As European Union member states are considering scaling back the numberof Iranian diplomats allowed to operate under official cover in Europe,and have announced that they will limit the number of visas granted toIranian officials suspected of having intelligence ties, the U.S. StateDepartment has taken no similar measures in the United States, despiteits vociferous denuniciations of Tehran's support for terrorism.
According to a register maintained by the State Department's Officeof Protocol, 45 Iranian nationals were accredited to the Islamic RepublicInterests Section in Washington, DC as of July 1995. Because the UnitedStates and Iran do not have diplomatic relations, none of the Iranianshave official diplomatic status, and their names are not published in theState Department's Diplomatic List. "They are considered employeesof the Iranian Interest Section, not diplomats," a State DepartmentProtocol officer said.
The Iranian Interests Section operates under the umbrella of the Embassyof Pakistan, although it maintains separate offices on Wisconsin avenue.All the Iranians working there have permanent resident status or are dualnationals, the State Department said, making it difficult to take any actionagainst them.
However, it was unclear why the State Department allowed them to maintainsuch a large staff. "Forty-five? You've got to be kidding," aaide to Senator Alfonse D'Amato told The Iran Brief. "They ought tobe allowed to have four or five. What do they need all those people for?"
Iranian exiles have long complained that the Interests Section is usedto spy on the Iranian-American community. Representatives from the InterestsSection regularly attend cultural and social events within the Iraniancommunity, and maintain close ties to an Islamic Center in Potomac, MDthat is directly financed by the New York-based Alavi Foundation, the Americanbranch of Iran's Bonyad-e Mostazafan (or the Foundation for the Oppressed).They also maintain ties to Islamic Centers in Springfield, Virginia andelsewhere in the Washington area.
Employees of the Interest Section frequently try to exert pressure onIranian-Americans engaged in politics. One method frequently used is todetain relatives seeking visas or passport extensions for hours of questioning,only granting the service once the relative had agreed to "pass amessage" onto his family member to desist from opposition politics."They are only supposed to be performing consular services,"said Khosrow Akmal, secretary general of the opposition ConstitutionalistsMovement of Iran, "but they have many other offices, including anInformation section, which does intelligence work."
The Islamic Republic uses the same word - ettelaat - for informationand intelligence.
Some U.S. government officials believe the Interest Section is alsoinvolved in laundering Iranian government funds to pro-Tehran individualsand groups operating in the U.S. "They are spending a lot of moneyon this," one official said. "Their primary goal is to get theU.S. sanctions lifted." (See "Pro-Tehran lobbying," below)
Since the 45 staff members of the Interest Section all hold green cardsor U.S. passports, they can travel anywhere they choose in the United States,unlike Iranian diplomats accredited to the United Nations.
State Department officials said the size of the Interests Section inthe U.S., as well as the number of diplomats the Islamic Republic is allowedto maintain at the UN, was negotiated as part of the Algiers agreementresolving the 1979-1981 hostage crisis in Tehran. "The United Statesdoes not issue visas through our Interests Section in Tehran and has noU.S. citizens there," one State Department officer said. "Thesituations are not reciprocal." However, the official said, the sizeof the Interests Section "is one of the things we are looking at,"he added.
The current head of the Interest Section is Faramarz Fathnezhad. Bornon Feb. 20, 1957, he began working for the Interest Section on Oct. 8,1990, according to U S. government records. His younger brother, MohsenFathnezhad, was repatriated last summer after the Fairfax County Policeissued an arrest warrant for him on charges of sexually assaulting a minor.A Wanted Poster with the younger Fathnezhad's picture was posted in FairfaxCounty public buildings.
The former head of the Interest Section, Ali Sabzalian, moved to NewYork in 1993 to launch the Center for Iranian Trade and Development, aprivate group that aimed to encourage American firms to invest in Iran.Since the U.S. trade embargo, they have virtually ceased their trade promotionactivities and closed down their monthly magazine, Iran Business Monitor.
As of July 1995, the Interest Section had declared the following "staff"members: