a secret underground nuclear site. The MEK exhibited photos allegedly showing a tunnel leading to the facility and a steel door. And that’s where the story fell apart. The DailyKos matched the photo to a safe company’s website. The full, uncropped image showed windows and sunlight, refuting the MEK’s claim of having acquired evidence of a nuclear facility but also revealing that the group had intentionally cropped a catalog image of a safe in a warehouse to look like a surreptitious photograph of an underground bunker.
The group’s biggest intelligence coup came in 2002, with the public exposure of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and Arak heavy water production plant for plutonium extraction. The MEK claimed its clandestine network in Iran had unearthed the nuclear facilities but The New Yorker reported in 2006 that Israeli intelligence had made the discovery and passed information about the sites to the MEK.
Indeed, the CFNI has, through either happenstance or intention, relied heavily on the MEK since its founding earlier this summer.
Ali Gharib and I reported back in July that the group promoted news articles citing the MEK’s rejection of the nuclear deal and incorporated b-roll footage from an MEK press event in its first television ad. (CFNI deleted the articles from its website but offered no explanation for the removal.)
Aligned with Gaffney
But vouching for the MEK’s intelligence capabilities isn’t Deptula’s only brush with fringe foreign policy views. In April, Deptula signed on to a Center for Security Policy letter praising the highly controversial “Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” assembled by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and 46 fellow senators, a letter that Obama characterized as part of an effort, led by Cotton, to “make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran.”
In January, Deptula signed another letter, alongside Frank Gaffney. Gaffney, Deptula, and the other signatories, congratulated Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal for comments he made at a Henry Jackson Society event in London. The letter praised Jindal’s harsh remarks about Islam, saying:
It is high time that the rest of our present and future leaders come to grips with the unhappy reality you observed so succinctly when you said: “A so-called religion that allows for and endorses killing those who oppose it is not a religion at all, it is a terrorist movement.”
Deptula’s decision to sign letters organized by Frank Gaffney—a leading figure in pushing conspiracy theories about Muslim Brotherhood infiltration of the U.S. government and questioning whether Obama is a native-born U.S. citizen—strongly suggests sympathy for, if not identification with, the Republican far right.
But AIPAC’s promotion of Deptula is part of an emerging pattern of the organization’s shredding of its bipartisan image, as a growing number of Democrats, as well as centrist ex-military and non-proliferation experts, line up in support of the Iran nuclear deal. AIPAC’s shift towards the GOP is also hinted at in CFNI’s incorporation papers in Washington, DC. Craig Engle, a Republican political operative, is listed as the group’s incorporator.
On Tuesday, the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein flagged an AIPAC memo quoting six former military commanders opposed to the Iran deal. One of those, retired Adm. James Lyons, speaking at an event in January, echoed Gaffney’s conspiracy theories about the Muslim Brotherhood’s penetration of “every one of our national security agencies” and accused CIA Director John Brennan of being a “Muslim convert.” He also said that the Muslim Brotherhood has “carte blanche entry into the White House.”
With validators like Deptula and Lyons, AIPAC risks whatever reputation it has enjoyed as an influential voice on U.S. Middle East.
By Eli Clifton,