crime

Longtime California Waiter Charged with Spying for Iranian Government

In addition to allegedly being a better-than-average spy, Ghorbani also seems to have been a better-than-average waiter.

by Jelisa Castrodale
16 January 2019, 4:00pm

Photo: Getty Images

There are two restaurants called Darya in Orange County, California, and both of them serve a wide range of traditional Persian dishes, including kebabs and stews. Both of them claim on their respective websites to serve either the “finest” or the “most elegant” Persian food in the OC. But only one of them—the Darya at the South Coast Plaza in Santa Ana—has its own unique identity as “the place where that alleged Iranian spy worked.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, whenever waiter Majid Ghorbani clocked out, he allegedly spent his free time collecting information for Iran, surveilling multiple Israeli and Jewish facilities across the United States, gathering intel on members of an organization called the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), and taking photos and videos of both individuals and physical locations.

In addition to being a better-than-average spy, Ghorbani seems to have also been a better-than-average waiter: he’d worked at Darya for the better part of two decades, and was able to top off water glasses and deliver plates of kebab koobideh while simultaneously infiltrating MEK meetings that were being held inside the restaurant.

America’s relationship with the MEK is a complicated one. The “cult-like Iranian opposition group,” in The Guardian’s words, was responsible for killing six Americans in Iran in the 1970s, and it enthusiastically supported the Iranian students who held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 straight days after the Iranian revolution. The group was named a terrorist organization in 1997, a label that was removed in 2012. But its continued protests against Iran’s current leaders have attracted the attention of members of President Donald Trump’s administration, including national security advisor John Bolton.

“There is a viable opposition to the rule of the ayatollahs, and that opposition is centered in this room today,” Bolton said during an appearance at an MEK rally in Paris. “The behavior and objectives of the regime are not going to change, and therefore the only solution is to change the regime itself.”

Basically, Iran considers the MEK to be enemies of its own government (because they are), which is why Ghorbani and another US-Iranian citizen, Ahmadreza Mohammadi Doostda, were allegedly keeping their camera lenses focused on them. And because Bolton has taken the whole “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach, federal agents were keeping their own eyes on Ghorbani and Doostda.

The Times reports that FBI agents searched their luggage after they made separate trips to Iran, discovering photos that were annotated with the names and “positions” of people who had participated in an MEK rally in New York. Last April, agents found a Farsi-language to-do list in Ghorbani’s suitcase, which included things like “More influence in order to find out secret information, people in the network and organization's decisions against Islamic Republic” and “Introducing a second person who can be trained.”

He didn’t have a chance to do that because, in August, the FBI raided the Darya restaurant, and arrested Ghorbani during his shift.

The restaurant’s owners say that they were as surprised as everyone else when Ghorbani was taken into custody. “Our owners absolutely love America [...] and knew nothing about the events that took place with Ghorbani,” Rene Redjaian, a spokesperson for Darya, said in a statement. “We believe everyone is innocent until proven guilty, we do not know all of the facts of this case, however Darya has no association with this case and has nothing to do with this incident.” (MUNCHIES has reached out to Darya for additional comment but has not yet received a response.)

Ghorbani and Doostdar have both been charged with knowingly acting as agents of Iran without prior notification to the US Attorney General, providing services to Iran in violation of US sanctions, and conspiracy.

Ghorbani has pleaded not guilty.