How I infiltrated the Tehran regime and met the Ayatollah

One Jewish woman's journey into the Iranian terror state


The unmarked car with tinted windows arrived to collect Catherine Perez-Shakdam from her Tehran hotel late in the afternoon.

Dressed from head-to-foot in hijab and abaya, she was ushered into the rear seats between two female members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

She was being taken to meet Iran’s reclusive Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But she harboured a dangerous secret. Unbeknown to her escorts, she was a French-born Jew.

Despite this, on that trip, in February 2017, she had already met several senior regime officials, and been told of a secret IRGC plan to “map” key Jewish figures around the world for Iran’s assassination squads.

“The idea was to identify all the prominent NGOs run by Jews, who was doing what in each business sector, the important rabbis,” Perez-Shakdam, 41, told the JC. “They wanted to figure out their influence and where they lived with their families in order to target them.

“They wanted to have a better understanding so they would know how to strike and where, so that if Israel ever dared to attack Iran, the diaspora would have a very nasty surprise.”

Later she was on her way to meet Ayatollah Khamenei himself.

“I was nervous,” she recalled. “I thought it better not to try to look where we were going.”

The meeting was part of an undercover odyssey through the heart of the Iranian regime in which the mother-of-two was taken into the confidence of the highest echelons of Iran’s theocratic dictatorship.

Photographs show her smiling beside Ebrahim Raisi — now Iran’s hardline president — and the-late Nader Talebzadeh, the propaganda filmmaker, dubbed “Iran’s Goebbels”.

She was also pictured alongside Russian Aleksandr Dugin, a key adviser to President Putin, and with the daughter of the notorious Major-General Qasem Soleimani, the terror mastermind killed by a US drone strike in 2020, who she also met  on a later trip to the region.

Despite the huge risks, not to mention the potential threat to the wellbeing of her then school-age children, she felt compelled to take the chance to rub shoulders with some of the West’s worst enemies.

A failed marriage to a Yemeni Muslim in 2000 – during which she had experienced vicious antisemitism from her husband’s relatives – had left her with opportunities to forge pro-Iranian connections.

She had written blog posts and Middle East analysis that had caught the eye of the Ayatollahs and led to an invitation to Tehran.

That was how she found herself about to meet Ayatollah Khamenei. “We pulled into a courtyard with trees,” she recalls. “I was ushered into a sitting room. There was a carpet, and rugs on the carpet, with photos of Khomeini and Khamenei.

“I’d expected something presidential, but this was humble. There were Arab-style sofas and cushions on the floor. I was given sweet tea in a glass with a stirring stick covered in saffron sugar crystals and walnuts to nibble.

“There was a commotion around the doorway and Khamenei came in. He told me through an interpreter to sit on the floor. He sat in a chair. I’d been warned not to make eye contact, and not to speak unless he asked me a question.

“Khamenei spent a few minutes on chit-chat,” she said. “Then he began talking about the End of Days, how he would be the one who would usher in the return of the Mahdi [the mythical leader who will herald the apocalypse].

“His voice was quiet, high-pitched. He talked about this great war that would take place, and how al-Aqsa had to be liberated for the Mahdi to return to save humanity. He talked about the wars Iran was fighting in Yemen and Syria and how he had a divine mission.

“He was basically trying to justify crimes against humanity, saying you had to harm the enemies of God, who shouldn’t be seen as human beings.

“He said killing the innocent was OK, because they weren’t really innocents.

“A mistake we make is to assume he cares about his country. He doesn’t. He will literally see it burn if it means Islam will triumph.”

She said Khamenei seemed scared of only one thing — an Israeli attack. “He believes Netanyahu’s threats and he knows that, for now, Israel is militarily superior. And he feels that the Iranian regime can’t sustain a defeat.”

After half-an-hour, she said, the Iranian leader abruptly got up and left. “Afterwards, I felt as if I’d had an out-of-body experience. I was back in the car and thinking to myself: What the f*** just happened?”

The encounter left her with an abiding sense of the Iranian threat. The ideology expressed by Khamenei, Soleimani and Raisi was, she said, just as terrifying as Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

“If we are serious about combating terrorism and Islamic radicalism, and stand by the rule of law, we have to proscribe the IRGC,” she said. “We know now that Churchill was right and taking on the Nazis much earlier would have saved many lives.”

Returning from one of her trips she said she was taken aside at the airport and questioned by a Home Office official and later contacted them again.

“I wanted the insight I’d gained to be used,” she said. “It wasn’t that I had any specific intelligence that would change the game. But I understood the ideology and how they groomed people they thought they could use.”

Perez-Shakdam ascribes her courage to her grandfather who, she said, fought with the French Resistance.

She was brought up in a secular Jewish home near Versailles where her father was a senior civil servant.  Her mother,  a teacher, died when she was a child.

In 2000, she moved to London to study at the LSE and met Faris, a Yemeni Muslim. They were married shortly before she turned 19 and, after graduating, moved to Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. “It was a huge culture shock, like living in the Middle Ages,” she said.

The couple had a son and a daughter but the marriage did not last, partly, she said, because of the antisemitism she experienced from her husband’s family and friends.

She never converted to Islam, she said, but only “went along with it” to allow her in-laws to maintain a pretence of respectability.

However, even after she moved back to London in 2012, she still felt herself drawn to Middle Eastern culture.

“I felt there was something beautiful and tolerant about it, which was being perverted by Islamist radicals,” she said.

She had already started writing in English for Yemeni media and continued this in London. Heavily invested in the Houthi rebels fighting in Yemen, the Tehran regime was reading her articles avidly.

“I was critical of Western intervention in the region and of the Saudis and this caught their attention.

“I also got attention from people in Lebanon and was asked to contribute to a Shia TV station close to Hezbollah,” she said.

It was this that would lead to her audience with the Ayatollah. “The regime had their eyes on people they thought they could use, people whose ideas seemed close enough to theirs,” she recalled.

“They weren’t sure about me at first. They had no idea I was Jewish. But eventually, they decided I would be a perfect person to convey their perspective, to win new recruits to their cause.”

She decided, she said, to “play their game, to go along with it”.

“I thought infiltrating the regime would give my life a purpose. With my marriage, I had messed up, and this was a way to atone. I wanted to understand Shia radicalism, to find out how they thought, how they worked. The further in I went, the more I realised how bad it was.”

She started contributing to the state-controlled Russian television station, RT. This, she said, was another reason the Iranians valued her.

“In their minds, if you could pass the test of Russia, you were good,” she said. Soon she was asked to write opinion pieces and interviews for Iranian news agencies which were close to the IRGC.

Then came the turning point, an invitation to attend a conference in Tehran in February 2017 called New Horizons from its founder, Talebzadeh.

“When I got to Tehran, I didn’t know who Talebzadeh was,” she said. “But he knew exactly who I was. His wife was lovely and spoke perfect English. It was a process of seduction. Later I realised that he was the Goebbels of the regime, incredibly close to both Khamenei and the IRGC.”

Khamenei opened the conference with a speech describing Israel as a “cancerous tumour”. Soleimani was there, along with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, senior Hezbollah operatives, Putin’s adviser Dugin, the future president Raisi and dozens of Western “anti-imperialists” from the extreme left and right, including some from the UK.

Her first meeting with dark-suited IRGC agents came over coffee inside the conference hall. This was followed by an invitation to a shisha joint.

“By Iranian standards, the IRGC guys dress well,” she said. “Once you get to know the regime, you can smell them. No one has to tell you who they are.

“I started gushing about Ayatollah Khomeini, saying I’d read his books. They loved that. They asked me who I’d most like to meet and I said, Khamenei.”

Back at the conference, Talebzadeh asked her to attend a special, invitation-only workshop, to discuss the plan to “map” the Jewish diaspora.

“He said all Jews are really Zionists, even those who claim not to be, so they have to be targeted, and ultimately destroyed. It was very clear he was talking about murdering Jews,” Perez-Shakdam said.

“I asked, ‘when you speak of targeting and attacks, what do you mean?’ And the reply was blunt: ‘killing people’.

“The way they saw it, killing Jews would make it easier to deter Israel from attacking Iran, or if it did, to make Jews pay the price.”

This echoes Israeli intelligence officials assertions after the killing of IRGC colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei that he had been coordinating plots to attack Jewish targets worldwide.

Perez-Shakdam said she made several further trips to Iran in 2017, all facilitated by Talebzadeh.

In May, she covered Iran’s elections for RT and interviewed Raisi, who was then making his first, unsuccessful, run for the Presidency.

“All the questions were vetted by his office,” she said. The interview took place near the Caspian coast and, on the way back to Tehran aboard Raisi’s campaign plane, she said was summoned to a further audience with him.

“That’s where the real conversation took place,” she said.

His answers during the interview had been bland. But in private he was far less guarded. “He told me he didn’t care if Iran went to war when he became president,” she said. “Like Khamenei, he said: ‘I don’t care if Iran burns so long as our project succeeds’. He said the influence of the Zionists would be brought to an end.”

In October she received another summons. She met Talebzadeh in Najaf, Iraq, 100 miles south of Baghdad, and was taken to a private home for dinner. Some time later, Soleimani arrived. “I found him very scary,” she said. “Unlike Khamenei, he made intense eye contact, staring straight at me, as if he was trying to read my soul. He had nicknames for everyone and laughed a lot.

“He said he’d been trying to give the Americans intelligence about the whereabouts of [the late-Islamic State leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but they hadn’t acted.” Soon afterwards, towards the end of the year, came her final trip to Iran. “I was stopped at the airport and questioned aggressively,” she said.

“I felt somehow they knew who I was: a Jew. I told them to call Nader and they let me in.

“But when I got back to England, I heard that someone was telling people I was Jewish. I thought they were getting too close.”

For a long time she said nothing, working as a Middle East analyst and research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society think tank. But in April, she broke cover, writing a blog about her experiences. She now plans to write a book.“I felt the time had come,” she said.

Pro-regime outlets denounced her as an Israeli agent, which she vehemently denies.

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