M.H. Sobhani, kingpin of Human Rights Watchs new report, is veteran Iranian intelligence agent
London, May 22 - An internal memorandum of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, known as MOIS or VEVAK, obtained by the Iranian oppositions sources in Iran and published in August 2002, identifies Mohammad Hossein Sobhani as a team leader and a veteran agent of VEVAK. Research into Sobhanis long years of service for the Iranian secret police and interviews with former VEVAK agents and active Iranian dissidents familiar with his case chart a tortuous path that throws light on the methods and tactics of an intelligence service that has become one of the worlds largest, and most feared, secret organizations.
Sobhani was one of several VEVAK agents who were sent to Europe from Tehran within a short period in the spring of 2002. German asylum records show that he applied for political asylum in that year. Farhad Javaheri-Yar and Akbar Akbari were among the members of a team of VEVAK agents led by Sobhani.
The spring of 2002 was a particularly busy time for VEVAKs senior officials in Tehran. Iranian leaders felt strongly that with the U.S. now free from the burden of the conflict in Afghanistan, a war with Iraq was afoot. Irans Supreme National Security Council, the countrys top security body, had instructed the Ministry of Intelligence and Security to work on plans on how to use the combination of anti-terrorism alarm in Western countries in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and an imminent conflict in Iraq as a means of dealing a fatal blow to the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MeK), the most active opposition group to Irans clerical regime.
VEVAKs Third Department, which deals exclusively with the MeK and its allied or associated organizations, already had an elaborate disinformation operation in the pipelines. It was giving instructions to a group of VEVAK recruits, all former MeK members, to go to Europe, apply for political asylum, and begin a new disinformation exercise against the MeK, alleging a range of human rights abuses by MeK against its former members. Parliamentarians, human rights groups, and security agencies of Western governments were to be targeted.
Soon after the arrival in Germany of members of the Sobhani ring, Persian-language websites and journals working as a front for VEVAK, such as Mahdis, Iran Didban and Iran-Interlink began highlighting their gory accounts of solitary confinement and physical abuse in MeK camps in Iraq.
These accounts remained essentially confined to VEVAK-operated disinformation outlets, however, until Human Rights Watch gave them prominence in a report released on May 18, 2005. The report, a litany of allegations of human rights abuses by MeK, is particularly focused on the accounts given by Mohammad Hossein Sobhani and makes much of his claim that he was held for more than eight years in solitary confinement.
Ironically, Sobhani has changed a key part of his story in the Human Rights Watch report from earlier accounts he gave after he first arrived in Europe. According to the Human Rights Watch report, Sobhani escaped from a low security detention center in Iran.
In a June 11, 2002, interview with Mahdis, a Persian-language website that acts as a front for VEVAK, Sobhani said that he escaped when he was in a vehicle being transferred to another location and got away when there was a shoot-out.
The discrepancy is very revealing, because it points to a critical part of Sobhanis whole story. After Sobhanis arrival in Europe in March 2002, his VEVAK handlers realized that his story had one major foible that would give it away: if he was, as he claimed, an opponent of the Iranian regime, how could he travel to Germany directly from Tehran? VEVAK tried to cover up Sobhanis real story by planting an interview with him on one of its websites, Mahdis, on June 11, 2002. Sobhani claimed that although he had returned to Iran from Iraq on January 21, 2002, and had been handed over to the Iranian authorities, he managed to escape following a shoot-out in Tehran. Three years later, he has given an entirely different account of how he escaped, as his testimony in the new Human Rights Watch report shows.
Sobhanis escape story required a long stretch of imagination to believe and was obviously a hastily-arranged effort to protect Sobhani. Those familiar with the situation know that in 26 years of clerical rule in Iran, there have only been a handful of successful escapes from the hands of Irans dreaded security services. Sobhani, who claims he was a long-time member of MeK, would have been such a high-value prize for VEVAK that the chances of his getting away in a shoot-out would have been next to nil. Moreover, what about the other members of his ring? How did they leave Iran and join him in Germany? These questions never found a satisfactory answer.
VEVAKs handlers of the Sobhani ring work under the direct command of VEVAKs deputy chief, Mohammad-Reza Iravani. Iravani, who is better known to intelligence professionals by his alias Amir Hossein Taghavi, is the Deputy Minister of Intelligence and Security. He has a long record in terrorist attacks on Iranian opposition activists abroad and murder of dissidents in Iran. He was a close associate of Saeed Emami, VEVAKs number two in the 1990s, who died in prison in mysterious circumstances after his role in a series of grisly murders of dissidents in Iran was exposed.
