A storm of controversy erupted earlier this year in Iran, after local media outlets announced that a “Mossad spy” and “Israeli infiltrator” had gained the trust of the country’s senior leadership, penetrated into the highest halls of power, and had even been employed as a writer for Ayatollah Khamenei himself.
Although the stories did not disclose the name of the infiltrator, it was clear that the individual in question was Catherine Perez-Shakdam. Almost immediately, Iranian media such as Press TV and The Tehran Times began silently but furiously removing all her content from their pages. Perhaps most worrying from an Iranian government perspective, Khamenei.ir, Ayatollah Khamenei’s own website, had to delete her articles and disavow her.
Catherine Perez-Shakdam is a French-born journalist and analyst who had married a Yemeni man, converted to Shia Islam and wore a hijab. In her professional life, she penned articles denouncing Israeli and Saudi crimes, lionized armed Palestinian resistance, and supported the Iranian government. She had earlier also been a frequent contributor to MintPress News – a fact that likely bolstered her anti-imperialist credibility.
Perez-Shakdam “came out,” so to speak, in a series of articles published in The Times of Israel, detailing how she was able to “walk right into the belly of the Beast” – i.e. Tehran. “Keen to be let in, I neither argued nor revealed my true motivations. I realized pretty early on that if I was to witness first-hand what it is that the region is really about I’d better blend in and listen,” she wrote. Her choice of language did nothing to douse suspicions that she was a spy in the vein of the Mista’arvim – the notorious intelligence units who spend their lives deep undercover in Arab society, gathering intelligence for Israel.
The articles come off as celebratory; the casting off of a previous identity and the embracing of a new one. “For years I peddled Iran’s propaganda,” she wrote, comparing the country to 1930s Nazi Germany. The Islamic Republic’s “regional expansionism and its obvious hunger for military supremacy”, its “imperial nihilism” and its “contempt for international law,” she noted (without irony), were contributing factors to why she now embraced Israel and had become a committed Zionist.
For her professional life, she had hidden her Jewish origins (she wrote under her husband’s surname, “Shakdam”), but now sings Israel’s praises, even revealing that her child wished to join the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
Although she categorically rejects the assertion that she is an Israeli spy, Perez-Shakdam concedes that, prior to her engagement with Iran, she did indeed work for Israeli-American intelligence agency, Wikistrat.
Founded in Israel in 2010 and now based in Washington, D.C., Wikistrat has worked with a host of U.S. government agencies on a wide range of issues to do with espionage, psychological warfare and perception management.
Although technically a private company, its upper ranks are filled with former Israeli government intelligence officers. Chief amongst them is co-founder and CEO Elad Schaffer, whose LinkedIn page notes that he was head of an intelligence desk for an unnamed Israeli government agency. Judging by the agency logo Schaffer used, this organization is very likely to be the notorious IDF intelligence group, Unit 8200. Members and former members are prohibited by Israeli law from divulging their association with Unit 8200. Others, such as Yehonatan Etzion, have moved from Wikistrat into Israeli intelligence.
Another Wikistrat co-founder, Joel Zamel (currently the company’s chairman), also created Psy-Group. Described as a “private Mossad for hire” by The New Yorker, the agency is an Israeli spying firm that operates perception management, influence campaigns, muck raking research and clandestine activities for clients. In 2016, they sought the Trump administration as a client and also approached the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, offering them their services in the fight against the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Wikistrat’s council of advisors is a who’s who of senior intelligence community leaders. On the board include ex-acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, David Shedd; General Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA; former national security advisor to Vice-President Dick Cheney, John P. Hannah; and disgraced neoconservative war planner Elliott Abrams, who, in 2020, was appointed the president’s special advisor on Iran. It has been widely reported that slain Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was also secretly working for Wikistrat just before his assassination.
In 2017, Zamel met with the Trump administration and members of the Saudi government for a series of meetings to, in the words of The Daily Beast, hash out a “multi-pronged strategy for eroding, and eventually ending, the current Iranian regime—including economic, information, and military tactics for weakening the Tehran government.” Wikistrat has also published forecasts on the consequences of an Israeli attack on Iran.
After working for Wikistrat, Perez-Shakdam wrote for Al-Majalla, an outlet with close connections to the Saudi monarchy. She has written off her involvement with Wikistrat as minimal and justified writing for Saudi government-controlled media, claiming she wanted “to be the change that you want to see.”
But another troubling allegation has never been made public until now. MintPress spoke with a number of sources close to Perez-Shakdam. One said that she approached them, offering them life-changing money in a deal that seemed too good to be true. The source claims Perez-Shakdam offered them thousands of dollars per month in exchange for going to certain precise urban Middle Eastern locations and providing her with photographs and videos of the area, the buildings and the surrounds. Perez-Shakdam supposedly indicated that the money for this was coming from the U.S. Perez-Shakdam strenuously denies these allegations.
A spy in our midst?
How did somebody with this background end up being welcomed in to the top tiers of Iranian society, rubbing shoulders with individuals like General Qassem Soleimani, President Ebrahim Raisi and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?
A great part of Perez-Shakdam’s credibility with the Iranians came from the fact that she spent years writing and commenting on Middle Eastern matters for alternative media, such as Middle East Eye and Middle East Monitor. Between 2014 and 2017, she also frequently wrote articles for MintPress News, and even lobbied to become a TV and video presenter for this platform.
“She was a regular contributor” MintPress founder and CEO Mnar Adley said. “She reached out to me directly to pitch ideas and asked to be a regular contributor. She had written for a couple of independent media outlets and presented herself as anti-war and a convert to Islam.”
“She was very friendly and responsive to edits. She was pleasant to work with,” Adley added, explaining that this made her feel all the worse,
Just finding out that she could be an Israeli spy made me feel violated because I feel like she used MintPress as a means to get through to people who are sympathetic with Iranians and others who have been victims of U.S. sanctions and constant threats of war…It’s pretty disturbing. Like, who can you trust?”
Perez-Shakdam’s work focussed primarily on Middle Eastern politics, highlighting and exposing U.S., Israeli and Saudi actions in Yemen and across the region. In 2016, for example, she argued that the Saudi attack on Yemen was dictated by the country’s oil interests, writing,
The Saudi-led coalition launched its attack on Yemen, leaving the poorest nation of Southern Arabia to crack and burn under a brutal display of military force while its civil infrastructure is ground to dust…Yemen was literally set on fire so Riyadh could manifest its long-held ambition of an oil monopoly.”
She also presented an extremely radical critique of the world’s economy, regularly leaning on the work of Russian Communist leader Vladimir Lenin to explain today’s society, concluding that “capitalism require[s] more lands and more resources to fall under the control of its corporations and their owners, which neoconservatism [has] raised to the status of multi-billionaires, while the other 99 percent [is] left to scrounge on leftovers.”
Our woman in Tehran?
In the end, MintPress ended the relationship with Perez-Shakdam. However, by 2017, she had managed to parlay her work in the alternative press into becoming an important player in Iranian media.
That year, she was granted special access to travel with presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi, following him on the campaign trail to the city of Rasht and recording an exclusive TV interview with him. Raisi, already a powerful figure, would lose the election, but would later win the presidency in 2021.
She also contributed to a range of Iranian outlets, including Mashregh News, Tasnim News and Mehr News. Perhaps most notably, however, she became a regular writer for Khamenei.ir, the official website of Iran’s supreme leader. After the scandal broke earlier this year, the organization wiped Shakdam’s content from its website, attempting to save face. Still, at least 18 articles can still be accessed via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
Thus, for quite some time, Perez-Shakdam was welcomed into the highest echelons of Iranian society. That a Zionist journalist (and possible intelligence agent) was granted such extraordinary and intimate access to Iran’s most influential figures was a major cause of embarrassment and concern for its security services, who are deeply mistrustful and wary of Western interference. This information was openly available on the internet for those searching for it, meaning that background checks were either botched or non-existent.
A regular pattern
Perez-Shakdam has repeatedly ridiculed those who allege she is a spy for Mossad or another Israeli intelligence agency, arguing that they are hardly likely to enlist a non-Farsi-speaking French citizen for Iran operations.
Yet there have been a great many documented examples of foreign-born agents working for Israel and going deep undercover, marrying locals and having children, only later to reveal their true identities to their families. Those families were generally then given the opportunity to flip sides or be left behind. However, those cases primarily involved Iraqi Jews who were trained to pass as Palestinians.
Other similar cases include the agents of the Mista’arvim. Taken from the Arabic term “Musta’arabi” or “those who live amongst the Arabs”, the Mista’arvim are units within the Israeli military, police and intelligence services who operate undercover in enemy states in order to gather intelligence and infiltrate movements. Israeli military intelligence has even held “competitions”, rewarding those who take the photos of the most Palestinians for their facial recognition database.
Another group, the Duvdevan Unit of the Israeli Defense Forces, operates in a similar fashion, embedding itself in enemy populations in order to carry out targeted assassinations.
Modern spy agencies’ work is not all cloak and dagger, however. Much of it centers around cultivating all manner of assets in the world of politics, think tanks and journalism in order to increase their knowledge and influence and to effect public discourse and opinion.
Perez-Shakdam’s explanation for her extraordinary shift in political outlook is that she went through a genuine and profound change based on life experiences and introspection. According to her, she went to Iran purely to satiate her own curiosity. Yet, she was so disillusioned by what she saw and experienced that it caused her to completely reevaluate her worldview. In other interviews, she has noted her daughter was also a catalyst in her conversion, challenging her on religious and political issues and revealing her own intellectual weaknesses.
Shakdam’s daughter also appears to have gone through a similar transition. As late as 2018, social media posts show her celebrating Ramadan. Yet today, she commemorates fallen IDF soldiers and describes herself as a “proud Judean warrior” who will “always be a Jew, no matter what”.
All about the money?
One source MintPress spoke to cast doubt on the idea Perez-Shakdam was a spy, instead framing her repositioning as an astute career move. Certainly, she is likely earning more writing for The Times of Israel and appearing on the BBC and GB News than in independent media or on Iranian television.
Yet making this transition would require a complete reversal of position. Perez-Shakdam had, for years, publicly condemned Western regime changers on Iran. Writing on the 2017 Iranian protests, for example, she excoriated the biased media coverage in the West. “Rather than objectively report on facts, the BBC took it upon itself to manipulate facts to feed into a predetermined political narrative,” she stated.
Meanwhile, as late as December 2018, she appeared on television and openly praised Hamas for its armed resistance against Israeli occupation. “I think it is important to remember this ability that Hamas has shown to unite all Palestinians, regardless of their political position or religious belief,” she said. These sorts of comments had drawn the ire of pro-Israel groups such as the Middle East Media Research Institute and the ADL, the latter of which had even labelled her anti-Semitic.
But now she has performed an ideological 180° on virtually every key political issue, suggesting Iran is guilty of “crimes against humanity” and repeating allegations that it buys babies from poor mothers to harvest the infants’ organs. In September, she confidently predicted that Ayatollah Khamenei was at death’s door, telling The Daily Express that “It is believed as of yesterday that Khamenei is about to breathe his last.” And last month, in response to the news that the United States and Israel were holding joint drills simulating bombing Iran’s infrastructure, she simply tweeted “hehe”.
Meanwhile, on Palestine, she now warns that if the European Union begins stepping up its aid to the beleaguered nation, Hamas “terror” is likely to increase. And she is comfortable enough to give extended TV interviews to Saudi government-funded media. Perez-Shakdam refused to speak to independent, reader-supported MintPress News, however.
A new home
Only fueling more speculation about her connections to intelligence was the news this summer that Perez-Shakdam had been appointed as a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a hawkish London-based think tank.
Named after the neoconservative anti-communist senator, the HJS advocates that Western states are the most technologically and morally advanced and that NATO and other Western organizations must project “a global reach” to “assist those countries that are not yet liberal and democratic to become so” – in other words, advocating regime change.
Unsurprisingly, the HJS is closely connected to the military and intelligence establishments, as well as the U.K. Conservative Party, which it has helped fund. While the HJS’ finances are somewhat opaque, it proudly notes that its top international patrons include:
- Michael Chertoff, former head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security;
- R. James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency;
- Carl Gershman, longtime president of CIA regime change arm, the National Endowment for Democracy;
- Jack Shaheed, former supreme allied commander of NATO;
- Richard Perle, former 1st assistant secretary of defense for global affairs and a chief architect of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions;
- More Gold, former Israeli permanent representative to the United Nations and foreign policy advisor to prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.
As the last name on the list suggests, the HJS enjoys something of a revolving door with the Israeli government. In 2011, the HJS’ board was defenestrated and replaced by individuals from Israel advocacy group, Just Journalism. Furthermore, at least two HJS staffers have moved directly from the group to positions within the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The HJS does not hide this relationship. Indeed, an HJS job advertisement for the position of North American Director noted that they were looking for someone who could reach out to the “pro-Israel community.”
The HJS has hosted the Friends of Israel Initiative in London and enjoys a close relationship with the parliamentary group, the Conservative Friends of the IDF, who are one of the signatories of the HJS’ statement of principles. Other organizations hold a dimmer view of the HJS. Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, for instance, has accused it of trying to smear them as “terrorist sympathizers.”
Given these connections, it is perhaps unsurprising that the HJS has taken extremely hawkish positions on Iran, insisting the West must “counter” the Islamic Republic, condemning the U.S./Iran nuclear deal, claiming that Iran possesses a huge influence network across the United Kingdom, and publishing reports assessing Iran’s capability of withstanding drone attacks.
Counting many of the U.K. Conservative Party’s most powerful politicians as friends and associates, the HJS has also influenced the British government’s hard-line foreign policy and domestic treatment of its own Muslim population.
No doubt this legislation was affected by perhaps the HJS’ most controversial figure, Douglas Murray, HJS associate director between 2011 and 2018. Described by some as an “extreme right ideologue” who “spread anti-Muslim vitriol”, Murray is one of the key figures in mainstreaming the “Great Replacement” theory, i.e. that we are in the midst of a genocide of white people, as people of color invade Europe and North America. Murray’s solution to this is that “all immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop” and that, “conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board.”
The HJS has certainly opened doors for Perez-Shakdam. She is now a regular on right-wing U.K. television networks such as TalkTV and GB News, discussing what the Western position on Iran should be. In September, she was able to go to the House of Lords to warn about the perils of giving aid to Palestinians. And just last week, she hosted an event in parliament assessing the possibilities for regime change in Tehran.
A mysterious case
Thus, in just a few short years, Catherine Perez-Shakdam has gone from rubbing shoulders with the Iranian political elite to walking in the halls of power in the United Kingdom. Is she a longtime asset of Western or Israeli intelligence that has now come out in the open, a genuine political convert oscillating wildly from one belief to the next, or a calculating careerist who spotted an opportunity?
All three are plausible, given the facts of the case. Adley, however, suspects Perez-Shakdam did indeed have ulterior motives when working at MintPress, stating,
I believe she used her experience working with MintPress to give herself clout in infiltrating the anti-war movement and to get close to people who are sympathetic with resistance movements in the Middle East. I do feel confident that she is a spy”.
Whatever the truth of the situation, the curious case of Catherine Perez-Shakdam is a reminder to anti-war and anti-imperialist groups, human rights organizations and even progressive media outlets that spies could be among you.
Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News
Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.org, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.