The big news out of the Voice of America’s Persian News Network (PNN), the much troubled broadcasting service you would think would be bringing the “voice” of America to Iran, was the firing ten days ago of CNN/FoxNews broadcasting star Rudi Bakhtiar.
Just a few months ago, Ms. Bakhtiar was considered a treasured catch. Lured away from a prominent position as a public affairs spokesperson for a human rights campaign, she was escorted out of the Cohen building on a Friday afternoon by VOA security guards. It was a humiliating end to a short-lived career where by all accounts she succeeded in raising moral and raising the profile of this much troubled U.S. broadcasting service.
What happened? For now, Ms. Bakhtiar is keeping mum – understandably so – as she undoubtedly consults lawyers and considers taking legal action against VOA.
But PNN has been roiled by a seemingly incoherent set of personnel changes ever since Ramin Asgard, a former State Department diplomat, took over the reins earlier this year after a long search for a new director.
Asgard, who granted many visas to suspect Iranian nationals as a U.S. consular officer in Istanbul and Dubai, seemed intent on accomplishing two goals from the outset of his directorship: insulating his leadership from Congressional challenge, and using PNN as a vehicle to enhance U.S. relations with Tehran.
“Ramin thinks it would be a cool thing to have an office in Tehran,” a knowledgeable insider who has known Asgard for several years told me. “He has been very eager to diffuse criticism from people like Sen. Tom Coburn and Enders Winbush,” a Republican appointee to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, PNN’s ultimate supervisor.
Among Asgard’s first acts as head of Voice of America’s Persian service was to fire controversial managing editor, Seyed Ali Sajadi, the son of a senior cleric in Tehran. Sajadi had become notorious for single-handedly preventing PNN from broadcasting exclusive video footage of the murder of Neda Agha-Sultan, the beautiful young Iranian woman who became the face of the anti-government Green movement after she was gunned down by pro-regime thugs on the streets of Tehran during the June 2009 protests.
So far, so good. Next, Asgard brought onto the air one of VOA’s fiercest critics, a self-proclaimed student leader named Amir Abbas Fakhravar, who had become a source of insider information to Sen. Tom Coburn and others in Congress about anti-American material sent out over the VOA airwaves.
Fakhravar, the darling of a handful of Washington, DC neo-cons, has succeeded in just five years in the United States in alienating every Iranian-American activist and legitimate student leader who has recently left Iran, usually through scurrilous – and often obscene – slanders he penned against them on Persian language blogs.
On April 6, 2011, Fakhravar testified before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee about the shortcomings of PNN, skipping over Mr. Sajadi (for whom he has expressed sympathy) and instead firing full bore at Ahmad Batebi, the Tehran University student pictured on the cover of the Economist during the July 1999 student uprising holding up a bloody t-shirt.
Mr. Batebi, who had shared a prison cell briefly with Mr. Fakhrevar back in Tehran and knew his secrets, came to the United States three years ago and has been working for VOA ever since, interviewing dissidents inside Iran. Mr. Fakhravar’s accusations that Mr. Batebi was collaborating with Iranian intelligence were so scurrilous that he (thankfully) left them in his written testimony and did not voice them out loud.
Richard Perle, the former Reagan Pentagon official who helped Mr. Fakhravar come to this country in 2006, tells me he is “sick of the whole lot of them” and feels that the current crop of Iranian exiles would put the Romanian, Hungarian and other refugees of the Cold War to shame. He recently resigned along with the entire Advisory Board from Fakhravar’s “Iranian Enterprise Institute.”
Others, such as Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, have publicly called for ridding VOA of all foreign nationals and turning it over to American citizens, a proposal that has significant support in Congress and from the American Federation of Government Employees that represents most VOA employees. Ledeen has also resigned from Fakhravar’s advisory board, which has been taken down from his website. An archived version is here).
Exile communities historically have a tendency to bicker. In the case of the Iranians, they have good reason to do so, since the Iranian regime has spared no effort to recruit agents in their midst and to sow discord, making it virtually impossible for them to speak with a single voice.
But the rot at VOA goes well beyond a squabble among exiles, however important that may be: it touches core issues of American policy toward Iran, and how we view our public diplomacy.
