Trita Parsi, founder and President of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a long- suspected lobby for the Iranian regime, makes the media rounds pretty regularly. Little, though, has been written about him or his organization. A prolific writer and author, Parsi’s op-eds appear in the Huffington Post, Foreign Policy and the Christian Science Monitor, among other prestigious publications. He has also been interviewed on The Jon Stewart Show and The Colbert Report. For those who maintain that Iran’s theocratic regime is run by hard-core pragmatists who are amenable to improving relations with the US, Parsi expertly articulates their perspective. According to its website, NIAC advocates for the easing of sanctions, taking the military option and regime change off the table as well as Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, among other policies. It is Israel and AIPAC, they argue, that stand in the way of a productive and mutually beneficial relationship between the US and Iran.
However, beyond these public domains, there are also indications that NIAC has the ear of key members of the Obama administration. As I wrote in Mishpacha Puneet Talwar, a current member of the National Security Council and senior director for Iran, Iraq, and Persian Gulf affairs who served on the staff of then Senator Joe Biden, admitted under oath during a defamation suit NIAC brought against Hassan Daioleslam, an Iranian-American dissident and journalist, to meeting with Parsi and discussing with him Track II diplomacy along with other Iran-related issues. (Talwar was one of the key figures involved in the Track II negotiations that led to the November 24th interim agreement between the PS 5 + 1 and Iran.) Parsi, it appears, attended at least one of the Track II Pugwash meetings, although it is unclear on whose behalf. He also claims to have briefed the CIA and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Key NIAC members participated in a day-long panel discussion in the White House on US domestic and foreign policy issues pertaining to Iran with Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s closest adviser, in attendance. As well, Alan Eyre, the State Department’s only Farsi-speaking spokesperson, addressed the 2011 NIAC Leadership Conference and spoke of “partnering” with NIAC and other Iranian-American organizations in order to reach out to its expatriate community. Sitting on its advisory board are influential people like former US Ambassador to the UN, Thomas R. Pickering, who headed the US Track II diplomacy track until he was replaced by the US’s former Ambassador to Egypt, Fred Wisner. Ambassador Pickering, together with Admiral Mike Mullen, was asked by Hillary Clinton to head the Benghazi inquiry.
NIAC’s welcome into the White House is especially curious, especially since its ties to the Iranian regime were more fully established during the 2008 suit it brought against Daioleslam for referring to it as the “Mullah’s lobby.” Daioleslam, who had been following NIAC for years, documented, among other activities, attempts by NIAC to introduce key Iranian officials (e.g., the then Iranian Ambassador to the US Javad Zarif (today’s Foreign Minister)) to members of the US Congress, with the intention of influencing US policy towards Iran. He quotes Farsi newspapers that call NIAC Iran's unofficial lobby. Upon rendering his decision in favour of the defense, as noted by Samuel Nunberg in Front Page Magazine, not only was NIAC unable to prove to D.C. District Court Judge John D. Bates’ satisfaction that it was not lobbying for the Iranian regime, he went further and imposed a fine of close to $184,000 on NIAC for abuses during the discovery pre-trial phase of the litigation. NIAC had not produced many of the documents requested by the defense.
Is NIAC a bona fide lobby or an advocacy group working to empower Iranian-Americans as it claims? It depends on the amount of time allocated towards lobbying. Eli Lake notes in his 2009 Washington Times article that it is registered as a nonprofit 501(c) (3) advocacy group, which would entitle it to allot 20% of its time to lobbying. Even though some lobbying in the US Congress clearly took place, this was not indicated on its internal revenue forms. Exposed during this defamation suit, NIAC began inserting lobbying time on their forms. For whom are they, in fact, lobbying? In a 2012 survey conducted by the Pro-Democracy Movement of Iran, 95% of Iranian-Americans interviewed stated that they see Parsi and NIAC as lobbyists for the Islamic Republic of Iran, and more than 1,300 Iranian-Americans signed a Facebook petition demanding that NIAC be investigated for failing to register as a Foreign Agent. According to Daioleslam, a similar petition claiming NIAC was a lobbyist for the Iranian regime, which had reached 2,600 signatures, was shut down by NIAC's Cyber Army in 2011.
Much information concerning NIAC came to light during the discovery phase of the trial through emails, calendars and other correspondence, as well as from depositions taken under oath. The thousands of documents received are still being sorted through and analyzed by Daioleslam, who is listing them on his site. Among some revelations, not only were their membership numbers highly inflated, but their interns were canvassed for jobs at the US Embassy in Dubai. Travel expenses and salaries were to be rerouted through non-direct channels. One of the most damaging pieces of information as regards NIAC’s attempt to exert influence on Congress was a 2008 letter sent by Lord Corbett of Castle Vale to Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ross-Lehtinen, warning of the imminent arrival in Washington of two known Iranian spies who, it states, together with “a well-known lobbyist for the Iranian regime Trita Parsi will try to persuade members of Congress in favor of the Iranian regime, and away from its main opposition groups.”
Iranian Americans categorically reject NIAC, as is apparent by the Iranian-American Forum’s YouTube video. Writing in the American Thinker, Daioleslam questions Trita Parsi’s sudden 2010 “conversion” to the side of the Green Movement that rose up in opposition to the regime, following what many feel was a sham election that reinstated President Ahmadinejad to power. He writes, “Parsi’s sudden concern for the Iranian democratic movement partly designated to cover up his twelve years’ lobbying in favor of the Iranian regime. Furthermore, he is faced with an upcoming court appearance in Washington [NIAC’s defamation suit against Daioleslam.] in which his lobbying will be thoroughly scrutinized.”
Yet, despite rejections by both Congress, which is extremely skeptical of NIAC’s intentions (in July, Congress passed a bill tightening sanctions against Iran 400 to 20, against NIAC’s objections), and Iranian-Americans, the appearance of influence persists. Many argue this is because the Obama White House happens to agree with Parsi’s positions. Many wonder what that says about the Obama administration when its Iranian policies are so aligned with those of an organization long suspected of representing the Iranian regime.
Machla Abramovitz. "Tehran's White House Welcome.” Mishpacha. Issue 487. Dec. 4, 2013.
In the wee hours of the morning on November 24th, after 18 hours of negotiations, Iran and world powers reached an agreement to temporarily curb Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars of sanctions relief.
The deal was heralded as a victory by the Obama administration and immediately blasted by its critics, including Israel. Though the United Nations Security Council had passed no fewer than six resolutions demanding that Iran completely dismantle its nuclear program, the Geneva deal left every one of Iran's centrifuges intact, allowed Iran to enrich up to 5 percent uranium , and did not require Iran to dismantle its Arak nuclear facility, which could one day produce plutonium, an alternative route to the bomb.
Eli Lake. “Iran Advocacy Group Said to Skirt Lobby Rules.” The Washington Times. Nov. 13, 2009.
Shortly before Barack Obama took office, leaders of a prominent Iranian-American group in Washington began to fret.
If the new president were to tap former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross to oversee the nation’s Iran policy, they feared their long-running effort to persuade American officials to lift sanctions could wind up in tatters. Patrick Disney, acting policy director of National Iranian American Council (NIAC), summed up the strategy: “Create a media controversy” concerning Mr. Ross, whose support for a tough line on Iran was well known.
Clare M. Lopez. “Rise of the Iran Lobby: Tehran’s Front Groups Move On – and Into – the Obama Administration.” Center for Security Policy. Feb. 25, 2009.
“Seven Myths About Iran.” National American Iranian Council website. November, 2007.
Eli Lake and Josh Rogin. “Exclusive: Iran’s Secret Détente.” The Daily Beast. Nov. 8, 2013.
“In search of truth”. Reports on the Iranian lobby in US. Edited by Hassan Daioleslam.
“Rouhani and Zarif’s plan to revive Iran lobby in US.” Iranian-American Forum. Nov. 11, 2013. YouTube.
“Iranian Pugwash Participants Claim Tehran.”Cable 08LONDON2101.Wikileaks.Aug. 12, 2008
Iranian Pugwash Participants Claim Tehran Indifferent to Sanctions But Wants Direct Flights.Wikileaks.Feb. 6, 2012.
Ben-Ami, Jeremy and Trita Parsi. “How Diplomacy with Iran Can Succeed.” Huffington Post. June 11, 2009.
Alana Goodman. “Why is WH Meeting with Iran Apologists?” Commentary Magazine. July 20, 2012.
“Iran-Nuke Negotiations: Trita Parsi.” The Colbert Report. November 12, 2013.