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The Immigrant

Trita Parsi, the second pillar of the U.S. Iran lobby, wants to the be the public face of Iranian-Americans

Lee Smith
February 17, 2010
Trita Parsi appears on CNN on December 28, 2009.(
Trita Parsi appears on CNN on December 28, 2009.(

The is the second in a two-part series. Read the first part here.

Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, wants to be the face of the Iranian-American lobby in Washington. The other pillar of Washington’s Iran lobby, Flynt Leverett and his wife, Hillary Mann Leverett, have accumulated power and influence by executing the insider two-step to perfection: they have drawn close to the repressive power centers of the Iranian regime at the same time that they counsel Washington policymakers to deal with the Iranian regime we have, not the one we want. Parsi, as recently released documents disclose, has nurtured a relationship with regime insiders close to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—the so-called “reformers” in Tehran—who have squared off against the faction favored by the Leveretts, which includes Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the Revolutionary Guard Corps. But Parsi’s story involves not only Washington infighting over the looming conflict in the Persian Gulf but also the equally murky world of diaspora politics and immigrant ambition.

Whether Parsi is a good guy or a bad guy, or simply an immigrant on the make, depends in part on where your political allegiances lie. In November of last year, The Washington Times, a paper typically described as right-wing, published a story arguing that Parsi’s NIAC had violated its nonprofit status and served as a lobbying organization for the Iranian government. The article was sourced to emails between Parsi and other correspondents that had been made available during the discovery process of a libel suit Parsi had brought against the Iranian émigré journalist Hassan Daioleslam, who had claimed that Parsi was close to the regime. They described Parsi’s relationship with Siamak Namazi, an Iranian businessman who was formerly managing director of an Iranian consulting firm called Atieh Bahar, which served as an intermediary for Western companies, especially in the energy and financial sectors, that wanted to do business in Iran. “The Rafsanjani clan controlled access to the oil industry until they were moved out by the Revolutionary Guards,” Daioleslam told me.

“Siamak Namazi is a friend,” Parsi explained to me in an email. “He used to run Atieh Bahar consulting, Iran’s premier consulting firm (a private company). Critics have smeared AB and claimed that they work for the Iranian government and that are part of some fictitious oil-mafia.”

Parsi labeled the story’s author, Eli Lake, as a “neo-conservative activist,” a designation that he characteristically uses to describe his political adversaries; it’s a habit that, in addition to his litigiousness—he has also threatened Voice of America with legal action—indicates a nature sensitive to scrutiny. His critics contend that his name-calling obscures the facts. “Trita tried to dismiss this [lawsuit] by disparaging the defendant,” says Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute. “But it wasn’t the defendant talking in the emails. It was Trita himself.”

Parsi’s reputation around Washington took a hit, but is he really an Iranian agent, as some of his opponents have appeared to suggest?

Trita Parsi, who holds a U.S. green card, came to the United States in 2001 from Sweden, where his family found refuge in 1978 before the full onslaught of the Islamic Revolution. Some of his critics complain that his biography alone compromises his ability to write about the Islamic Republic. “Trita was 4 years old when he left Iran,” says Sheema Kalbasi, an Iranian-American blogger based in the Washington area. “He studied Iran, but he didn’t live under the current regime in the ’80s, like I did.”

An outsider twice over, Parsi found a home in Washington, a city amenable to politically savvy international talent. He earned a doctorate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies under Francis Fukuyama and worked on Capitol Hill for Bob Ney, the former Ohio congressman who went to jail for his role in the Jack Abramoff scandal. From his bleacher seat in Congress, Parsi saw his main chance—to establish an ethnic lobby for Iranian-Americans. Like the Jews, he thought, Iranian-Americans were wealthy and successful, but they lacked a powerful organization that they could use to display their communal clout and aid their homeland. They needed something like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful Washington organ of another American immigrant community.

In 2002, Parsi formed NIAC hoping to give voice not only to the diaspora’s talents and resources but also its growing resentments. “Iranian-Americans are well respected in Los Angeles and throughout California,” says Pooya Dayanim, president of the Iranian-Jewish Public Affairs Committee. “But elsewhere there are Iranian-Americans who feel like they’re looked down upon. They feel as if they’re treated like Arabs.”

In the post-Sept. 11 climate, the timing was perfect for an organization appealing to the ethnic pride and fears of young Iranian-Americans who wanted to feel a connection to Iran—even if, like Parsi, they had little or no firsthand knowledge of the Islamic Republic. NIAC’s recruitment pitch, that the Bush administration was going to drag the United States to war with Iran, also won Parsi support of the antiwar left—one NIAC project was supported by George Soros’s Open Society Institute—as well as a hearing from a Washington policy establishment concerned that President George W. Bush and the neoconservatives were squandering America’s prestige in the Middle East, and putting lucrative commercial arrangements at risk.

Opinion leaders and policymakers in Washington during the first term of the Bush presidency “showed very bad judgment in accepting the analysis of what you might call the Iranian left,” says Reuel Marc Gerecht, an Iran specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a former CIA case officer, and frequent contributor to the New York Times op-ed page. Yet even as it steadily became clear that openness and liberalization were not on Tehran’s agenda, the luster had not yet worn off of then-President Mohammed Khatami’s reform movement. Iranian democrats and émigrés alike still held out hope for a better tomorrow in a country that was crucial to America’s efforts in Iraq—and to the supply of oil from the Persian Gulf.