Investigation into Sobhanis past has revealed that VEVAK used a classic family tie to recruit him to its ranks. His brother, Jaafar Sobhani, was already a member of the Revolutionary Guards and worked for VEVAK in the Ministry of Education. He facilitated the recruitment of his brother, Mohammad-Hossein Sobhani, who was a non-commissioned officer in the clerical regimes army at the time.
VEVAK officers soon saw a talented agent in Sobhani and earmarked him for a difficult mission: infiltration of the opposition group, the Peoples Mujahedeen. MeKs report on the VEVAK infiltration, published in 2002, notes that Sobhanis mission began in February 1983 when he turned up at one of MeK bases in Kurdistan. He was first deployed in logistical bases and from February 1990 until the fall of 1991 he was a member of protection team for transportation. Sobhani joined at a time when MeK security and communication structures were severely diminished as a result of successive blows by the mullahs regime and did not go through a standard vetting procedure to check his background. But his colleagues bore lingering suspicions about his conduct. In 1986, his supervisor, Fereydoun Varmazyari, reprimanded him formally. It became clear to Varmazyari that Sobhani had lied about his past and was trying to hide his activities prior to joining the movement. Varmazyari himself was shot dead by the clerical regimes agents soon afterwards and Sobhani evaded further scrutiny into his past.
Sobhanis true role as a VEVAK agent became exposed as a result of long investigations after a botched plot to assassinate Massoud Rajavi, president of the opposition National Council of Resistance. On December 23, 1991, VEVAK officers working under diplomatic cover had taken up positions near the MeK office in Baghdad, waiting for the imminent arrival of Rajavi. But they were spotted and challenged by the MeK security guards and were wounded in the ensuing clash. AFP and Reuters news agencies reported a mysterious announcement by the Iranian regime that two of its diplomats in Baghdad had been seriously wounded by the MeK. Then on March 18, 1992, the state-run radio and television in Iran read out a VEVAK press release, which announced that Rajavi was assassinated by his bodyguards. Apparently VEVAKs cipher operators made a mistake in deciphering the message from Baghdad; for several hours the mullahs thought that their plot to assassinate Massoud Rajavi had succeeded.
Seventeen days later, the clerical regimes Air Force bombed Camp Ashraf. Thirteen bombers dropped 30 tons of bombs on the camp. Another VEVAK agent, Kazem Soleimani, later claimed in the official Iranian media that he personally saw the dead bodies of Maryam and Massoud Rajavi. Investigations into these assassinations and attacks established that VEVAK had received information from a handful of infiltrators, who included Mohammad Hossein Sobhani.
Mahnaz Bazzazi, a veteran MeK counter-espionage expert, has spent much time uncovering Sobhanis hidden past and his VEVAK ties. In every liberation movement around the world in the past century, Sobhani would have faced the ultimate punishment once his identity as a VEVAK agent on a mission to assassinate the movements leaders became established, she said in a telephone interview from Camp Ashraf. But we never carried out such punitive measures and even Sobhani was not punished. His allegations of solitary confinement and torture are bold-faced lies and there are hundreds of people who can testify to that, who saw him jogging around in the camp even after his mission was uncovered.
In 1999, Sobhani made an attempt to escape to the Iran-Iraq border and cross into Iran, but he was arrested by Iraqi police and subsequently sent to Iran through legal channels in 2002. After he was debriefed, VEVAK sent him to Germany on a new disinformation mission against the MeK and the coalition National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Two senior VEVAK officials and handlers, Haj Gholami and Haj Saeed, were responsible for the training and preparation of Sobhani and other members of his team for the new mission. In an internal VEVAK report dated February 20, 2002, Ramin Darami, a member of the Sobhani ring, wrote to Haj Saeed, his new handler, "After we entered Iran through legal channels [from Iraq">, we were sent to Marmar Hotel in Tehran and were given a high-level reception. While we were in Marmar Hotel, the head of our team was brother Mohammad Hossein Sobhani and others in our group were Ali Qashqavi and Taleb Jalilian. Our brothers from the Ministry of Intelligence [VEVAK"> paid us daily visits and resolved all our problems, and during this period I spoke to Haj Mahmoud My stay in the hotel lasted ten days During the period we stayed in Marmar Hotel, your proposed plans were reviewed several times by brother Mohammad Hossein Sobhani within our team and we were briefed on it."
The MeK, who obtained this document in its original Persian manuscript, published it in their weekly journal in August 2002.
Sobhanis activities on behalf of VEVAK have not been solely of concern to Iranian dissidents. He has been approached by European police and state security officials on a number of occasions, who continue to be concerned by his activities against Iranian exiles and his contacts with VEVAK handlers in Europe. They know very well from their experience in the 1990s that VEVAKs disinformation agents could be used for collection of critical information on prominent Iranian dissidents and plots to assassinate them.