Evolution of Pro-Iran lobby under Obama, from a pressure group to a White House partnerNov 16th, 2016
Hassan Dai, November 16, 2016
Pro-Iran lobby is a coalition of organizations and politicians, led by US corporations and accompanied by an army of pundits and Iran experts that regardless of what Iran is doing, asks the US government to adopt a friendlier policy with Iran and remove sanctions. At the center of this lobby are small Iranian-American organizations that are tied to various factions of the Iranian regime.
On December 18, 2008, shortly after Barack Obama’s victory in the presidential election, the monthly meeting of the “Campaign for a new American policy on Iran” (CNAPI) coalition was held in Washington with the representatives of coalition partners gathering to discuss their lobby efforts for a friendlier policy toward Iran. In this meeting, Patrick Disney, a NIAC director and the coordinator of the coalition 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.”
In 2008-2009, CNAPI comprised nearly forty groups with NIAC coordinating the coalition and its lobby efforts. Some of CNAPI’s internal documents were obtained during a defamation lawsuit involving NIAC. Public documents posted by Ahmadinejad’s office and CNAPI’s documents clearly show that two of its members, the Iran section at Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) directed by a NIAC member Leila Zand and the Campaign against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII), both collaborated with Ahmadinejad’s office. (See also: CASMII and FOR organized “Peace trips” to Tehran.)
As the Obama administration took a conciliatory and occasionally appeasing approach toward Iran, the pro-Iran coalition groups became more influential and during the nuclear negotiations with Iran, the White House collaborated with these groups to influence public opinion and pressure the US Congress to accept the nuclear deal. This partnership was well illustrated in September 2016 when Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes spoke at the NIAC annual conference.
What is pro-Iran lobby?
Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, there have always been political forces in Washington that preach coexistence and friendship with the Iranian regime and ask the administration to follow the example of Nixon’s initiative toward China in the 1970s, which means accepting Iranian influence and hegemony in the region and treating the Iranian Mullahs as genuine partners. On top of Iran’s unconditional allies in the US there is the trade lobby, notably the oil companies.
In the early 1990s, Iran signed a pre-agreement with US Oil Company Conoco for a gas and oil project in Iran, a move designed to encourage US oil giants to lobby the administration to lift economic sanctions. Consequently, US oil companies started a modest lobby campaign to get the green light from the US administration to do business with Iran. In 1997, the so-called reformist Mohammad Khatami became president and launched a charm offensive to soften Western attitudes toward Iran. American business interests grasped this opportunity and the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) launched its lobbying arm called USA*Engage. Together with groups and individuals tied to the Iranian regime, they initiated a large scale campaign in the media, think tanks and Congress in order to change US policy toward Iran and to remove the sanctions.
This lobby needed the presence and support of Iranian-Americans to promote a friendlier policy with Iran and legitimize the anti-sanction lobby. The need to have an “Iranian voice and an “Iranian face” for this anti-sanction lobby, was also shared by the Iranian regime. This common interest helped create several Iranian-American organizations that received simultaneous support from Tehran and the trade lobby in Washington. The most influential amongst them have been the American Iranian Council (AIC) and the National Iranian American Organization (NIAC), led by its founder and President, Trita Parsi.
The campaign by the trade lobby created a favorable environment in which various groups and politicians who for different reasons sought a friendlier policy with Iran became more active and joined forces with the Iran lobby. As a result, a formidable pressure group was created that since 1997, has effectively shaped political discourse and US policy with Iran. Later in the mid-2000s, part of the American left and anti-war organization joined this lobby.
In 2007, a number of these groups formed a coalition called “Campaign for a new American policy on Iran” (CNAPI) which was coordinated by NIAC and brought together USA*Engage (pro-trade lobby), Open Society, two dozen peace and religious organizations, a number of Iran experts and former administration officials and diplomats. Some of CNAPI’s internal documents were obtained during a defamation lawsuit involving NIAC.
In 2010, the coalition partners ceased using the CNAPI name but continued to work together in various forms. A number of lobbyists and former politicians that collaborated with CNAPI are currently active in the “Iran Project”. NIAC continues to play a key role amongst these groups and Ploughshares Fund provide financial support to some of them. During the nuclear negotiations with Iran, these groups worked with the White House to convince public opinion and US Congress in accepting the nuclear deal. (see the footnote)
In brief, the pro-Iran lobby is a coalition of organizations and politicians, led by US corporations and accompanied by an army of pundits and Iran experts that regardless of what Iran is doing, asks the US government to adopt a friendlier policy with Iran. At the center of this lobby are small Iranian-American organizations that are tied to various factions of the Iranian regime.
The “National Iranian American Council” (NIAC) is a pro-Iranian regime organization in Washington that is led by its founder and President Trita Parsi. The Governmental press in Iran considers NIAC the “Iran lobby” in Washington. In April 2008 NIAC filed a defamation lawsuit against one of its critics to break him under the financial burdens of the lawsuit and consequently silence its critics. NIAC lost the lawsuit and was sanctioned for discovery abuses, misleading the court and withholding documents.
The lawsuit obliged NIAC to release a small part of its internal documents which revealed the organization’s ties to Tehran and some of its illicit activities. These documents revealed how NIAC coordinated its lobby with the Iranian ambassador to the UN.
In November 2009, Washington Times ran a front-page article about these documents and explained that “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 Washington Times report continued: “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’.”
Following the Times report, then Arizona Senator Jon Kyl sent an inquiry to the US Attorney general asking to investigate the group’s ties with the Iranian regime.
Pro-Iran lobby during Obama Administration
Misinformation campaign: During the Obama administration, the pro-Iran lobby evolved from a pressure group to a White House partner as President Obama’s Iran policy has been largely based on the views and recommendations put forward by the pro-Iran lobby. Since early 1990s, the pro-Iran lobby has been carrying a misinformation camping to promote false and delusionary assumptions about the nature and intentions of the Iranian regime and nourishes the ill-conceived hope that a moderate will emerge to reform the regime and change its foreign policy. Another aspect of this misinformation campaign is the false assumption that the US and Iran do not have fundamental conflict of interests and they could be strategic partners in the region due to their shared interests and common enemies. The lobby claims the hostilities between the two countries are not the result of Iran’s radical foreign policy but rather, the result of mistrust and misunderstanding that is mainly caused by America’s belligerent attitude toward Iran. The pro-Iran lobby further claims that US animosity and threats against Iran has empowered the hardliners in Iran.
According to the pro-Iran lobby, if the United States adopts a less belligerent attitude toward Iran and gains the trust of Iranian leaders, Iran will reciprocate, the moderate factions will be empowered, the Iranian regime will gradually reform itself and even the human rights situations will improve. Consequently, the Iranian regime’s regional policies will also change and Iran will become a responsible regional power abiding by international rules.
The policy recommendations that result from this campaign are clear: regardless of Iran’s actions, the US should lift sanctions and cease the pressure against Iran, accept Iranian hegemony in the region and assure the Iranian leaders that the US will never undermine the regime and will never support the Iranian people’s struggle against the regime.
Iran popular uprising of 2009: Obama embraced the misinformation campaign by the pro-Iran lobby and followed its policy recommendations. From the onset, he extended a friendly hand toward Iran and sent two letters to the Iranian Supreme Leader. In June 2009, the rigged presidential election in Iran provoked a historic popular movement that gradually morphed to an anti-regime uprising that lasted almost a year and brought the regime to the brink of collapse.
But, Obama ignored this defining moment in Iran’s history. As millions of Iranian demonstrators faced the regime’s brutal crackdown, thousands were arrested, beaten, raped and tortured and hundreds killed, Obama continued his overture toward the regime. Witnessing this, angry demonstrators chanted: “Obama, Obama, are you with them (regime), or with us?”
During the 2009 uprising, NIAC was lobbying the administration and publicly campaigning to prevent any US support to the Iranian people’s historic uprising. NIAC was casting the popular movement as a brawl between factions within the regime and asking the US administration to not take sides. In June 2009 NIAC president Trita Parsi wrote an article titled: “What Obama must do now on Iran” in which he defended Obama’s passive attitude: “Many have argued that the president shouldn’t side with any particular faction in Iran since doing so could backfire… 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 US to stay out of the fight – at least for now.”
Similarly, NIAC’s policy director Patrick Disney wrote another article titled: “On Iran, the Power of Obama’s Silence” and defended the White House position: “For now, the Obama administration is just taking a step back and assessing the situation, and rightly so–at the moment, the only certainty in this entire ordeal is that the more accurate information everyone has, the better. 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.”
Eventually, the regime succeeded in crushing a one year long uprising, a regrettable outcome partly due to the movement’s lack of adequate leadership. The international community’s overall silence, notably the Obama administration’s attitude discouraged the Iranians and emboldened the regime to crush the uprising. The Obama administration’s indifference to the Iranian popular uprising sent a strong signal to the Iranian regime and its lobby partners in the US that the President is deeply committed in engaging and befriending Iran and to attain this goal, he would tolerate and overlook Tehran’s aggressive policies in Iran or across the region.
Rouhani’s presidency and nuclear deal: As the US and European sanctions intensified, the Iranian regime was under immense pressure with social and political tensions continuing to mount in Iran. Consequently, in 2012, Iran accepted to participate in a series of secret meetings with US officials Oman capital, Muscat. In 2013, the Supreme Leader agreed to Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the presidential election. On September 27, 2013, as Rouhani was wrapping up his four day trip to New York, President Obama called him on the phone to have a fifteen minute discussion. The previous day, Secretary of State, John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also made history by meeting one on one for half an hour.
These developments affected the political dynamics in Washington in two way; on the one hand, the pro-Iran lobby became more vocal and on the other hand, gave a new momentum to Obama’s conciliatory approach toward Iran. Obama hoped that after the nuclear deal, Iran could become a successful regional power abiding by international rules, as President Obama explained during an interview on December 20, 2015. In an interview with CBS in May 2015, Obama’s former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates clarified the administration’s doctrine on Iran and declared: “I think that the pursuit of the (nuclear) agreement is based on the President’s hope that over a ten-year period with the sanctions being lifted that the Iranians will become a constructive stakeholder in the international community. That– that as their economy begins to grow again, that– that they will abandon their ideology, their theology, their revolutionary principles, their meddling in various parts of the region. And, frankly, I believe that’s very unrealistic.”
NIAC and its lobby partners promoted this misinformation campaign. In order to push Obama toward more concession to Iranian regime, NIAC claimed that “This deal provides the Iranian people with the space to push Iran in the right direction: an Iran that respects human rights, pursues moderate policies internally and externally, and provides its people with the freedoms and opportunities.” In an article posted on CNN website, NIAC president Trita Parsi argued that the nuclear deal would unleash Iranian moderates: “the deal will help unleash Iran’s vibrant, young (the median age is 28!) and moderate society, which is continuously pushing Iran in a democratic direction.”
Being so eager to reach a deal with Iran, Obama made generous and unnecessary concessions to Iran and begun working with the pro-Iran lobby to advance an unprecedented campaign to influence the public opinion and pressure the Congress to accept the nuclear deal.
*Hassan Dai is an Iranian-American investigative journalist and political analyst specialized in the Iranian regime’s activities in the Middle East and pro-Iran activities in the West. He is the editor of Iranian American Forum.
Watch the video “Iran lobby under Obama, from pressure group to White House partner”
New York Times magazine report about White House echo chamber to influence public opinion on nuclear deal with Iran
Some examples of NIAC’s actions and collaboration with its lobby partners during the nuclear negotiations: