Iranian dissident delegation visits Israel in historic first, meets with Foreign Ministry
August 6, 2021
(JNS) - It was billed as the first Iranian delegation to Israel since the fall of the Shah 42 years earlier. Six Iranian Muslim dissidents, forced to leave their homeland decades ago and who made their way to the United States, came on a three-day solidarity mission last week to show support for the Jewish state following the May clash between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip - namely, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad - that have long been backed by Iran.
Accompanying the group were four former Trump administration officials, including Ellie Cohanim, former U.S. deputy special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism at the U.S. State Department, who described the visit as "historic." Cohanim was born in Tehran and escaped with her family shortly after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
"They know that Hamas, which rained down these rockets on Israel, is an Iranian proxy, and they know that Hezbollah on the Lebanese border is an Iranian proxy," Cohanim told JNS. "And they wanted to show the Israeli people, but also the world, that they support Israel in its right to a country and its right to self-defense, and they really just stand against the Iranian regime."
The mission was organized by the Institute for Voices of Liberty, a U.S.-based nonprofit that seeks to "counter the false narratives propagated by the Islamic Republic and its apologists," and to act as a voice for the "freedom-seeking people of Iran."
The group's whirlwind tour of Israel included stops at the northern border with Lebanon and Syria, and at the southern border with the Gaza Strip. They also met with officials at Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The ministry tweeted on Sunday: "It was an honor to meet these brave individuals."
Israel and Iran enjoyed close relations for 30 years under the Pahlavi regime until Iran's shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was forced into exile, making way for the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose hostility to Israel is a centerpiece of its ideology.
Members of the delegation would like to see ties restored and spoke of an alliance going back millennia to Cyrus the Great (circa 590–530 B.C.E.), who allowed Jews exiled by the Babylonians to return to the Land of Israel. Delegation members talked of advancing a "Cyrus Accords," a renewed friendship between the Iranian and Israeli peoples along the lines of the Abraham Accords, recently signed between Israel and four Muslim states.
'The Iranian regime is at war with Persian culture'
Ben Tabatabaei, a member of the delegation who is an international business and political economist, was 10 when his family fled Tehran in 1984, several years after the revolution. He told JNS before that, Israel and Iran enjoyed cooperation in a host of areas, including military programs, water conservation and agriculture. He suggested that the friendship between the Jews and Persians (Iran was known as Persia for millennia) is the natural state of things, and the current theocratic regime in Iran is an anomaly.
"The regime in Iran is at war with Persian culture, civilization, and, most importantly, our Persian values," he said.
He warned against the current effort by the U.S. administration to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 nuclear deal the Trump administration withdrew from in May 2018.
"This regime is determined to get nuclear weapons. It throws them a huge lifeline because they need to have at least $60 billion" to fund their various supporters to stay in power, he said. "Now they're struggling mightily because they're not able to provide the funds."
He said it had been his "lifelong dream" to visit Israel and that he couldn't help comparing hopeful Israeli youth with the youth of Iran, who don't have the opportunity to succeed.
Amir Hamidi, another member of the delegation who sits on the board of directors of the Institute for Voices of Liberty, escaped Tehran in 1980. He said his family lost everything; some were even executed. Hamidi became an expert on global terrorism, a high-ranking official in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, serving as country attaché at the U.S. embassy in the United Arab Emirates.
"Drug traffic - that's my expertise," he told JNS. "And the Islamic Republic rules as a mafia network. They deal in drugs, guns, prostitution. They're a cartel-type organization."
"Iran has 15 million drug addicts," noted Hamidi, saying he has seen videos of Iranian children as young as four using opioids. "It's disgusting."
He said that Ebrahim Raisi, Iran's former chief justice and its recently elected president, only has a sixth-grade education. "He was head of a death squad," he noted, referring to Raisi's role in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 when he was deputy prosecutor of Tehran. The United States sanctioned Raisi for his role in the executions in 2019.
Hamidi said that before his trip, he tweeted, "'I'm going to Israel' and I received an outpouring of support from people inside Iran, people I didn't know, saying, 'Give our regards to Israel,' 'Tell them we love you.'"
'You are talking about a criminal cult'
One of the most impressive members of the delegation was Ahmad Batebi, who served 10 years in an Iranian prison. He was arrested at 22 for his involvement in activities against the regime at his university. When he suffered a mini-stroke in prison, he was taken to a hospital where an Iranian-Kurdish group helped him get away.
His family still lives in Tehran. "My sister was a member of Iran's national karate team. She has 52 international medals. She is a champion, but you never hear her name because she's my sister. They count her medals but never say her name," said Batebi.
The Iranian regime is facing a number of serious threats currently from water shortages in its oil-rich Khuzestan province and severe drought conditions elsewhere. The country is in economic freefall as a result of gross mismanagement, strong U.S. sanctions put in place by the Trump administration, as well as record-high COVID-19 cases. Protests in Iran have escalated in recent days, spreading to Tehran where demonstrators have called for the "death to the dictator."
Asked by JNS if the recent riots that have spread to more than 90 Iranian cities could spell the end of the regime, Batebi said: "Yesterday, we were talking to an Israeli official. He said, 'We believe that the revolution is coming soon.' I said, 'We're already in revolution right now.' "
The Iranian economy has collapsed, and there's no trust in the government among Iranians. The government's brutality keeps it in power, he said, but "every day, [Islamic] Revolutionary Guard [Corps] members, police refuse to kill people."
Batebi is a strong supporter of continued sanctions on the Iranian regime. "Those sanctions cut off the Revolutionary Guards' hands from money; it's a legitimate sanction. ... And right now, it works."
He said that "when you talk about the Iranian regime, you don't talk about a government that is representative of the nation. You are talking about a criminal cult with an ideology that says directly 'we're going to export our revolution to other countries.' "
Referring to the Biden administration's current talks with Iran to return to the Obama administration's nuclear deal, Batebi said "if you want to repeat that mistake, go back to them [the Islamic Republic's rulers], but don't say afterwards that you didn't have any information - that you didn't know."