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The Tehran regime is anxious to see the 22-year old son of Maj. Gen. Mohsen Rezai return to Iran, and has deployed commercial agents, intelligence operatives, and intermediaries of all stripes in a major effort to squeeze the younger Rezai financially and isolate him, forcing him to leave the United States.
Ahmad Rezai returned to the United States unexpectedly on February 9 from Costa Rica, where he had been staying at the mansion of Iranian businessman Hojjabr Yazdani. Rezai claimed in interviews with The Iran Brief that Yazdani received money from his father in Tehran to lure him out of the United States and keep him in Costa Rica, far from the Iranian-American community in LA - and most importantly, far from the Farsi-language radios that beam into Iran.
Interviews given by Ahmad Rezai to the Farsi-service of Radio Israel, Voice of America, and Radio Sedaye Iran in Los Angeles have created a stir inside Iran, because of his outspoken condemnation of the regime and of Islam. "Young people don't want to be Muslims," Rezai said on a USIA "On the Line" television broadcast, "not when we see what this regime does in the name of Islam." Adding insult to injury, the show was dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Lured from Los Angeles: Much mystery has surrounded the circumstances of Rezai's departure from Los Angeles last September. We have pieced together the following account, based on Rezai's recollections, copies of visas and travel documents of the intermediaries dispatched to lure him away, and interviews with other sources.
On September 1, 1998, an Iranian businessman based in Frankfurt, Parviz Shahvarani, arrived in Nicaragua from Colombia. From Managua, he phoned Yazdani in Costa Rica and faxed him a copy of his passport, so Yazdani could obtain an entry visa allowing him into Costa Rica.
Shahvarani travelled by car to San Jose one week later, on September 8, apparently carrying money for Yazdani from Mohsen Rezai's family back in Tehran. Shahvarani maintains an office in Tehran and is personally close to General Rezai and to his brother, Omidvar Rezai, a member of the Iranian parliament. So is Shahvarani's Tehran partner Zolamvar (a/k/a Khosravi), a Pasdaran officer.
Shahvarani's companies in Germany - Tecimex GmbH, and Intec Import/Export GmbH - have procured military parts and technology for the Pasdaran in Europe, Ahmad Rezai said, including handsets for the "Ansar" encrypted communication network used by the IRGC. Zolamvar is Shahvarani's day-to-day link to the IRGC and their procurement needs. But Gen. Mohsen Rezai is his political godfather.
After delivering cash to Yazdani from Tehran, Shahvarani travelled to Los Angeles to meet with Ahmad Rezai, using a visa he had obtained from the U.S. Embassy in Bonn on July 29, 1998.
Yazdani set up the trip by calling Rezai in Los Angeles and offering to help him financially. He said he would send a friend to Los Angeles to talk to him Rezai agreed. That friend was Parviz Shahvarani.
Shortly after arriving in Costa Rica with the money from Tehran, Shahvarani flew to Los Angeles. His first meeting with Ahmad Rezai took place at the radio station owned by Iranian exile Asadollah Morovati, who has become an outspoken supporter of President Khatami over the past year. Rezai had been giving a live interview on a popular call-in show. Shahvarani told him he wanted to help him out financially.
Seeing Rezai was suspicious, at subsequent meetings Shahvarani told him he wasn't safe in Los Angeles. Iranian government agents were planted among the exiles, he said. Rezai could never know who to trust.
Eventually Yazdani himself joined them in Los Angeles, finally convincing Rezai to fly back with him to Costa Rica. What Rezai didn't realize until several months later was the trick Yazdani had pulled on him.
[Margin: Not long after Shahvarani and Yazdani fetched Ahmad Reza from LA, his father told Iranian radio he had sent "two Iranian government agents to the United States" to get his son back.]
Because Rezai had entered the U.S. on a temporary visa as a political refugee, he was required to get prior approval from the Immigration and Naturalization Service before travelling outside the country, to ensure he could return to the United States.
But Yazdani told him he needed no special visas. So when Rezai went to the U.S. embassy in Costa Rica in January to apply for a visa to return to the U.S., he was told he could not do so because he had failed to obtain the exit permit from INS. And so for more than three months, Rezai was trapped in Costa Rica, a virtual prisoner in Yazdani's gilded cage.
Rezai eventually called the Washington, DC-based Foundation for Democracy in Iran seeking assistance, and the Foundation Director (who publishes this newsletter), helped him convince INS that he had made an honest mistake when he left Los Angeles. Slipping out of the house when Yazdani was absent, Reza'i telephoned FDI with his flight plans. Early on the morning of February 9, 1999, before Yazdani was awake, he slipped out of the house and headed for the San José airport.
Mind-games: By this point, Ahmad had been joined in Costa Rica by an 18-year old friend from Iran, Amir Tavanania. Amir had been sent out of the country by his mother in a last ditch effort to save her husband, who had been jailed on orders of Gen. Mohsen Rezai, on suspicions he had helped Ahmad Rezai escape from Iran one year earlier.