Parsi’s award-winning 2007 book Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States might most charitably be described as emblematic of the delusionary thinking about Iran that took hold in Washington during the Bush years. The book’s errors and omissions are all in line with Parsi’s optimistic, and untenable, thesis: despite its anti-American and anti-Israeli actions rhetoric, the Islamic Republic is not incorrigible. What Tehran has long wanted, the book argued, is merely a serious negotiating partner in Washington who could help Iran to build fruitful relationships with both the United States and Israel. “These Iranians,” says Gerecht, “badly misjudged the ruling establishment of their own country.”

Parsi was not the only Iran analyst connected to the ruling establishment in Tehran, even as many around Washington were quick to ditch him in the wake of his public troubles. As I discovered in my interviews with Iranian émigrés and Iranian-Americans, it is not just a diverse community, but also a fractious one. “In the Iranian community, everyone accuses everyone else of being a spy,” says Daioeslam. “What harmed Parsi was the documents. He couldn’t deny his relationships with the regime.”

The consensus on Parsi among Washington’s Iran hands and Iranian activists is that he would do anything to have himself front and center. However, ambition is hardly a crime—especially in Washington, where it is a staple regularly inhaled with one’s morning latte at Starbucks. It should also be said that there are certainly worse things to do in life than to give your immigrant community a voice in shaping public policy.

“He wants to empower Iranian-Americans as a civic community,” says Sohrab Ahmari, a Northeastern University law student who moved to the United States from Iran in 1998. “This is really admirable, to model it after how Jewish-Americans are organized. What’s disappointing is what he’s advocating. If the Islamic Republic could hire a lobbying firm, I couldn’t imagine it doing a better job than NIAC.”

One problem may be Parsi’s apparent choice of a model for his lobbying organization. Throughout the Middle East and in Middle Eastern circles in Washington, I am frequently asked about the fantastic power of AIPAC. What this line of questioning betrays is not only a failure to understand how policy is made in Washington, but also the fact that AIPAC reflects not just the material wealth and energy of Jewish-Americans but also the political coherence of the state of Israel. Before the State of Israel was created, there were a number of Jewish organizations competing with each other to be heard in the American capital. It was only after statehood and the larger questions surrounding the state’s existence were resolved that the Jewish-American community consolidated its support in a single mainstream lobbying organization. (In an email, Parsi attempted to explain that AIPAC was not exactly his model for NIAC. “We didn’t create a lobby, we created a 501(c)3 with no initial aim of lobbying,” he wrote. “You may be confusing NIAC with another organization that I was involved in trying to set up, but that organization was never launched. Critics of NIAC have deliberately sought to conflate the two.”)

Compared to the size of Iranian-American community at large, NIAC membership is miniscule, with Parsi claiming 3,000 and other estimates ranging from 500 to 1,000, depending on how “membership” is defined. Yet size is not the main determinant of a lobby’s success. A diaspora lobby designed to support the ethnic homeland only works if there is a coherent state to support, and the Iranian-American community is notoriously divided, comprising representatives of every possible ethnic grouping—including Baha’is, Iranian-Jewish Americans, and Iranian-Armenian Americans—and every political orientation, from monarchists who wish to install the shah’s son to democrats to supporters of the Islamic Republic who have made the Great Satan their home. The only way to circumvent the cacophony of the Iranian-American diaspora is to ignore the fissures in Iranian society that it mirrors, and vouch for a regime that fewer and fewer Iranians—and very few Iranian-Americans—are actually willing to defend.

After the Iranian regime started cracking down on protestors in the wake of the June presidential elections, Parsi was hardly alone in the realization that he was caught on the wrong side of a historic divide. “If you look at the evolution of a lot of these Iran analysts since June the common denominator is that they have friends in jail now,” says Pooya Dayanim. “In October, Genieve Abdo”—an Iran analyst who lived in Tehran as a journalist for several years—“was making fun of the demonstrators. Not anymore.” Parsi wrote a series of articles documenting his growing concern with the Tehran government’s human-rights abuses. “He had to maintain a level of credibility, he could not deny the truth,” explains Dayanim. “His membership pushed him into it. Human rights is one of the few things that Iranian-Americans agree on across the board.”

Parsi counters that human rights was always one of his main priorities. “I believe and have written on the need for a much clearer human rights policy,” he wrote me. “At times there was too much silence from Obama on that front. Only days after the elections, I wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that Obama needed to add the word ‘condemn’ to his vocabulary. And this goes for the international community as a whole, not just the U.S.” Parsi now concludes that sanctions are worthwhile, provided they are leveled against the Revolutionary Guards, or that faction of the regime that has taken control of the entire country.

“I am proud of my accomplishments as an analyst [and] of my work in getting Iranian Americans to participate and contribute to the great American democracy,” Parsi explained in his email. “This is a community that contributes so much, but due to both fear of involvement and lack of education about the American political system, often put themselves on the sidelines.”

For Parsi, a desire to lead his community corrupted his analysis of conditions inside Iran. He misunderstood not only the Iran he wrote about but also the Iranian-Americans that he hoped to represent. Iran’s true Washington lobby is the Leveretts—two American-born former U.S. government officials who were charged with sensitive portfolios affecting the security and welfare of their fellow citizens and then traded their government experience and intellectual credibility for access to the worst elements of a regime that continues to murder its own people in the streets. Washington is still sorting its way through the damage that the Leveretts have done in polluting the debate over Iran policy. And while the Leveretts enjoy their influence in Washington policy-making circles, the Iranian people will continue to pay the price.

Parsi’s dual role—attempting to speak for elements within the Iranian regime and also for Iranian émigrés in the United States—made it hard for him to see conditions inside the Islamic Republic with clarity. But when he was finally compelled to face reality, he did. Trita Parsi should be praised for that, not condemned.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.

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