As the imam of the Manassas Mosque in suburban Washington, Abolfazl Bahram Nahidian has been a fixture at Islamic conferences and policy meetings in the last decade, often talking about ways to bridge differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims and "the power to change the way you love."
But that benign face belies a more-than-30-year history as one of the main backers in the United States of the Islamic revolutionary government of Iran. That record, documents show, includes promoting the belief that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a conspiracy led by Israel, and using almost $200,000 from an Iranian government-led foundation now targeted by the Justice Department.
On Sept. 3, Nahidian spoke at a rally in Washington's Dupont Circle to protest Israel's control of Jerusalem. There, he said the 9/11 attacks were "not done by Muslims. It is done by the plot of the Zionists in order to justify to occupy the land of the Muslims such as Afghanistan, such as Iraq, such as Pakistan, now moving on to the rest of the areas. They plot and they scheme and no doubt God is plotting and scheming against them too."
That rally featured other speakers who claimed 9/11 was a U.S.- or Zionist-led conspiracy and was dotted with protesters carrying flags of Hizballah, the Iranian-financed terrorist movement most active in Lebanon.
That event was the latest in a series of activities that have tied Nahidian to the Iranian government or its causes. For example:
- In June 2009, Nahidian criticized President Obama in a letter to the White House complaining about U.S. efforts to promote democracy in Iran after allegations that last year's presidential elections were stolen by supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In that letter, Nahidian quoted the Quranic verse that said "do not take Jews and Christians as your authority."
- The Manassas Mosque run by Nahidian received a total of $193,000 from the Iranian-run Alavi Foundation in 2004 and 2005, federal tax records show. The tax forms do not indicate the purpose of the grants or what the mosque did with the money. Last November, the Justice Department sought to seize the foundation's assets, claiming it was a tool of the Iranian government and was being used to support Iran's efforts to build a nuclear weapon. Alavi, the Justice Department said in its complaint, was passing money from its interests in the United States to Bank Melli, which was designated a terrorist support organization by the Treasury Department in 2007. The bank, Treasury officials said, was engaged in supporting Iran's nuclear efforts.
- Nahidian also helped found and operate the Islamic Education Center in Potomac, Md., a mosque and education center built and supported by the Alavi Foundation. In a 1999 deposition in a suit filed in the U.S. against the Iranian government for its financial support of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Nahidian said he and about 15 other people bought the land for the center in 1981 and turned to the Alavi Foundation for more money when they could not secure bank financing.
The Sept. 3 speech was a recent foray by Nahidian into a world of radical Islam in which he had long been an active participant. Since the 1970s, records and news accounts show, he was the leader in the Washington area of support for the revolutionary Iranian government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the stern-faced cleric who led Iran after the ouster of the Shah.
Khomeini's man in Washington
On Nov. 4, 1979, Nahidian was arrested in New York with five other men for climbing the stairs of the Statue of Liberty, unfurling a banner bearing anti-Shah slogans and chaining themselves to the statue's railings. That was also the day that Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, setting off a hostage crisis that held more than 50 diplomats captive for 444 days.
One of Nahidian's fellow protesters was a black American convert to Islam, Daoud Salahuddin. According to a 1996 article in the Washington Post magazine, Nahidian gave Salahuddin a room in a home he owned in Washington and a job during the late 1970s.
On July 22, 1980, after Khomeini had taken firm control of Iran, and as the hostage crisis dragged on, Salahuddin went to a home in Bethesda, Md., that was the residence of Ali Akbar Tabatabai, an Iranian exile and Khomeini opponent. Dressed as a postal worker, Salahuddin appeared at Tabatabai's door and said he had a special delivery. When Tabatabai came downstairs, Salahuddin pulled a 9mm pistol and shot Tabatabai three times. He died later that day.
Nahidian said he knew nothing about Salahuddin's plans to kill Tabatabai, although he told the Washington Post that he was "very happy this happened. (Tabatabai) is a man who says why doesn't the U.S. bomb all of Iran. He wants Iran to be destroyed."
Salahuddin fled the United States via Canada and now lives in Iran.
In a Jan. 19, 1999 affidavit given in a civil suit against the Iranian government, Nahidian said he did not convert Salahuddin, whose given name was David Belfield, to Islam. "Nor has Mr. Belfield ever spent a night in my home. Indeed, I never knew David Belfield had been in prison until I was advised of this fact by the Alavi Foundation's counsel."
Nahidian was never charged in connection with the Tabatabai murder. Despite government scrutiny that included claims he was a conduit for Iranian government money coming into the United States, Nahidian continued to protest U.S. policy toward Iran. He led an Aug. 7, 1980, rally in Washington's Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, in which about 300 Khomeini supporters were pelted with tomatoes and epithets by angry Americans.
"I have no fear of any of this … The maximum they can take is my life, and I am more than happy to do that for the cause of Islam," Nahidian told the Washington Post.
At the time, Nahidian was also embroiled in a fight for control of the Islamic Center of Washington, a large mosque on Massachusetts Avenue in the Embassy Row area of the capital. In the fall of 1980, he led a group of Khomeini supporters who seized control of the mosque's prayer services. "I will not talk about Islam with anyone who is not a Muslim," Nahidian told the Washington Post. "You are an enemy of Islam."
Subsequently, he also led a group of about a dozen demonstrators into the mosque in October 1981 and took it over. They stayed for four months and refused to leave.
In February 1982, a District of Columbia Superior Court judge ruled that Nahidian and his fellow protesters had to leave the mosque. The ruling, Nahidian said, was part of a police effort to "divide the Muslim community."
In January 1984, Nahidian and 31 others were convicted of unlawful entry stemming from a July 1983 disturbance at the Massachusetts Avenue mosque. "It's a defeat for democracy," said Mohammed al-Asi, a radical cleric who was also a partner with Nahidian at a new facility in suburban Maryland.
Islamic Education Center and Iranian money
Nahidian and al-Asi and about 15 partners put a down payment on a former Unitarian Church in Rockville, Md., in 1981, Nahidian said in the 1999 affidavit. The plan was to create the Islamic Education Center. But they were unable to get financing from a bank. So they turned to the Alavi Foundation, Nahidian said in the affidavit.
"The Alavi Foundation agreed to help us and, thereafter, purchased the Montgomery County property in its own name and leased it to the IEC on a rent-free basis," Nahidian said in the affidavit.
Alavi's tax filings show it spent at least $6 million on the land, building and improvements for the Islamic Education Center. The foundation, which the U.S. government claims is controlled by the Iranian government, funds mosques and centers throughout the United States. The November 2009 civil action filed by the U.S. Attorney in New York City seeks to seize all foundation assets, including the IEC, a New York City skyscraper, and centers in California, New Jersey and Texas.
In the 1999 sworn affidavit, Nahidian said, "while I was involved with the IEC, it did not receive any funds from the Iranian Government or an individual or entity in Iran."
Federal prosecutors say the Alavi Foundation has been controlled by the Iranian government since before the Islamic revolution in 1979 and the government controls the foundation to this day. In 2003, The Washington Post reported that a 1981 newsletter for Iran's Mostazafan Foundation said "'committed brothers and the Islamic Republic government' had reclaimed the Manhattan building through the Mostazafan Foundation of New York, which changes its name to Alavi in 1992."
Al-Asi, Nahidian's partner at the IEC, led the mosque there for 16 years, from 1981 through 1997. A Jan. 1, 2003, article in the Washington Post quoted from a 1994 public letter that al-Asi wrote Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor to Khomeini in Iran, in which al-Asi wrote, "I … swear allegiance to you as leader of all Muslims."
Also in 1994, Investigative Project on Terrorism founder and executive Steven Emerson released a documentary, "Jihad in America," in which al-Asi was revealed as telling a 1990 conference that Muslims should take up arms against non-Muslims. "We should be creating another war front for the Americans in the Muslim world," al-Asi said. "Strike against American interests."
Since the 1990s, Nahidian has been the imam at the Manassas Mosque, a small facility located in a warehouse section of Manassas, Va. Aside from brief mentions in a handful of publications, he attracted little public attention.
But he remained active in anti-Israel activities, records show. An April 2006 article by Yehudit Barsky, an anti-terrorism expert with the American Jewish Committee, showed that Nahidian participated in a 1998 al Quds day rally in Washington in which he and other protesters declared that the movement of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem "shall be considered an act of war by the Muslims the world over."
Nahidian has also spoken at other Muslim events, such as a May 2007 conference of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in Arlington, Va. There, the event's schedule shows, he appeared on panels such as "The Power to Change the Way You Love" and "Overcoming Our Differences through Good Character."
In February 2007, he was on a panel sponsored by Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies on how to bridge the divide between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Two years later, Nahidian spoke at an anti-Israel rally in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, to protest Israel's response to missile attacks from Gaza. There, Nahidian accused Israel of destroying every mosque in Gaza and said, "Israel is not a Jewish state, it's a criminal state."