In a sold-out event, Iran‘s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, [spoke] Wednesday evening at the Asia Society in New York, starring in a “conversation” titled: “The U.S. and Iran: Road to War or Path to Peace?” With tensions high over Iran’s nuclear program, and allegations in the press that Iranian officials attended North Korea’s latest nuclear test, there are doubtless many questions the capacity crowd would like to ask. But one of the biggest questions hanging over this occasion is, why dignify Iran’s regime with yet another stage in New York?
Not that Khazaee lacks for diplomatic polish and credentials. With his neat mustache and well-cut jackets, Khazaee looks like the very model of an earnest diplomat. For the past five years, spanning two U.S. presidential administrations, he’s been Iran’s ambassador to the U.N., presiding at Iran’s large mission on Third Avenue. Currently he also speaks at the U.N. for the 120 member Non-Aligned Movement, which Iran is chairing from 2012-2015.
Khazaee is schooled in finance, served from 1998-2002 as Iran’s envoy to the board of the World Bank, and is a veteran of Iran’s Ministry of Economic Affairs. Fluent in English, he boasts a Master’s Degree from Virginia‘s George Mason University. In his remarks to the Asia Society, Khazaee will be flanked by a former U.S. ambassador, Thomas Pickering, who is providing the other half of the conversation – moderated by Washington Post columnist, David Ignatius. This is an upscale setting, primed to lend respectability.
But amid all the decorum, let us not lose sight of the realities. However smooth, Khazaee is a mouthpiece for the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, a defender at the U.N. of Iran’s grotesque human rights record and a servant of Tehran’s partnerships in proliferation with such murderous regimes as those of Syria and North Korea.
In 2009, when the U.N. General Assembly condemned Iran’s government for the massive, bloody human rights abuses with which it crushed protests over a rigged presidential election, Khazaee savaged the resolution as politically motivated. He described Iran’s 2009 vote, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gained a second presidential term as “another display of the democratic nature and openness of the political system.” In late 2012, when the General Assembly passed another resolution condemning such practices of the Iranian regime as torture, executions and pervasive violence against women, Khazaee dismissed it as containing 150 “unsubstantiated” allegations.
In a U.N. General Assembly debate on Syria, last February, while members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were abetting the killing in the Syrian streets, Khazaee in the U.N.’s lofty chambers was running interference for Syria’s Assad regime. In a U.N. General Assembly debate on human rights violations in Syria, Khazaee opined – hypocrisy no object – that “any attempt to interfere in Syrian internal affairs would only lead to a deepening of a political and social crisis, with all its ramifications for the region as a whole.”
Documents filed in two U.S. federal court cases suggest Khazaee has also exploited his diplomatic post in Manhattan to provide help, and even guidance, for activities violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
The best-known case is that of the Alavi Foundation, an Islamic nonprofit based in midtown Manhattan, which according to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, was directed for years “by various Iranian officials, including Iranian ambassadors to the United Nations, in violation of U.S. laws.” The Alavi Foundation emerged from Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution with a controlling interest in a 36-story office tower on Fifth Avenue, built by the Shah. Alavi used millions in annual income from this building to fund grants, scholarships, and a network of mosques and Islamic community centers across the U.S.
In a 2009 civil forfeiture complaint, U.S. federal prosecutors alleged that the Alavi Foundation was part of a web of Iranian government front companies, linked to Iran’s state-owned Bank Melli. Bank Melli was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2007 for what former senior Treasury official Stuart Levey described as going to “extraordinary lengths to assist Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability and ballistic missiles, while also helping other designated entities to dodge sanctions.”
Khazaee is one of the Iranian ambassadors described in the complaint as having directed the activities of the Alavi foundation, starting soon after his 2007 arrival as Iran’s envoy to the U.N. in New York. Federal investigators found handwritten notes taken by Alavi’s former president, Farshid Jahedi (who pleaded guilty in 2009 to trying to destroy documents), detailing Khazaee’s attendance at board meetings, as well as closed door meetings at an Alavi property in Queens, and Khazaee’s residence in New York. These notes describe Khazaee directing Alavi’s financial strategy, asserting that he would determine the composition of the board of directors, and telling Alavi officials that before they could make decisions, “I have to be kept informed,” and “if there is an issue that needs to be conveyed to Tehran, let me know and I will convey it.”
With Alavi now under court supervision, the case is still working its way through court proceedings. Both Alavi officials and the Iranian Mission have declined to comment. But Khazaee’s adventures with alleged sanctions busting do not end there. His name also turned up in another federal case, tried in 2009 in Philadelphia, which resulted in the conviction of a dual national Iranian-American businessman, Ali Amirnazmi, for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
The Amirnazmi case tracks back to a reception hosted by Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, in New York, while Ahmadinejad was attending the 2006 opening of the U.N. General Assembly. At the reception, Ahmadinejad asked his guests if anyone would like to help Iran. One of the volunteers was Ali Amirnazmi, an Iranian-born Stanford-educated chemical engineer who had developed powerful software, which he sold by subscription, for strategic planning in the chemical manufacturing industries. Amirnazmi began corresponding with Ahmadinejad’s office, and proposed a sanctions-busting plan to transfer his entire business to Iran.
One of Amirnazmi’s connections in this effort was Khazaee. Among the court documents is a copy of a 2007 note from Amirnazmi to Khazaee, at Iran’s Mission to the UN, thanking him for his hospitality at a party the previous evening. Amirnazmi added that he was attaching a copy of Ahmadinejad’s instructions for transferring his software business to Iran, with the message that he hoped to meet Iran’s oil minister to “discuss how to implement the President’s order.” The plan rolled forward, with Amirnazmi shuttling between Philadelphia and Tehran, until U.S. federal agents arrested him in 2008.
Neither of these cases has persuaded the Obama administration to demand that Khazaee depart his post in New York. Protected by diplomatic immunity, he remains an urbane presence at the U.N., with access to Manhattan, making connections, peddling propaganda, turning up last year on TV’s Charlie Rose talk show, and now, at the Asia Society.
If Khazaee, with his mannered inflections and his buttoned vest, appears worlds removed from Iran’s goose-stepping Revolutionary Guards, or Iran’s boorish President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (threatening in his lounge suit to wipe Israel off the map), that’s because Khazaee’s job is to cover for them on the diplomatic stage. Apparently he likes to save his more lurid statements for the home audience. During a visit in 2010 to his native city of Kashmar, in northeastern Iran, Khazaee – according to the Iranian press – threatened that if Israel made the slightest move to attack Iran’s nuclear program, “We will set the entire war front and Tel Aviv on fire.”
When U.S. authorities in 2011 uncovered a plot directed by senior members of Iran’s Quds force to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington, by bombing him in a Washington restaurant, Khazaee protested the charges in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In a statement worthy of Baghdad Bob, Khazaee wrote that Iran “strongly and categorically rejects these fabricated and baseless allegations.” Last October, the Iranian-American charged in the plot, Mansour Arbabsiar, pleaded guilty. How much more do we really need to hear from Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee?