Tablet MAG, By Hassan Dai
Wednesday, 28 June 2017
How a small pro-Iranian lobby became part of a vast messaging machine to push the nuclear deal that helped reshape the Middle East
In 2005, Jack Abramoff’s corruption and lobbying scandal became public. One of Abramoff’s main accomplices was Bob Ney, a former congressman from Ohio who was sentenced to 30 months in prison. Part of the corruption charges against Ney, exposed in DOJ documents, were related to the bribes that he had received from two businessmen in London who tried to buy an airplane for the leadership of the Iranian regime—an export prohibited by sanctions. Ney had been hired to resolve the legal issues prohibiting the export of the plane.
Ney’s foreign-policy adviser during the time Ney was advocating the removal of sanctions against Iran was a young Iranian-Swedish student named Trita Parsi (according to Parsi’s resumes), now better known as the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a Washington-based, pro-Tehran advocacy and lobbying organization founded in 2002. Back then, it was hard to explain why a Congressman with no official role in US foreign policy had a foreign policy adviser on Iran. Parsi began his pro-Tehran activities in 1997 in Sweden as he founded a small lobby organization called “Iranians for International Cooperation” (IIC) that used its few Washington members to send petitions and letters to Congress members. In an IIC document released during a subsequent lawsuit, Parsi explained IIC’s activities and goals as follows: “IIC was founded in August 1997 by Trita Parsi, the present President. … Our agenda is topped by the removal of US economic and political sanctions against Iran. … IIC is capable of organizing the grassroots and pressure US lawmakers to pose a more Iran friendly position.”
In 2001, Parsi moved to the United States and became the development director of the American Iranian Council (AIC), an anti-sanction and pro-Iran advocacy organization that had been founded by its president, Hooshang Amirahmadi, in 1997. AIC was funded by U.S. oil companies, which were apparently eager to do business in Iran. It also received backing from the Iranian regime. In several interviews, Amirahmadi called AIC Iran’s “prominent lobby in the U.S. that strives to defend the interests of Iran and oppose the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC.” (Interviews with government press in Iran are here and here.)
Shortly after his arrival in the United States, Parsi begun consultations to create NIAC. Several emails by Parsi discovered in subsequent legal actions illuminate the function and the strategy of the new organization as at least an advocate for the Iranian regime. In one of the emails, Parsi indicated that Tehran-based Baquer Namazi was instructing him. Namazi was the co-director of Tehran-based Hamyaran, a semi-governmental organization also known as the “Iran NGO initiative.” The other co-director of Hamyaran was Hoseein Malek Afzali, a deputy minister in Iran for 18 years, whose tenure ended in 2008. Hamyaran was not a private initiative by Iranian citizens who hoped to do good: It was created by the Iranian government to monitor the activities of Iranian NGOs and to coordinate their relations with foreign organizations. Hamyaran was also assigned by the Iranian foreign ministry the role of coordinating relationships between the state and Iranian expatriates.
Following the Ney scandal, criticism against NIAC’s pro-regime activities mounted within the Iranian-American community. In 2008, NIAC and Parsi filed a defamation lawsuit against one of their critics who had exposed their tie to the Iranian regime. During the discovery phase of the lawsuit, NIAC was obliged to release a small part of its internal documents that proved to be devastating for the organization as they showed NIAC’s direct links with the regime. In November 2009, the Washington Times ran a front-page article about these documents and wrote:
Law-enforcement experts who reviewed some of the documents, which were made available to the Times by the defendant in the suit, say e-mails between Mr. Parsi and Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations at the time, Javad Zarif—and an internal review of the Lobbying Disclosure Act—offer evidence that the group has operated as an undeclared lobby and may be guilty of violating tax laws, the Foreign Agents Registration Act and lobbying disclosure laws… 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.”
Following the Times report, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl sent an inquiry—a very unusual request in Washington—to the U.S. Attorney General asking him to investigate the group’s direct and indirect ties with the Iranian government.
But in 2009, the Obama administration, which had begun its conciliatory approach toward Tehran, decided that it could use NIAC’s help in mending rifts with Iranian leaders. The White House also needed NIAC, as an Iranian-American group to endorse and legitimize President Barack Obama’s friendly attitude toward the clerical regime, especially after the Iranian popular uprising of 2009-2010 was brutally crushed by the regime in front of television cameras. As a result, NIAC gained influence in the administration and became a White House partner. Parsi went from being a fringe player in Washington to a semi-legitimate “expert” who is assumed to represent an American constituency, and whose views are seldom quoted with any acknowledgement of his intimate and longstanding links to the Iranian regime.
NIAC finally lost the legal action against its critic in 2012 as the court dismissed the defamation lawsuit, punished NIAC and Trita Parsi for discovery abuses including false declarations to the court, and ordered them to pay a significant part of the defendant’s legal expenses. Part of NIAC’s internal documents released during the lawsuit are posted here and some of them have been used to prepare this report, which hopes to answer the question of how parts of official Washington and the D.C. press came to embrace a willing advocate for a theocratic regime that brutally tortures and murders its own citizens while spreading death throughout the Middle East, contrary to the interests of America and its allies in the region.
NIAC was incorporated in early 2002 and presents itself as: “a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian-American community. We accomplish our mission by supplying the resources, knowledge, and tools to enable greater civic participation by Iranian Americans and informed decision making by lawmakers.” But a cursory review of NIAC activities and statements seem to indicate that the group spends very little of its time or energy working with Iranian Americans. Instead, it works to pressure the U.S. government to adopt a friendlier policy with Tehran and lift economic sanctions against the Iranian regime.
A NIAC internal document, released during the lawsuit, shows that the organization uses its pro-Iranian-American posture as a tool to advance its political agenda. NIAC was registered as a 501c3 with restrictions for the amount of lobbying it could legally perform. In 2002, when NIAC was launched, Parsi and two Washington lobbyists worked together to create a parallel organization to NIAC that would carry out lobbying activities. In October 2002, Parsi sent a memo to these two lobbyists, titled “Towards the creation of an Iranian-American lobby,” and explained the real goal of his lobby activities:
Although the mission of the proposed lobby should be to improve relations between the US and Iran and open up opportunities for trade, the initial targets should be less controversial issues such as visas and racial profiling/discrimination. … Despite its predominantly business oriented constituency, it is essential that the lobby creates a “human face.” The human element is essential both when it comes to attracting support among Iranian-Americans and when it comes to winning the debate and the votes on the Hill.
While NIAC claims that it is the largest Iranian-American organization in the United States, and hence best equipped to represent the views of more than one million Iranian-Americans, this claim is deceitful and fraudulent. NIAC’s internal documents obtained during the lawsuit show that the organization has systematically hyped the number of its members and misrepresented its constituency. For example, in 2005-2006, in several CVs that Parsi attached to his job application sent to U.S. organizations such as Amnesty International, Saban or Eurasia Fund, he claimed 10,000 members for NIAC. In a meeting with Sen. John Chafee’s office, Parsi repeated the same claims and declared that an NIAC survey was sent to 10,000 members, though a NIAC document shows that only 224 members participated in the survey.
The minutes of NIAC’s Board meeting in 2007 give what is probably a more accurate picture of the organization’s actual strength within the Iranian-American community: “Trita reviewed the membership trends: 1,034 (2005) increased to 1,307 in 2006 and 1,680 as of today—citing these figures as absolutely unacceptable.” The same document shows that Alex Patico, NIAC co-founder and a board member, felt that “it would not be deceitful to mention NIAC as being comprised of 25,000+ members when dealing with the media and other inquiries.” Other NIAC documentsshow that the group only had 1,068 members in 2008. It had 1,100 in May 2009. In July 2009, less than 500 (including non-members) participated in an NIAC members’ survey. 275 of them responded to the questions. In December 2010, Parsi claimed that NIAC had 4,000 paid members and 43,000 active supporters. During his testimony in May 2011 and under oath he admitted that the organization’s real membership was only around 1,000 members.
The reason for NIAC’s unimpressive membership numbers may be simple: NIAC doesn’t represent the views of Iranian Americans, the vast majority of who oppose Iran’s clerical regime and reject appeasement policies toward Tehran. As a result of its unpopularity among its presumed base, NIAC’s primary source of income is not dues-paying Iranian-Americans but American foundations. The organization’s biggest donor is the Ploughshares Fund, which over the past few years has financially supported groups and individuals who advocate for a friendlier policy with Iran and the lifting of economic sanctions. However, it is worth noting that U.S. foundations often act as conduits for funds they receive from business interests and individuals. It is therefore difficult to trace the origins of the funds that NIAC or other organizations receive from these foundations to their source.
One example that illustrates this difficulty is the case of a $900,000 donation by Vahid Alaghband, London-based Iranian businessman to the Brookings Institution in 2007. Alaghband is the chairman of the Balli group in London with multiple large holdings inside Iran. In 2010, Balli pleaded guilty to illegally exporting Boeing 747 aircraft to Iran and agreed to pay $15 million in fines to the US government.
In 2007, while Alaghband was preparing the illegal sale of aircraft to Iran, he donated $50,000 to the California-based Parsa Foundation. In the same year, the Parsa Foundation awarded a grant of $50,000 to NIAC. During the NIAC defamation lawsuit, the Parsa Foundation was subpoenaed and produced some of its email exchanges with Alaghband showing use of the Foundation to funnel a large donation to the Brookings Institution: Alaghband would donate $900,000 to the Parsa Foundation and the foundation would subsequently give the money to Brookings, which was actively promoting a friendlier policy with Iran. According to his own subsequent account, Alaghband wound up donating money directly to Brookings—which in that same year hired a scholar named Suzanne Maloney who conscientiously produced a series of reports hyping the prospects for reform and better relations with the regime.
According to Michael Weiss in The Daily Beast:
A former Brookings staffer with direct knowledge of the donation told The Daily Beast that, on the contrary, Alaghband’s problems with the U.S. government were known to the think tank at the time and that the money helped finance the work of Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department policy adviser and Republican advocate of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.'”
Maloney continues to work at Brookings, which denied any direct link between Maloney’s hire and Alaghband’s donation to the Saban Center, where Maloney is employed, and which has organized events at which Alaghband is listed as a participant.
In Britain, according to a long article on the website IntelligenceOnline, Alaghband was also instrumental in developing former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, into a high-level intermediary between Western governments and business interests and the Iranian regime, in the hopes of lifting sanctions and gaining contracts.
American business interests are NIAC’s main allies in the United States and could naturally provide financial and political support for the organization. In the 2002 memo that Parsi sent to his lobby partners in Washington, he explained this alliance and wrote: “Iranian-American organizations have in the past targeted the oil companies for financial support. This strategy has been a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the oil companies have been relatively dedicated to the cause and have been generous supporters of groups such as AIC. On the other hand, oil companies have a bad reputation among Iranian-Americans and are easily depicted as greedy and insensitive to human rights concerns in the media. … The lobby should target business with positive images that have a strategic interest in trade with Iran.”
The alliance between the trade lobby and pro-Iran lobby goes back to the 1990s and especially 1997, when the so-called reformist Mohammad Khatami became president and launched a charm offensive to soften the western attitude toward Iran. American business interests grasped the opportunity and launched a lobbying campaign to change US policy with Iran and remove economic sanctions. The National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), representing large U.S. corporations, launched its own lobby arm called USA*ENGAGE joining forces with oil giants. Some of NIAC’s emailsreleased during the defamation lawsuit show the nature and extent of NIAC’s joint lobbying efforts with USA*Engage.
