Above, Iranian mourners of Gen. Soleimani, killed in a U.S. attack Jan. 3.
By Mark Hemingway, RealClearInvestigations
January 27, 2020
A lobbying group with alleged ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran is exerting its influence in Congress amid heightened U.S.-Iranian tensions over recent deadly episodes, including the American drone killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
In recent weeks the Washington, D.C.-based National Iranian American Council, which played a pivotal backstage role in securing the Obama-era nuclear deal abandoned by President Trump, has worked in public and behind the scenes to shape America’s response to the conflict.
On Jan. 7, after Iran fired missiles at U.S. military bases in Iraq, the group issued a statement saying, “Donald Trump owns this 100%.”
The next day, Jan. 8, it co-hosted a “No War With Iran Strategy Call” that featured presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, along with Reps. Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna, both California Democrats.
On Dec. 12, weeks before the crisis was touched off by an Iranian-led attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the lobbying group backed a letter sent to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin by 17 Democratic members of Congress, urging the Trump administration to lift economic sanctions on Iran.
In response to the group’s continued influence inside the Beltway, and at a time of alarm about foreign meddling in American politics, three Republican senators – Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, Indiana’s Mike Braun, and Texas’ Ted Cruz – last week sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr “urging the Department of Justice to investigate the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and its sister organization, NIAC Action, for potential violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.” According to the senators, the group “purports to improve understanding between American and Iranian people but in reality seems to spread propaganda and lobby on behalf of the Iranian government.”
The organization characterized that description as “slanderous,” adding in a written statement: “NIAC and NIAC Action are independent American organizations. We do not receive money from any government, are not agents of any government, and take great pride in our transparency.”
But numerous observers say NIAC’s ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran are clear, citing evidence of close communication between the lobbying group’s leaders and Iranian officials.
Kaveh Shahrooz, a lawyer who has worked on human rights issues on behalf of the Canadian government, told RealClearInvestigations that the understanding that NIAC is “doing the IRI’s work in the U.S. is completely accepted by serious Iran observers.”
Sharooz said it has become more directly involved in politics through its recently formed “action network,” which endorses and works for candidates. It also runs programs and places interns in the offices of elected officials.
On Dec. 13, for example, the group announced that it had placed a former intern in the office of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich, who had also signed the letter requesting the lifting of sanctions.
The same press release noted “past NIAC Congressional fellows have included Yasmine Taeb, the first Iranian American elected to the Democratic National Committee.” Taeb worked last year to get the DNC to pass a resolution condemning the Trump administration’s decision to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal. NIAC also backed Taeb’s unsuccessful attempt to mount a primary challenge to Dick Saslaw, the majority leader in the Virginia state Senate.
Two other signers of the anti-sanctions letter also have staff with NIAC ties. Rep. IIhan Omar, D-Minn., has a legislative assistant, Mahyar Sorour, who mounted an unsuccessful run last year for an NIAC Action board seat. And Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., has a legislative assistant, Samira Damavandi, who caused a ruckus at a 2013 press briefing held by then-Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif, when she identified herself as working for NIAC and declared that Iranian sanctions were depriving the nation of medicine and food – a claim Royce disputed.
None of the three representatives responded to requests for comment.
The lobbying arm claims to have “over 65,000 supporters and over 8,000 donors,” although such assertions have raised doubts in the past. In 2010, a prominent co-founder, Trita Parsi, claimed the organization had 4,000 donors and 43,000 supporters. But the following year he testified under oath that its membership was only about 1,000 people, a number confirmed by the organization’s internal communications.
The organization reports that it raised nearly $2.3 million in 2017 and spent $1.8 million in 2017. NIAC says it does not take money from foreign governments but relies instead on individual donations and contributions from influential foundations such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Ploughshares Fund.
Parsi is frequently asked to provide the Iranian-American view on Capitol Hill and in the media. His high profile is drawing scrutiny because of the group’s presumed ties to the Iranian government.
Parsi, who stepped down as NIAC’s president in 2018 but remains prominently featured on its website, did not respond to a request for comment.
According to a report by Alex Shirazi in the Daily Beast, the idea for NIAC was hatched in 1999 at a conference in Cyprus. There Parsi, now 45, got together with Siamak Namazi, a member of a wealthy Iranian family with major business interests that depend on staying on the good side of Iran’s authoritarian leaders. Parsi, son of a politically active professor who moved his family to Sweden in 1978 to escape repression under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, co-wrote with Namazi an influential white paper on how to reorient America’s approach to Iran. It emphasized the need to gain influence on Capitol Hill with a goal of lifting sanctions then in place by, among other things, holding “seminars in lobbying for Iranian-American youth and intern opportunities in Washington DC.”
Two years later, the National Iranian American Council was founded.
Parsi, who is not an American citizen, is recognized as the group’s founder. But some evidence suggests that the Iranian government – working through Javad Zarif, a longtime Iranian diplomat and the current Iranian foreign minister -- was also involved.
In a 2002 video, Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American professor at Rutgers University and an Iranian presidential candidate in 2005 and 2013, said Zarif was directly involved in the founding of NIAC. The claim “is entirely consistent with how NIAC has behaved,” says Shahrooz, calling the group “Zarif's publicists in the West.”
Attempts to reach Zarif for comment, including through the Iranian Foreign Ministry, were unsuccessful.
A 2009 Washington Times article by Eli Lake reported that Parsi and others were in close contact with Zarif, even helping to arrange meetings between Zarif and members of Congress.
Experts consulted by the Washington Times determined that by arranging such meetings NIAC was potentially violating lobbying laws by helping the regime. This view appeared to be shared by the group’s policy director, Patrick Disney. “I believe we fall under this definition of ‘lobbyist,’” Disney wrote in an internal memo published by the Times.
In 2009, federal prosecutors seized the assets of the U.S.-based Alavi Foundation, one of the nonprofits with which Zarif was involved. They alleged that along with NIAC's funding of Shia religious organizations and academic outreach in the U.S. (including a Mideast studies center at Rutgers, where Amirahmadi was once director), the charity was the locus of a money-laundering scheme organized by both Zarif and the Iranian government. In 2017, the foundation forfeited many of its assets to the federal government, including ownership of a 36-story $500 million skyscraper in midtown Manhattan.
In response to Lake’s 2009 article, then-Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., sent a letter to Obama Attorney General Eric Holder – similar to the recent one by the Republican senators – asking the Justice Department to investigate whether NIAC is “operating as an undeclared lobby and may be guilty of violating tax laws, the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and lobbying disclosure laws.” It is not clear what if any action followed as a result.
Further evidence of NIAC’s close relationship with Zarif emerged from the disclosure of internal emails and memos during the group’s 2008 defamation lawsuit against one of its most persistent critics, Hassan Dai, who has long claimed that the group was acting on behalf of the Iranian regime.
The lawsuit dragged on for four years before a judge dismissed it, eventually forcing NIAC to pay Dai $183,480 in legal fees. The decision by U.S. District Court Judge John Bates, an appointee of President George W. Bush, said NIAC couldn’t prove it wasn’t acting at the behest of Iran. “That Parsi occasionally made statements reflecting a balanced, shared blame approach is not inconsistent with the idea that he was first and foremost an advocate for the regime,” the judge wrote. “Even a moderately competent agent of the Iranian regime would at times take pains to distance themselves from some policies of the regime. But the pattern here is overwhelming.”
Parsi served as a foreign policy adviser to disgraced Republican House member Bob Ney, who was sentenced to 30 months in jail for charges related to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Although Parsi was not implicated in any of Ney’s crimes, he was simultaneously advocating the lifting of Iranian sanctions on Ney's behalf, and bribes to Ney were alleged to be part of a plan to evade them. According to the Justice Department and a report in the Washington Post, Ney in 2003 accepted thousands of dollars’ worth of air travel, luxury accommodations, and casino chips from Fouad al-Zayat, a Syrian-born businessman sued by the Iranian government in 2007 for failing to deliver on a deal struck in 2002 to deliver a jumbo jet to be used by Iran’s president.
As conflict in Iraq ramped up in the turbulent years after the 2003 American-led ouster of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Iranian forces led by Gen. Soleimani saw an opportunity to expand the country’s influence and weaken the United States by working with pro-Iran militias inside Iraq. NIAC found a receptive audience among left-wing interest groups. Hassan Dai told RealClearInvestigations that “NIAC became part of this anti-war coalition and this coalition became very strong in 2008 and 2009 just before Obama came to office.”
Early on, the Obama administration decided to redirect decades of American foreign policy by empowering Iran to be a countervailing regional power to rein in the excesses of America’s Sunni allies, as well as try to gain leverage over Tehran’s nascent nuclear weapons program.
The first test of this strategy came in June 2009. After disputed balloting in which in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected president, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in a series of demonstrations known as the “Green Revolution.” The Iranian government responded with tear gas, arrests, and fatal shootings of protesters.
In his book “The Iran Wars,” former Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon described the Obama administration ordering the CIA to cut off contact with the protesters and not to implement contingency plans to support them. The White House apparently feared that a popular uprising leading to regime change would undermine its outreach to Iran and hopes to achieve a nuclear deal.
This policy was a tough sell for the administration, but its good relationship with NIAC helped among Obama’s antiwar base, if not Iranian-Americans like Hassan Dai. Years later, NIAC would defend Obama’s stance during the Green Revolution to pursue the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
Green Revolution leaders say NIAC revealed that it does not stand with the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people. "I think Trita Parsi does not belong to the Green Movement,” said Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an Iranian filmmaker who has served as the spokesman for the movement abroad. “I feel his lobbying has secretly been more for the Islamic Republic."
NIAC had become a key partner with the White House by Obama’s second term. NIAC also found a key booster and supporter in Ploughshares, the foundation that worked behind the scenes to fund and coordinate messaging among groups in support of the Iran deal, as well as to discredit the deal’s critics. White House visitor logs showed that Trita Parsi visited the Obama White House 33 times between 2013 and 2016 as NIAC became an integral part of the fabled “echo chamber” of media messaging that White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes boasted about in a New York Times Magazine profile.
But if getting the nuclear deal with Iran was a major accomplishment, Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 meant it was doomed – and that pro-Iranian groups would receive more scrutiny.
In February 2017, just a few weeks after Trump’s inauguration, a letter signed by 100 prominent Iranian dissidents urged Congress to launch an investigation into “the efforts of Tehran's theocratic regime to influence U.S. policy and public diplomacy toward Iran."
While NIAC was not specifically mentioned, observers noted it would be an obvious target of such an investigation. A congressional staffer who spoke only on condition of anonymity told RealClearInvestigations that if an organization with close ties to Russia were repeatedly accused of lobbying for the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin, not to mention taking an active role in staffing congressional offices and working to elect candidates, “there would a 24/7 meltdown on cable news.”
Instead, the source says NIAC’s work with the Obama administration conferred an aura of legitimacy on the organization.
In January, after Iran’s hostilities and the killing of Soleimani, Parsi appeared on CNN for interviews with Jake Tapper and Fareed Zakaria and on other cable news programs, and wrote op-eds arguing that it was the United States and not Iran escalating tensions.
“NIAC's untouchable because Trita Parsi is on cable news all the time,” says the source. “And similar to the problems of getting the media to discuss the underlying facts in Russiagate, it's difficult to get the media to talk about Iran stuff because so much of the media was complicit, in some cases literally working with NIAC to sell the Iran deal.”
Shahrooz, a critic of President Trump, argues that the current polarization in Washington is in some ways making it harder to confront the Iran lobby: “And so if you say, 'I'm an anti-Trump organization and I want to push for diplomacy,' then suddenly the entire Democratic establishment seems to get behind that regardless of who's the one that's saying it. And I think that's how they've managed to survive for this long.”