At a briefing held on Capitol Hill on November 14, Ambassador Lincoln Bloomfield Jr., former Assistant Secretary of the US State for Political-Military Affairs, tackled the subject of Iran’s covert influence operations. Specifically, he highlighted the recent events in the Middle East, including the attacks on October 7, as indicative of Tehran’s desperate response to internal challenges.
Embarking on an exploration of the history and ideological underpinnings of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MEK), Ambassador Bloomfield shed light on why the Iranian clerical dictatorship directs extensive propaganda efforts towards neutralizing what it perceives as an existential threat.
Emphasizing the need for a nuanced understanding of the situation, he called on journalists to delve deeper into its intricacies and make connections across various elements. This, he asserted, is crucial to avoid succumbing to Tehran’s deceit tactics and influence operations.
"We need a national policy on Iran."
Ambassador Bloomfield during the House briefing and the introduction of IPC's new book, IRAN: The Ayatollah's Hidden Hand. pic.twitter.com/6ekc7kEF1v
— Iran Policy Committee (@IPC_US) November 14, 2023
The text of Ambassador Lincoln Bloomfield’s speech follows:
Good morning to everyone. I want to thank everyone who is a public servant for their public service here on Capitol Hill.
I want to congratulate my friend and colleague, Professor Sheehan, for his excellent scholarship. This is one more piece of scholarship he has done at the University of Baltimore. That is thorough, thoughtful, well-researched, and insightful. And teaches us some things that are worth knowing. He’s always met that mark.
Today, I think, the scholar has found his moment because this book is very timely.
I didn’t come here today… We should be humbled and realize that what we really need is a national policy on Iran. We need to come together and find unity as hard as that is in these troubled times.
I didn’t come here today to play counterintelligence expert. You’ll find between the covers of this excellent book some names. But I’m not an FBI agent, a criminal justice expert. I leave that to the authorities. They suspended my clearance once where they had questions about who I might have known in a foreign capital. They’ll do their work, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.
Actually, my main audience are the members of the media. And let me start by saying, in this crisis, as we look at what’s happening in Gaza and Israel and elsewhere, journalists are being very, very brave. Many have lost their lives in the violence in the Middle East. And so I salute the profession of journalism.
But I’d like to speak to you in the media. If you came here today thinking, why are we here on an event to talk about Iran? The action is Gaza. It’s Hamas. It’s Israel. It’s the hostage crisis in Doha. It’s Egypt and where the Palestinians will go. It’s the West Bank, the Palestine Authority. That’s the subject. Why are we talking about Iran? And isn’t this just another MEK event?
If that’s what you think, then this is the event for you. And thank you for coming. Thank you for listening. You’ve come to the right place.
Because not only has the regime in Tehran maintained a wall of falsehoods and propaganda for over 40 years, backed by harsh repression to keep their own people in check, they’ve invested heavily in resources, in foreign capitals, to try to shape the message in other places, not least of which is Washington, D.C. So they’ve done this. Now, some people in this room will know all the facts that I’m going to recite very quickly.
But one never sees the story that I want to tell you reported in the West. And that’s the question I pose to our media. So let’s start with, for example, Mossadegh. Operation Ajax, 1953. Who are the people who support the nationalist views of Mossadegh, who wanted to distribute oil revenues and have a democracy?
It’s the MEK, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. They are the ones who carry the flame for Mossadegh. The Ayatollahs at the time supported the coup. They welcomed the Shah back. They wanted Mossadegh put to death. So we shouldn’t be apologizing to the clerics of Iran.
The MEK didn’t kill the Americans in the 1970s. Not these people, they are not Marxists. They studied Marx. I studied Marx. They’re not Marxists. These were convenient tags that the Shah put on the Mujahedin-e-Khalq to scare the public. They were not true.
Ayatollah Khomeini, who was in exile in Iraq for 14 years, was in Paris before he came to Iran, and he courted the MEK. He had members of people I know who were in Paris with Khomeini, and he talked about democracy. He never said what he really had planned. And when he came to Iran, he celebrated the MEK. Massoud Rajavi’s brother, Kazem, was made the first ambassador of the revolutionary regime in Geneva. The top technical university was renamed Sharif after an MEK member who had been killed by a secular radical, the same people who killed the Americans, for standing up for Islam.
But then something very big happened, and this is what I want you to take away today.
There was a meeting in 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini asked Massoud Rajavi to meet with him. Why? Because Rajavi was very popular. He was giving lectures at Tehran University. Thousands of people would sit on the lawn, according to Le Monde, as he talked about the transfer from colonialism to self-determination, to democracy. And Islam, in Rajavi’s point of view, meant freedom. It meant gender equality. It meant rights, and political agency.
So Khomeini met with Rajavi and said, I want you to support my new constitution. What was in the Constitution? Velayat-e-Faqih, guardianship of the Islamic jurist. This was Khomeini’s master plan. One person would be the embodiment of the 12th Imam of the Prophet and would have essentially a divine mandate to create a Shia, if you will, a Shia caliphate, which is not the right word for the Shia world, a kingdom if you will, of all the shrines, from Karbala and Najaf in Iraq to Jerusalem, Quds.
That was the vision, that was the mandate. He had a divine mandate, and anyone who stood in his way could be put to death. And so when Rajavi said, we can’t support that, the people have already thrown off one dictator, they’re not ready for another dictatorship. And by the way, to us, Islam means freedom. They’ve consistently said this for four to five decades. This has been the same philosophy.
Of course, Khomeini then allegedly signed a handwritten fatwa sentencing Rajavi to death, but also starting a 44-year war that continues to this day. They have been hunting, killing, imprisoning, and trying to silence the MEK for standing up for the idea that Islam is freedom. It’s not just that it’s a dictatorship. The MEK stands for something that is much more dangerous to the Mullahs, which is they reject their version of Islam.
That’s the reason you’ve seen so much of this activity over the years. That’s the reason they have erected this wall of propaganda.
And so, after that, there was a season of about two years where people ran for office, there were political rallies, there was excitement, there were thousands of people in the streets, but then Ayatollah Khomeini tried to suppress it, tried to put the lid on it. It wasn’t working. Children and teenagers were working in print shops. There was a lot of political dialogue. The MEK had a journal. People were reading it. They tried to stop the MEK from communicating, stop them from meeting, and intimidate them. Seventy-nine of them died during the next two years.
And finally, the elected president of Iran, Bani Sadr, who supported Rajavi, called people out into the streets to protest for their political rights. And on June 20, 1981, this is the fateful day that, to this day, defines what we’re seeing in the Middle East, because that’s the day that Khomeini turned the guns on the Iranian people, and they shot their way to power.
A reign of terror began. Tens of thousands of people were either executed, killed in the streets, rounded up, imprisoned, or tortured, and then Khomeini kept the Iran-Iraq war going long beyond the time when he could have settled it.
One of the falsehoods is that the MEK was a traitor and that they fought on Saddam Hussein’s side. That’s false. At no time did the Iraqi forces ever fight alongside the MEK, which wasn’t even in Iraq for the first six years of the war. They came in 1986, they began acquiring surplus weapons in 1987, and they conducted one operation aimed at Tehran, with no involvement of the Iraqi military in 1988.
Khomeini was elderly, near death, and he said, kill them all. Round them up and kill them all.
These were people who had served prison sentences, none of them were life sentences. They found they went to their homes and brought them before judges. There were panels of three judges in Tehran and elsewhere, who asked them a simple question, do you still believe this? And they stood by their beliefs, and up to 30,000 political prisoners were massacred in August and September of 1988. This was the second great wound on Khomeini’s project, shooting his way to power and then massacring 30,000 political prisoners.
The most eminent cleric in the Shia domain in Iran was Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. He was, of course, in line to be the next supreme leader, according to Velayat-e Faqih.
He went to Khomeini and said, Imam, you can’t do this. This is a crime. We’ll be remembered forever as criminals. This is wrong. You must stop. Khomeini didn’t want to hear it, and finally, Khomeini became fed up and pushed aside the Grand Marja of Iran, and instead he picked a young, maybe not young, junior cleric, who had served as the prime minister during the reign of terror in 1981, Ali Khamenei. He became the Supreme Leader of Iran.
So what do you do when you have a supreme leader who’s a hojjatoll-islam and needs to be elevated to the most eminent form of emulation in the Shia world? You conduct massive crimes around the world. Bombings in Argentina, machine-gunning of the Kurdish dissidents in Germany, assassinations of Kazem Rajavi on the streets of Geneva, and attacks on the four translators of Salman Rushdie’s satanic verses in capitals around the world.
There was a massive wave of violence and the promotion of a secret nuclear program. They thought it may have worked for Saddam Hussein, maybe it’ll work for Ali Khamenei.
The Iranian regime has always lied when confronted with its crimes. They lied to the UN envoy who tried to investigate the 1988 massacre. They lied about the nuclear program when European and American negotiators after it was divulged by people in this room, by the way, that there was a secret enrichment program in 2002, negotiations began. The Iranians later bragged about lying to the negotiators.
And the internal unrest continued. The regime pressed foreign capitals to suppress the MEK, to label them as terrorists. The United States government did so in 1997 as a political gesture.
We’ve heard over and over again, and there are books all over the table there that will show, there was never any iota of terrorism by the MEK, and there were four major court cases that demonstrated that. We can follow up later if you don’t know about that.
By 1999, internal unrest erupted again. Students were thrown from the windows on the upper floors of universities, according to the State Department. The Economist asked, is this the next Iran revolution?
And so the Quds Force went after U.S. forces in Iraq. And we’re told by the Pentagon that up to 600 U.S. troops were killed by Shia proxies led by Qasem Soleimani.
In 2009, there was a fraudulent election of Ahmadinejad. There were riots in the streets. They almost lost control of Tehran. And so the Green Movement was suppressed. Two years later, the Arab Spring toppled the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and came to Syria. And that was the point where the Iranian regime panicked, and they sent all of their forces into Syria. They spent billions of dollars. “If we can’t hold Damascus, we can’t hold Tehran.” That is the quote from inside the councils of the clerical regime.
So they tried to negotiate the JCPOA. It took a few years. When they finished it, they got the arms embargo lifted, and they got the U.N. prohibition on ballistic missiles lifted. And the minute that came into effect in 2016, the ballistic missile program started up again. And the then Secretary of State seemed surprised by this, thought it was an oversight, it could be dealt with with a couple of phone calls. No.
Next thing you know, there were scores of ballistic missiles hitting Saudi Arabia from Yemen, targeting the Saudis. In 2016, Prince Turki al-Faisal came to the MEK-NCRI rally in Paris and said we need to eliminate the Khomeinist cancer in the Middle East. He gave the entire history of thousands of years and led to this point, that this is a cancer on the region, it must be eliminated.
Remember that, because it was an officially sanctioned speech by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Meanwhile, Ministry of Intelligence teams were hunting the MEK in Albania after they relocated from Iraq in 2016. They were planning a mass casualty bombing of the same rally two years later, north of Paris in 2018. We were there.
Fortunately, it was foiled by European police forces. But this spy, Asadullah Assadi, who was planning the bombing, was operating under diplomatic cover at the embassy in Vienna. The bomb was tested several times in Iran, according to the court in Antwerp, and was transferred on a commercial flight under diplomatic cover.
This is under Foreign Minister Zarif, and this is while the JCPOA was still in effect. That’s what they were doing, planning a mass casualty bombing in the heart of Europe.
So, the Antwerp court gave Asadi a 22-year sentence. What did the Iranians do? They seized a Belgian. They seized an aid worker, a 40-year-old aid worker for the Norwegian refugee fund in Iran, and sentenced him to 40 years in prison and 44 lashes. That led the Belgian government to sign an extradition treaty and trade the hostages. Asadi was freed.
What happened in Sweden when one of the people who was implicated for war crimes in 1988 with the death of up to 30,000 political prisoners? Hamid Nouri, again, we find that they had seized a European Commission official of Swedish nationality in Iran and were holding him to try to swap him to get Nouri out.
Then there was a third hostage negotiation, wasn’t there? So, the Americans got five of our people back, thankfully, in return for freeing frozen funds in Korea. That’s three hostage crisis people.
Does the word hostage ring any bells today in this room? All right.
So, Iran thought that President Biden, upon taking office, would quickly present a signed version of the JCPOA and everything would be back to normal. That didn’t happen. The Biden administration exercised caution, which I thought was laudable.
So, after a couple of years, they realized that they weren’t going to have a JCPOA. What do you do now? Since 2008, the Saudi Arabian royal family has announced, when they started their civil nuclear program, as did the UAE in 2008, that they would never allow Iran to have anything that they didn’t also have. They’ve been warning us for years, and the Iranians knew this.
So, once they realized they were stuck on the verge of a nuclear breakout, what did they do? They convened negotiations with Saudi Arabia. Of course, they did. Otherwise, the Saudis could run to Pakistan. They could do all kinds of things to try to counter the Iranian bomb. So, they tried to negotiate, but it didn’t lead to anything meaningful.
By 2023, the Iranian people, led by girls and women, girls whose schools had been gassed by the regime forces, were in open revolt. The Iranian rial has lost so much of its value since the days of a decade ago, that a large part of the population sits in poverty. Executions are rampant in Iran, nine on Sunday alone.
So, for the regime, the only pillar keeping it in power is this fiction that they still have a revolution, that they’re still headed for Quds, for Jerusalem. This is all they have left. How do you keep the foot soldiers of the Revolutionary Guards, the Quds Force, the MOIS, and the Justice Ministry, how do you keep them loyal? Yes, you can pay their families a paycheck. They can eat. But you’re asking a lot more of them than that. You’re asking Hamas to commit suicide when they go over the wall into southern Israel.
So, there has to be a much higher belief that the revolution lives on. And what happened? The Saudi intention, the reported intention by Saudi Arabia to move toward normalization with Israel, was, for the regime in Iran, an extinction-level event.
If the custodian of the two holy mosques, the king of Saudi Arabia, would be content to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, with Israeli defense forces outside, with guns strapped around them, if that was okay with the custodian of the two holy mosques of Mecca and Medina, then there’s no Velayat-e-Faqih. There’s nothing left of Khomeini’s project. There is no Quds to be conquered. There is no Shia kingdom. It’s gone. It’s over.
And so what happened? That, in my view, is why the Tehran regime decided to break glass and pull the lever to create this conflagration in the Middle East.
Now, if we read the media dispatches from Washington about what happened after the October 7 attack in Israel, we learn that our National Security Advisor doesn’t have a smoking gun of evidence. Fine. We see the President trying to help Israel overcome its trauma. We see the Secretary of State trying to defuse the raging hostilities, as he should. We would hope that anyone in those positions would do the same thing, to provide humanitarian relief, and arrange the safe return of the hostages. They’re doing their jobs.
But this, and I’m speaking to the media now, this is not the Soviet Union. And we’re not content to have Pravda or Izvestia as our source of news. It’s fine to report what comes off the White House podium or the State Department podium, but where is the analysis?
Are we supposed to believe that the Supreme Leader had no idea the October 7 attack was going to occur when he had Hamas and Hezbollah in Tehran the week before? And he predicted that the Zionist regime will be eliminated by the Palestinian resistance?
Are we supposed to believe that Foreign Minister Abdollahian, who, by the way, is not a traditional diplomat, he was in the Quds Force with Soleimani until Soleimani moved him in 2003 into the Foreign Ministry as an ally? Are we supposed to believe that he never heard a word about the pending attack in two meetings in Beirut with Hamas and Hezbollah days before October 7?
And this is where Professor Sheehan’s book is highly relevant. Because it’s one thing to report uncritically Foreign Minister Abdullahian’s incredible statement that Iran might not be able to remain a spectator, but for the Washington-Iran watchers to seize on the reported intelligence that Iran was surprised by the Hamas attack, suggests a much more serious problem. Not only is the regime broadcasting its smokescreen to evade attribution. I believe it’s also whispering its alibis in our ear, right here inside the Beltway.
How many times have experts warned against the U.S. escalating forces? Well, of course, I don’t favor escalating with U.S. military force. I spent years as a Pentagon official. And let me tell you, two carrier battle groups, including the most modern one, the Gerald Ford, and the squadron of F-35s we sent to protect shipping two months earlier, could probably make short work of the entire Russian army occupying Ukraine.
So let’s not, don’t tell me that the U.S. should fear escalation. We have massive combat capability positioned in the region, including intelligence and capabilities, we have it all, targeting.
So remember this, no Arab governments today, that I can think of, I could be wrong, are calling for the destruction and elimination of Israel. They used to, but I don’t hear any Arab government saying Israel should be wiped off the map.
Only Iran and its proxies, including some Sunni proxies, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the terror groups, are the ones who say Israel should not exist. Every party in this conflagration has come out worse. Think of it, Israel, Hamas, what future does Hamas have?
Look at Gaza today, and imagine what future they have, walking the streets, saying, oh, I was one of the heroes who did this. Do you think you would give them a life insurance policy?
Look at the Palestinians. Look at the Arab states under terrible pressure from the anger in the street. Look at Qatar, who is trying to, I don’t think they knew what was going to happen, but they’re trying to manage this awkward situation with the political, quote-unquote, leader of this savage terror group.
The U.S. lost. Europe lost. Demonstrations in the streets, our societies, and our universities are being divided. This is a conflagration. It’s a fire, and it had an arsonist. And before journalists and analysts try to write about this dark, historic chapter in the Middle East, may I suggest that first, you need to dig behind the headlines, connect the dots, and understand the plot.
Thank you. Thank you.