FOR journalists covering the Middle East there has always been one good rule of thumb. In short, it can be summed up like this – things are never quite as they appear.

Never was this more apparent than in the events currently unfolding in Iran, where the country has witnessed the biggest anti-government street protests since the disputed 2009 presidential elections.

“The people are begging while the leader (Khamenei) reigns like god,” went one commonly-heard chant on the streets, reflecting the fact that unemployment, prices, corruption and other issues were as much a driving force this time as social and political freedoms.

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As might be expected the Iranian government wasted no time in pointing an accusing finger at “grotesque” US interference in its internal affairs, making its complaint in a letter to the UN last week.

Predictably the hand of the CIA and Israeli intelligence service Mossad were talked about as being behind the unrest, bankrolled by Saudi Arabian money.

On one level this is an entirely predictable response from Tehran. For those among the country’s political conservatives and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who so often do their bidding, it’s always much easier to blame malevolent outsiders than recognise the desire that clearly exists for change among so many of Iran’s citizens.

Where exactly the truth lies behind what started the protests, who is involved and whether outside intelligence services are stirring the Iranian pot, remains difficult to pin down. But among all the conjecture and speculation there are some very significant certainties.

The first is that the protests just happen to coincide with a crucial vote looming just over a week from today, on January 15, that will see US President Donald Trump decide whether Washington remains a signatory to the Iran nuclear deal.

That 2015 deal, the signature foreign policy achievement of Barack Obama's presidency, provides the framework for lifting crippling economic sanctions on Iran in return for limitations to the country’s controversial nuclear energy programme.

In a week’s time Trump will again consider whether or not to certify Tehran's compliance with the agreement. Should he decide not to it will all but certainly kill the deal, something that would be music to the ears of one of the most powerful congressional groups in the US today.

For if there is one other key certainty in terms of the US response to events unfolding in Iran it’s that the hawkish, neoconservative groups who shape US policy on Iran will now be pulling out all the stops to pile as much pressure on Tehran as possible.

For these lobbying groups there is only one long-term goal and that is the dismantling of the Iranian Government and the ushering in of regime change in the country.

If all this sounds familiar then that’s because some years ago an almost identical US neocon lobbying group, ominously called the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), set about doing much the same thing with Iraq.

The names associated with the PNAC are now all too familiar. Founded in 1997 among its chief players were Richard Perle, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, I Lewis Libby and John Bolton. The PNAC sought to merge right-wing foreign policy ambitions from the era of President Ronald Reagan’s administration with that of the George W Bush period, up to and during the war in Iraq in 2003.

It was powerful lobby that, years before George W Bush entered the White House, and years before the September 11 attacks, set the direction of his presidency and hatched a plan to get Saddam Hussein out of power and along the way create the blueprint for the 2003 war in Iraq.

This was a profoundly influential neocon group that saw the attacks of 9/11 as providing the “new Pearl Harbor", in what it described as "the opportunity of ages”.

The sort of thinking that underpinned the PNAC would appear, once again, to be alive and well in Washington right now under the Trump presidency.

According to FAIR, the US-based national media watch group, the leader of the pack among the “do something” about Iran lobbying groups is the right-wing, pro-Israel think tank, the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD).

“In the past five days, FDD has had op-eds in influential US outlets like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and New York Post… its punditry marked by cynical ‘support’ for Iranian protesters, demagoguing of the Iranian ‘regime’ and disgust with the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran deal,” says FAIR.

Many of the headlines of the pieces, written or co-written in the US over the past week, speak volumes of the efforts the FDD is making to influence US public opinion on Iran, not unlike the PNAC did with Iraq all those years before.

A few samples include: “Iran’s Theocracy Is on the Brink,” “Eruption in Iran: And It’s Not Just the Economy, Stupid,” “The Worst Thing for Iran’s Protesters? US Silence,” “What Washington Can Do to Support Iran’s Protesters.”

One of the authors of a number of these pieces is Reuel Marc Gerecht. A senior fellow with FDD, Gerecht once proposed that the US “should make every effort, including repeated military strikes, to thwart the clerics’ quest for a nuclear weapon”.

In 2010 Gerecht even quipped that he had “written about 25,000 words about bombing Iran. Even my mom thinks I’ve gone too far.”

But it is Gerecht’s role prior to his position at the FDD that proves especially telling, serving as he did as the director of the Middle East Initiative at the PNAC and also as a Middle Eastern specialist at the CIA's Directorate of Operations.

As the central node in the Iran-hawk lobbying cabal the FDD has viewed scuppering the Iran nuclear deal as its primary objective for years now.

It describes itself as a global research organisation, whose purpose is to conduct “research and provide education on international terrorism, the most serious security threat to the United States and other free, democratic nations”.

But, as many analysts point out, it has conducted its research and advocacy from a particular vantage point, focusing almost exclusively on the Middle East and in particular on conflicts and issues that impinge on Israel.

According to author and journalist John B Judis, a former senior editor at The New Republic, understanding the FDD's ideological affinity with the Israeli Government, and the roots of that affinity, helps explain the special role the group has played in opposing the Iran deal.

It may also, he says, “shed light on what FDD hopes to accomplish by derailing President Obama’s signature foreign policy accomplishment”.

So, just who are the main players in the FDD? Currently the group’s CEO is Mark Dubowitz. Born in South Africa, Dubowitz immigrated to Toronto, Canada when he was eight years old. It was there that he attended university as well as subsequently studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

After marrying he moved to Tel Aviv where he worked at a law firm in the mid-1990s, then reportedly “flourished in the world of high-tech venture capital”.

According to Dubowitz the events of September 11 and his obsession with terrorism and battling those who view US foreign policy as a reason for terrorism directed at America, motivated him to move to Washington where he eventually joined the FDD.

Since then he has called for confronting Iran the "Reagan way" by adopting a US national security directive that would “systemically dismantle Iranian power”.

Helping him do this are donors who have made their own views on Iran well known.

Among these are big-name pro-Israel billionaires like casino mogul and Trump mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, Home Depot retail founder Bernard Marcus, who has said that “Iran is the devil”, and Wall Street hedge fund manager and investor Paul Singer.

According to authoritative sources Adelson contributed at least $1.5 million to FDD by the end of the 2011 tax year and in 2013 told a Jewish Yeshiva University audience in New York that US negotiators should launch a nuclear weapon at Iran as a negotiating tactic.

Bernard Marcus, in 2015, characterised the Iran nuclear deal as a “deadly, deadly treaty,” before forking out $3.25m to FDD.

According to an investigation by US magazine The Nation, tax figures from four years ago – long before Iran really became the burning political issue it is right now – showed that just two of these US neocon, anti-Iran lobbying groups – the FDD and American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – had a combined annual budget of approximately $75m.

Add to this the budget of an AIPAC offshoot, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy ($8.7m), and aggressive right-wing PR groups like United Against Nuclear Iran ($1.6m), and the extent to which much neocons in the US and their allies are investing in trying to gain influence and push for regime change in Iran becomes fully apparent.

Few doubt, too, that they have their allies and contacts within the CIA. Let’s not forget senior FDD fellow, Reuel Marc Gerecht, was once an officer at the CIA's Directorate of Operations.

Right now, though, the Trump appointee running CIA operations in Iran is the man they call the Dark Prince or Ayatollah Mike. Michael D’Andrea, himself a convert to Islam, was previously the CIA officer who oversaw the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the American drone strike campaign that killed thousands of Islamist militants and hundreds of civilians.

In the years after 9/11 D’Andrea was also deeply involved in the detention and interrogation programme, which resulted in the torture of a number of prisoners and was condemned in a US Senate report in 2014 as inhumane and ineffective.

His new role is one of a number of moves inside the CIA that signal a more robust approach to covert operations under the director of the CIA Mike Pompeo, the conservative Republican and former Congressman.

Trump and the FDD have been bringing together other allies too in their toughening position on Iran including the unlikely combination of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the latter an especially odd accomplice for an foundation that professes in its title to stand up for the "Defence of Democracies".

“So desperate to punish Iran are the hawks of the FDD that they’re willing to partner with one of the least democratic countries on earth to get it done,” wrote Ali Gharib, a New York-based journalist specialising in US foreign policy last year.

“In the spirit of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ neocons these days embrace the Saudi kingdom pretty hard. It’s difficult not to see this as part of FDD’s bent as an organisation dedicated intellectually and politically to the defence of one particular democracy - Israel,” Gharib added.

This weekend there are reports that the Trump administration is working with key politicians on a legislative fix that could enable the United States to remain in the Iran nuclear deal. Most are not holding their breath over the outcome of such talks. 

“The president said he is either going to fix it or cancel it, “ US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, was quoted as saying on Friday. 
Should Trump chose to scrap the deal, far from it helping the young protestors he professes to admire on the street of Iran, it will only reinforce Tehran’s accusations that Washington is meddling in their affairs. 
Others though, within the rank of the hawkish FDD and other neocon lobbyists will doubtless see it as a victory and another nail in the coffin of the Iranian regime they so want to see brought down.