The regime dealt harshly with the Tavanania family. Amir's older brother, Ali, had left Iran with Ahmad Rezai in February 1998, and accompanied him on a two month odyssey across the Middle East and Europe, until they were finally granted political asylum by the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, Austria.
Ahmad Rezai and Ali Tavanania came to the United States in April 1998, shared an apartment near Philadelphia, and worked in fast food restaurants while studying English at a local community college. Then in June of last year, Ahmad moved to Los Angeles, and began the series of radio and television interviews that so insensed his family and the regime back in Iran.
The Tavanania's problems began on July 3, 1998, when Amir was secretly listening to a call-in show on the Farsi Service of Radio Israel, where Ahmad Rezai was speaking. Eventually, Amir phoned into the program, and expressed his support for Rezai's rejection of the Islamic regime and his calls for freedom. "Five minutes after I hung up the telephone," Amir told the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, "a Mr.Tavakoli from the Ministry of Information [MOIS] called my parents and asked my mother why I had called the Israeli radio." Three weeks later, Amir, his 13-year old brother, and his parents were jailed at an MOIS detention center on Pirouzi Avenue in Tehran. "First, they interrogated us all together," Amir recalled. "Then, after several hours, they separated us. They asked us why we had helped Ahmad Rezai to leave Theran. I felt they were seeking our cooperation in getting Ahmad to return to Tehran."
Finally, when that help did not come, the regime resorted to harsher tactics, jailing the father on December 13, 1998, shutting down the private preparatory schools he ran in Tehran, and seizing the family's possessions. Amir left Iran one week after his father was jailed, and joined Ahmad Rezai in Costa Rica one month later. With assitance from FDI, he has now been granted political asylum in the United States.
Since coming to the United States, Amir has been told by his mother in Tehran that his father was taken to Evin prison and badly beaten. The regime's goal was clear. "They told my mother that if Ahmad returned, they would release my father. But if Ahmad didn't return, they would kill my father. My mother said I should talk to Ahmad, to do everything I could to persuade him to return to Iran. Otherwise, they would kill my father."
Help from the FBI: The mind games continued for several weeks, until the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Philadelphia weighed in.
Just days after Ahmad left the Philadelphia area, where he had shared an apartment with Amir's brother Ali, Ali disappeared. According to a cousin in the area, Ali had been accepted into an FBI Witness Protection Program. Under these unusual procedures, witnesses who are believed to possess credible information of major crimes (terrorism, mafia racketeering, drug smuggling, etc.) are whisked off the street, lodged in safe houses, and given protected identities. They are also given money. What did Ali Tavanania have that could have been of interest to the FBI in Philadelphia in June 1998, that he and Ahmad Rezai did not have two months earlier?
Ahmad believes the answer is simple. "Ali told the FBI I worked for my father, that I had come to the United States to do terrorist jobs for the Islamic Republic. He told them I had bought my father a pair of shoes. That was the evidence that I was an agent of the Islamic Republic."
When Rezai arrived in Los Angeles he was hauled down by the local FBI and grilled for several hours about his father's shoes. And it was the hostility he began to feel from the U.S. authorities that contributed to convincing him to accepting Yazdani's offer of friendship, security, and protection in Costa Rica. There are several indications that the regime continues to feed false information to the FBI through Ali Tavanania in Philadelphia.
When Ahmad Rezai and Amir Tavanania arrived in the United States last month from Costa Rica, Amir was detained by the INS because he lacked travel documents. Attempts by FDI to reach his brother in Philadelphia proved fruitless.
Meanwhile, Amir's mother in Tehran began calling Ahmad Rezai, begging him to return to Iran to save her husband. And once Amir was released from INS detention, she had Ali call him as well. Now she said that if Amir did not go with Ali, their father would be killed by MOIS. As in Los Angeles, the regime was seeking to isolate Ahmad Rezai, cut him off from friends and sources of support, to convince him to return home. When Amir did eventually join his brother in Philadelphia, their mother phoned to say her husband had been released from jail.
Since then, other regime agents have attempted to locate Ahmad Rezai. Yazdani has continued to offer money, if he would return to Costa Rica. And his mother is trying to convince him to meet her in a third country, halfway between Iran and the U.S.
Clearly, Ahmad Rezai disturbs this regime. "I speak for 30 million young people in Iran," Ahmad says. "We want freedom, and democracy, and the possibility of leading a normal life. We don't want this regime and its terrorist ways."
If Ahmad is right - and foreign reporters travelling to Iran recently provide anecdotal evidence that he is - then the regime has a tremendous problem on its hands that makes Khatami's efforts at reform appear paltry in comparison. The children of this Revolution have rejected it in their hearts. They are not yet organized, and they have few political instincts. But in their hearts they prefer jeans, MTV and the freedom to love, to the bleak austere and paranoid world of their parents and their clerical guides.