THE PLANK NOVEMBER 16, 2009
On Friday, TNR Contributing Editor and Washington Times national security reporter Eli Lake published a blockbuster scoop about the National Iranian American Council, (NIAC), and it's founder, Trita Parsi. I recently wrote about Parsi's appearance at the J Street conference, where he waived away concerns about the Iranian regime's warnings about destroying Israel and compared such invocations to statements issued by the United States about Iran's nuclear program. Over the past several years, Parsi has built up quite the impressive profile in Washington, earning himself frequent appearances on cable television and on the pages of the nation's top op-ed pages, as well as the kudos of countless "progressive" bloggers, who relish his message of "engagement" with Tehran. In person and in writing, Parsi comes across as serenely reasonable even if the policies for which he advocates -- the lifting of any sanctions on Iran and the striking of a "grand bargain" with the Mullahs -- are actually quite extreme.
Well, it turns out there's a lot more to Parsi than what most people knew (or suspected). First, he isn't even American, which is strange considering the fact that the organization he heads is called the National Iranian American Council and claims to speak on behalf of America's 1 million Iranianis. Furthermore, Parsi admits that his group only has 2,500 to 3,000 members. Internal documents, uncovered by Lake, show that less than 500 people responded to a membership survey that the group put out last year. So, far from representing the views of any appreciable number of Iranian Americans, it is far more accurate to say that NIAC represents the views of Trita Parsi.
But what may really get Parsi into trouble is the accusation that he has been acting for years as an unregistered foreign agent for elements in Iran and, in doing, "may be guilty of violating tax laws, the Foreign Agents Registration Act and lobbying disclosure laws," according to law enforcement authorities whom Lake interviewed. Specifically, Parsi had worked to arrange meetings between Iran's ambassador to the United Nations and U.S. Congressmen:
The Times asked two former federal law-enforcement officials to review documents from the case showing that Mr. Parsi had helped arrange meetings between members of Congress and Mr. Zarif.
"Arranging meetings between members of Congress and Iran's ambassador to the United Nations would in my opinion require that person or entity to register as an agent of a foreign power; in this case it would be Iran," said one of those officials, former FBI associate deputy director Oliver "Buck" Revell.
The other official, former FBI special agent in counterintelligence and counterterrorism Kenneth Piernick, said, "It appears that this may be lobbying on behalf of Iranian government interests. Were I running the counterintelligence program at the bureau now, I would have cause to look into this further."
No less than the group's acting director for policy, Patrick Disney, authored a memo last year in which he stated, "I believe we fall under this definition of 'lobbyist.'" And according to other communications Lake obtained, Parsi himself used the word "lobby" to describe the purpose and mission of NIAC.
Lake has many details on NIAC's shady activities, beginning with its attempt to "create a media controversy," in the words of Disney, about the appointment of Dennis Ross to a high-level job coordinating Iran policy at the State Department. Ross is known to favor a tough line on Iran, and the group feared that his influence in the Obama administration would impede its efforts to prevent the enactment of harsher sanctions. Yet in a now embarrassing display of the organization's fundamental dishonesty, NIAC lists Ross on its website as one of several people who have been "targeted" for supporting a "pro-engagement policy in the Middle East." Perhaps NIAC should amend the list to clarify that it was NIAC itself which was trying to "target" Ross.
In the wake of the brutal crackdown following Iran's recent presidential election, Parsi did come out and criticize the regime's response. But, according to documents unearthed by Ben Smith detailing the minutes of meetings between NIAC and other left-wing organizations, human rights has hardly been a part of NIAC's mission, which is understandable seeing that a focus on the regime's abominable treatment of its own people would make it harder to persuade the administration, Congress, or the American people of its Hands Off Iran agenda:
The minutes include almost almost no mention of a human rights agenda inside Iran, which has more recently been on NIAC's agenda. Participants in the discussions include NIAC as well as the liberal Jewish group J Street, anti-war groups like Peace Action and the American Friends Service Committee, and the business lobby that opposes Iran sanctions, USA*Engage.
That coalition, the "Campaign for a New American Policy on Iran," by the way, has also tried to cut off American funding to Iranian pro-democracy activists with the ultimate goal of "end[ing] the 'Democracy Fund' as we know it."
Parsi's defenders have reacted with righteous outrage, and none of them (surprise) is more righteously outraged than Andrew Sullivan, who takes precious time away from his O.J.-like quest to find the Real Mother of Trig Palin to bash Lake, neglecting to address any of the serious revelations brought to light in the piece. Instead, he launches a series of vituperative and ad hominem attacks against "neocons," whom, he tells us, actually wanted Mahmoud Ahadminejad to win the Iranian elections last June (Daniel Pipes was the only such person who "had the admirable intellectual honesty to air [this view] in public," so we will just have to trust Andrew's neocon-mind-reading capabilities). It is for this reason, Andrew alleges, that the documents incriminating Parsi and NIAC were leaked to Lake in the first place, because "Smearing the non-neocon Green opposition as essentially pro-Khamenei solidifies the neoconservative war project. " Get it? There is an inverse relationship between the seriousness of a writer's work and how often he employs the word "neocon." Andrew manages to do it no less than 11 times in this brief post.
As for the claim that Parsi somehow represents the aspirations of the Iranian people, the Green opposition or any Iranian Americans other than the less than 500 people who bothered to respond to his membership survey, I leave you with the words of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the renowned Iranian filmmaker who has served as the spokesman for the Green Movement abroad, who told the Times, "I think Trita Parsi does not belong to the Green Movement. I feel his lobbying has secretly been more for the Islamic Republic."