In one recent staff meeting, Mr. Asgard instructed his work force to keep all anti-regime criticism off the air, because he wanted VOA “to serve as a bridge between the United States and the Iranian governments,” according to two sources familiar with the meeting.
Since issuing that edict, Mr. Asgard has fired top broadcasters who were in touch with Iran’s disenchanted youth, such as Mr. Batebi, Kianoush Sanjari and Kourosh Seyhati, as well as well-respected veteran Jamshid Charlangi. Several of them were escorted out of the building by VOA security personnel on October 7, victims of an earlier Friday night massacre. (Mr. Batebi was fired in July; Ms. Bakhtiar was given the axe this past Friday, Oct. 21).
In their place, Mr. Asgard has hired a group of young protégés of pro-Tehran activist Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, NIAC.
Mr. Parsi has reliably defended the Islamic Republic of Iran leadership through thick and thin, always managing to find excuses for their bad behavior (hint: it’s America’s fault), while urging the U.S. government to just “reach out their hand” to the Iranian regime and lift sanctions. As Herman Cain would say, How’s that workin’ for ‘ya?
My sources at VOA tell me that Asgard is hoping to fire more anti-Tehran regime journalists, while taking on board more NIAC members, to complete the VOA's transformation into a U.S. taxpayer-sponsored “Make Nice to Dictators” channel.
A recent evaluation of VOA broadcasting that gave support to Asgard's makeover was authored by Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American "scholar" who has worked as Ahmadinejad's "voice" during his visits to New York. Hooman Majd has also taken Trita Parsi under his wing and appeared at events with him.
But the plot gets thicker still. In addition to using its lackeys here in the United States, the Iranian regime has also been using its English-language propaganda network, PRESS TV, to spread lies and rumors to smear the reputation of anti-regime broadcasters. Mr. Charlangi was the victim of a particularly vicious – and totally spurious – claim by Press TV that he was under investigation for sexual harassment that ultimately contributed to his dismissal.
Since the Justice Department revealed the Iranian terror plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington, DC, the Tehran regime has been desperate to deny it had anything to do with the blown plot.
Their latest gambit has been to offer up the IRGC intermediary in the plot, claiming he was an infiltrator from the MEK, the Marxist Islamist group that once was part of the Khomeinist regime but later had a falling out with them over power-sharing 30 years ago.
As I explained here, if only their U.S. agent had picked the right Mexican to execute the terror plot, the headlines would have read “MEXICAN DRUG WAR COMES TO WASHINGTON, DC,” not “Iranian Terror Plot Foiled.”
Today, Trita Parsi, NIAC, and other regime apologists are going out of their way to cast doubt on the FBI’s allegations in the terror plot, and to “warn” the United States not to over-react. And Ramin Asgard’s Voice of America is going along with them.
The Iranian regime is not to blame for plotting a terrorist attack on the United States, in Mr. Parsi’s view. At worst, they were attempting to “provoke” the Obama administration. “[T]he Obama administration should be careful not to walk into such a trap,” he wrote the day the indictment was unveiled. “We must work to prevent such a disastrous outcome” through “restraint and de-escalation.”
Let’s see: the Iranian regime has just tried to blow up scores of people with C-4 explosives at a Washington, DC restaurant, and the United States is the one that should show “restraint” and “de-escalation?”
VOA’s coverage of the terror plot was considered so favorable to the Tehran regime’s narrative that Iranian an state-sponsored website picked excerpts of VOA interviews with five “scholars” and “experts” who cast doubt on the FBI’s evidence in a recent documentary aimed at debunking the U.S. government account of the plot. At one point, the narrator in regime documentary says, “See, even American government television says the case [against the Iranian regime] is a lie.”
The Voice of America’s Persian service should be telling Iranians the stories about their own lives they cannot get from their own media because of censorship. It should not be in the business of giving airtime to apologists for the Tehran regime or making excuses for regime terror plots.
PNN’s new director, Ramin Asgar, seems to think that the true vocation of the Voice of America is to become the Voice of Tehran.
By Mr. Timmerman counting Ahmad Batebi among the "legitimate student leaders" or the Iranian dissident community, and casting Amir Fakravar as a fringe activist with no following, he leads the reader to believe he is either willfully and irrevocably naive, or an opportunist who will attach himself to the opposition figure who will garner him the most attention. He would be well advised to look further than the "Economist" cover to decide where to show his support.