To bolster their anti-sanction lobby, U.S. business interests needed the input and support of Iranian-American organizations. In 1998 Gary Marfin, Conoco’s manager for government affairs, explained this strategy and declared that “the company’s alliance with Iranian-Americans is part of its general opposition to economic sanctions.” The desire to have an “Iranian voice” in Washington to promote the removal of sanctions was also shared by the Iranian regime. The shared aims of American business interests and the Iranian regime helped create several Iranian-American organizations, including NIAC that received simultaneous support from Tehran and the trade lobby in Washington in the hopes of weakening or eliminating sanctions. It would take a political transformation in U.S.-Iranian relations—pushed simultaneously by the White House and Tehran—to give this weird alliance life.
In August 2013, the newly nominated Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made a speech to the Iranian parliament and explained that during his tenure in New York as Iranian Ambassador to the UN, he established contacts with anti-Bush politicians to exploit American political divisions on behalf of Iran. He declared: “I had the approval of the regime’s highest authorities and established contacts with anti-Bush politicians within the U.S. to attempt to cause a division amongst the decision makers and neutralize the White House’s bellicose policy toward Iran.”
The email exchanges between Zarif and Parsi and NIAC’s public documents demonstrate that the organization and Parsi were Zarif’s main partners in the early stages of this campaign. According to these emails, in April 2006, Zarif gave a copy of the so-called “Iranian 2003 offer for grand bargain” to Parsi, which he subsequently released to the press and used as the centerpiece of a campaign to prove that Iran was ready for peace and dialogue while the United States was instead seeking war with Iran. An NIAC 2007 internal report released during the lawsuit detailed how NIAC used the “Grand Bargain” story to influence public opinion: The report concluded that NIAC’s campaign “succeeded in bringing wide range attention to Iran’s 2003 Grand Bargain offer.”
Zarif and NIAC’s collaboration was part of Iran’s large-scale media and PR campaign to influence public opinion in the West and counter U.S. and international pressure and consequently, to help Iran continue its nuclear program. Both Washington Times and Bloomberg have reported on the Zarif/NIAC collaboration to influence American public opinion. During this time, Iran also pursued an ambitious plan to connect with American anti-war groups, recruit amongst them and use their social networks in a grassroots lobby to prevent tougher policies against Iran. NIAC and Parsi also played a pivotal role in bridging the anti-war activists with the Iranian regime.
The Iranian strategy of exploiting political divisions in Washington rested on a depiction of Israel as the bullying force behind sanctions and pressure against Iran. The Iranian leaders believed that the marginalization of Israel and the weakening of its influence in Washington would help Iran to attain its strategic goals. Upon his return from New York in September 2013, President Rouhani declared: “The next thing we wanted to do in New York was to soften the negative atmosphere that the Israelis create in the U.S. against our country. They fabricate lies to demonize our nation. We wanted to limit this space for the Israelis and make American public opinion aware that many of the things that are said against us, are not true. Of course, you know that Israel has a strong lobby in the U.S. and a lot of influence in the Congress. They have done a lot of work and, we need to fill the vacuum and create a strong Iranian lobby in Washington that could counter AIPAC’s campaign against Iran. I think the Iranians who live there should take first steps in this regard. I proposed this in my meeting with the Iranians (in the U.S.) and said that all Iranians in America are our voice and should echo the Iranian realities.”
Similarly, in an interview with Aseman magazine on August 31, 2013, Foreign Minister Zarif explained that the government intends to dedicate resources, to mobilize the Iranian-American community and create a powerful lobby capable of opposing AIPAC.
NIAC and Parsi carried out the Iranian regime’s anti-Israel and anti-AIPAC campaign in the United States in part by presenting its campaign against Israel and its lobby in the United States as a modern era “David versus Goliath battle.”
According to Parsi, Israel should be blamed because, since 1992, it has been preventing a U.S.-Iran rapprochement: “Israel is playing hardball to prevent Washington from cutting a deal with Tehran that could benefit America, but deprive Israel of its military and strategic supremacy.”
Parsi claims that in order to achieve this goal, Israel has been demonizing Iran: “For Israel, rallying Western states to its side was best achieved by bringing attention to the alleged suicidal tendencies of the clergy and to Iran’s apparent infatuation with the idea of destroying Israel. If the Iranian leadership was viewed as irrational, conventional tactics such as deterrence would be impossible, leaving the international community with no option but to have zero tolerance for Iranian military capabilities.”
For Parsi, the United States is a passive character that bows to Israeli pressure and adopts the policy dictated by Israel at the expense of American national interests. As a result, the United States imposes sanctions on Iran and ignores the Iranian overtures for dialogue: “Washington started to adopt the Israeli line on Iran. In response to Israeli pressure—and not to Iranian actions—Washington’s rhetoric on Iran began to mirror Israel’s talking points. … Washington’s recycling of Israel’s argument back to Tel Aviv reflected the success of Rabin and Peres’ campaign against Iran. Washington’s turnaround was a direct result of Israel’s pressure.”
NIAC’s close alignment with Tehran’s anti-Israeli campaign was on display in March 2015 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Washington to address the U.S. Congress. On March 2, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei wrote on his English Twitter account: “The day when Western people realize that their problems result from Zionism’s hegemony over governments they will make an inescapable hell for them.” A day later, he posted a new tweet and wrote: “In the past 50 years, how much money and reputation has it cost the U.S. to support Israel’s crimes? Who other than its nation has paid for it?” NIAC similarly escalated its anti-Israeli campaign and bought a full-page ad in the New York Times accusing the Speaker of the House of being “loyal” to Israel. (NIAC related video.) Two weeks later, Parsi posted a tweet about Sen. Lindsey Graham’s trip to Israel, and wrote: “Graham re-pledges loyalty to a foreign leader.”
But the main service that Parsi and NIAC provided to Tehran was not in repackaging the Supreme Leader’s tweets for American domestic consumption but in engaging in the hard organizational work of coalition-building in the US around the regime’s foreign policy goals. In 2005-2006, a coalition of nearly 50 groups, mostly comprising of anti-war and progressive organizations formed a coalition to oppose America’s harsh policy toward Iran and prevent a potential war between the two countries. NIAC played a key role in shaping the coalition’s policies. One of the documents obtained during the lawsuit is a 2007 report titled “Lobby Groups” that Parsi wrote and sent to Siamak Namaz, his lobbying partner in Tehran. Parsi explained how NIAC tried to transform this coalition into an anti-sanction pressure group:
While these groups have focused extensively on passing measures to reduce the risk for war with Iran, little attention has been paid to efforts to intensify sanctions against Iran. However, initial efforts are currently being made to make align the trade groups with the pro-dialogue coalition and frame sanctions an initial step that invariably will lead to war. If such a coalition of pro-trade and pro-dialogue groups can be formed, the current momentum for sanctions may be significantly hampered.
In 2008, the coalition was named “Campaign for New American policy on Iran” (CNAPI) and NIAC became its official coordinator. CNAPI comprised of leftist and religious groups, including Open Society, Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation as well as USA*Engage, a pro-trade business advocacy group that lobbies against Iran sanctions. Several former politicians and diplomats also worked with CNAPI.
After Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential elections, during the monthly meeting of CNAPI, Patrick Disney, an NIAC lobbyist and the coordinator for CNAPI declared: “This is a chance to demonstrate that our group and our position is now the ‘center of gravity’ on the Iran issue. With Obama in the White House, it is no longer acceptable for staffers to say they only hear from the far-right hawks on Iran–we’re here and we’re going to push for a positive agenda.”
The convergence of views between the Obama administration and the pro-Iran lobby helped NIAC and its partners to evolve from a pressure group to a high-level White House player. Philip Gordon, special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region spoke at the NIAC 2014 annual conference and in September 2016, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes spoke at the NIAC conference to highlight the White House alliance with the organization. Similarly, Alan Eyre, the State Department’s Persian-language spokesperson regularly participated as a keynote speaker at the NIAC conferences and, even more amazingly, the State Department and U.S. embassy in Jeddah organized a series of speeches for Trita Parsi in Saudi Arabia about U.S.-Iran relations. It was therefore not surprising that Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a former NIAC employee became National Security Council Director for Iran. According to official records, NIAC President Parsi, visited the White House 33 times between 2013 and 2016.
Once in the White House, Obama extended a friendly hand toward the Iranian regime, sent two secret letters to the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, as well as a conciliatory video message to Iran’s leaders. Yet only a few months later, in June 2009, as the White House was trying to gain the trust of the Iranian regime, the rigged presidential election in Iran provoked a historic popular movement, which gradually morphed to an anti-regime uprising that lasted almost a year and brought the regime to the edge of collapse. While millions of Iranian demonstrators were facing the regime’s brutal crackdown, thousands were arrested, beaten, raped, and tortured and hundreds were killed, Obama seemed to ignore this defining moment and continued his overture toward the regime. This attitude angered the Iranian people who shouted in the streets and asked the U.S. president: “Obama, Obama, are you with them”—the Iranian regime—“or with us?”
A former administration official explained the main reason for Obama’s attitude to a reporter for The New Yorker: “The core of it was we were still trying to engage the Iranian government and we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters.”
NIAC helped the White House run interference domestically for a policy orientation that was beginning to look questionable. For example, Parsi wrote an article and defended Obama’s passive attitude: “The White House’s position has been on the mark. The Iranians want to make sure that the world knows and sees what is happening on the streets of Tehran and other cities. And they want the U.S. to stay out of the fight.” Patrick Disney, NIAC’s policy director published an article titled: “On Iran, the Power of Obama’s Silence” and wrote: “For now, the Obama administration is just taking a step back and assessing the situation, and rightly so. But the Obama administration is also making it perfectly clear that, regardless of the outcome of the next few days, they are committed to engage in direct diplomacy with the Iranian government. At this point, that’s the best we, as Americans, can do.” In October 2009, in the midst of the Iranian uprising, the 5+1 countries led by the U.S. begun the much-anticipated high-level nuclear talks.”
While coalition partners ceased using the CNAPI name, the coalition that NIAC put together formed the nexus for continued collaboration between these groups—which the Iranian regime calls the “pro-Iran lobby in Washington”—and advancing their agenda. These included the easing of economic sanctions (without asking too much in return), accepting a nuclear-capable Iran, the recognition of Iran as a regional power, accepting the Iranian regime’s legitimacy and a strategic reconciliation and cooperation with Iran akin to the rapprochement toward China in the 1970s. As president, Obama embraced these recommendations. Parsi and pro-Iran lobby argues that If the United States stops its animosity and adopts a less belligerent attitude toward Iran, the Iranian regime will reciprocate, the “moderate” factions will be empowered, the Iranian regime will gradually reform itself, its regional policies will change and it will become a successful regional power abiding by international rules, as Obama explained during an interview on Dec. 20, 2015.
The emergence of Rouhani’s government and the interim nuclear agreement in November 2013 encouraged the Obama administration to pursue its conciliatory approach toward Iran and at the same time, oppose more forcefully the opponents of his Iran policy—at the top of the list being the U.S. Congress. As a result, a more dynamic pro-Iran lobby willing to exploit political divisions in Washington became a full-fledged supporter of the Obama administration and as a result, a practical partnership emerged between them. The administration began questioning the futility of sanctions against Iran even those previously signed by Obama and claimed that they have only pushed Iran to expand its nuclear program. In his weekly address on Apr. 4, 2015, Obama declared that “the sanction always led to Iran making more progress in its nuclear program.”
Then, during a congressional hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry went further and declared that a decade of resolutions and sanctions against Iran have been futile: “You just said decades of resolutions that they abandoned enrichment, what did they get you? What did those decades of resolutions get you? Meanwhile, their program continues to grow. In 2003, my friend, they [Iran] had 164 centrifuges. Now they have 19,000. You know what Zarif said to me? ‘You know what your sanctions have gotten you, is 19,000 [centrifuges].’”
The Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif echoed Obama and Kerry’s remarks. In an interview with NBC on Mar. 4, 2015 he stated: “I think President Obama was right in saying that the sanctions caused Iran to go from less than 200 centrifuges to over 20,000 centrifuges. I think the fact that the United States has recognized the futility of pressure against Iran, the futility of sanctions against Iran, the fact that they have recognized that sanctions don’t work, that pressure don’t work, that threats don’t work, the only way to deal with Iran is to be through respect and through negotiations.”
NIAC and its partners campaigned aggressively against congressional sanctions while promoting the narrative that the Rouhani government and the Obama administration were on the side of peace and moderation and on the other hand, the U.S. Congress members who opposed a nuclear deal favoring Iran, were warmongers who followed the orders of Israel and were, therefore, allied with Iranian hardliners—messaging that was in turn retailed directly by the White House. For example, Bernadette Meehan, the National Security Council spokeswoman called the U.S. Senators who support more sanctions against Iran “warmongers,” while Obama criticized the Congress members who opposed his proposed nuclear deal declaring: “I think it’s somewhat ironic to see some members for Congress wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran.”
Take a step back, and the picture that emerges is a startling one: The White House and the pro-Iran lobby worked together to create an echo chamber to advance a large-scale media campaign designed to overcome widespread opposition to a nuclear deal that was favorable to Iran. A key part of this campaign was the argument the nuclear deal and lifting of sanctions would change Iranian foreign policy and its position toward the US. During a congressional briefing, NIAC Research Director Reza Marashi declared that “Iran is currently seeking to move away from the relationship of animosity it has had with the United States to a state he described as ‘rivalry,’ where mutual interests can be pursued while differences can be managed. Simply put, both sides need each other right now.” In a statementsupporting the nuclear deal, NIAC declared that: “This deal provides the Iranian people with the space to push Iran in the right direction: an Iran that respects human rights and pursues moderate policies internally and externally.”
In a memo published in April 2015 and titled “Truce: Iran, the U.S. and the Middle East After the Nuclear Deal” NIAC promoted this narrative:
The nuclear deal now signals a degree of American acceptance of Iranian power in the region, and if the lifting of sanctions ends Iran’s status as a pariah state, does that mean that Iran will have fewer incentives to play the destabilization card? Such an outcome cannot be ruled out. In fact, if previous patterns hold, Iran is more likely to pursue a less aggressive foreign policy going forward… The first place to look is Iran’s posture toward Israel. Already, prior to reaching a final nuclear deal, Iran’s approach to the Jewish state has changed dramatically since U.S.-Iran diplomacy began in earnest under Rouhani. On the rhetorical level, Iran went from questioning the Holocaust under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to tweeting Rosh Hashanah greetings to the Jewish people worldwide under Rouhani. It is reasonable to expect that this trend will not only continue, but will also be strengthened if a nuclear deal paves the way for a larger U.S.-Iran truce. … Some would argue that the nuclear deal is destabilizing the region and increasing tensions. That is a misdiagnosis.
Yet contrary to NIAC’s claims, the Iranian regime has intensified its holocaust-denying and anti-Jewish hatred. In January 2016, as the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Khamenei published a video titled “Are the Dark Ages Over” on his official website which included one of his speeches from two years ago in which he questions the reality of the Holocaust. In May 2016, Iran held another Holocaust cartoon festival inviting the usual despicable cast of characters from Europe and around the world with the supreme leader sending a message to the organizers of the event thanking and congratulating them.
Regarding NIAC’s claim that the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions would moderate Iranian foreign policy, there is some consensus that Iran feels emboldened to pursue its radical and hegemonic policies in the region. As CENTCOM Commander General Joseph L. Votel testified before the House Armed Service Committee in March 2017, “We have not seen any improvement in Iran’s behavior since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), addressing Iran’s nuclear program, was finalized in July 2015. Iran aspires to be a regional hegemon and its forces and proxies oppose U.S. interests in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria, and seek to hinder achievement of U.S. objectives in Afghanistan and some Central Asian States.”
What is unquestionable here is that NIAC’s activities since 2002 and particularly during the Obama administration eased pressure on the Iranian regime and helped Tehran to advance its strategic goals.