Trita Parsi, the Iranian-born émigré who moved to the United States in 2001 from Sweden, where his parents found refuge before the Islamic Revolution, should be the toast of Washington these days. As I argued in Tablet magazine several years ago, Parsi is an immigrant who in classic American fashion wanted to capitalize on the opportunity to reconcile his new home and his birthplace. And now he’s done it: The founder and president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the tip of the spear of the Iran Lobby, has won a defining battle over the direction of American foreign policy. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action not only lifts sanctions on Iran, a goal Parsi has fought for since 1997, but also paves the way for a broader reconciliation between Washington and Tehran across the Middle East.
In Washington, to have the policies you advocate implemented with the full backing of the president counts as a huge victory. Winning big like this means power as well as access to more money, which flows naturally to power and augments it—enhancing reputations and offering the ability to reward friends and punish enemies. And yet, Parsi (who declined comment for this story) has got to be frustrated that very few in the halls of American power—either in government or in the media—are celebrating the Iran lobby for its big win. It seems the only thing people can talk about is the big loser in this fight over Middle East policy—the pro-Israel lobby, led by AIPAC. It’s as if Parsi and NIAC had nothing to do with the Obama Administration’s decision to move closer to Iran while further distancing itself from Israel.
“It’s a huge win for NIAC,” said one Iranian-American analyst who requested anonymity. “Every other part of Iranian-American advocacy—from the Mujahedin-e Khalq, to the washed-up old monarchists—is useless, and then in comes Trita and he’s slick, presentable, and knows how to build an impressive network.” So, why is the rise of the Iran Lobby both Washington’s biggest and also its least-heralded success story of the past six years?
In part, Parsi and NIAC’s relative anonymity is the work of a White House that would rather pretend that there is no Iran Lobby, in accordance with the standard Beltway wisdom that a “lobby” is any group of people who advocate things that you are opposed to (lobbies that advocate things you are for are known as “supporters”). But the White House surely knows better, in part because so many friends and graduates of the Iran Lobby now staff key Iran-related government posts. The White House’s Iran desk officer, Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, for example, is a former NIAC employee. NIAC’s advisory board includes two former U.S. diplomats, Thomas Pickering, a former ambassador to Israel, and John Limbert, who was held hostage by the revolutionary regime in 1979. Past speakers at NIAC leadership conferences include Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser Colin Kahl, and the White House’s Middle East Director Rob Malley. Other past speakers from the political realm include: Robert Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO; PJ Crowley, State Deptartment spokesperson under Hillary Clinton; Hans Blix, former director general of the IAEA. Other reputable names include figures like Aaron David Miller from the Wilson Center, Robert Pape from the University of Chicago, and Suzanne Maloney from the Brookings Institution.
Indeed, the impressive roster of speakers at NIAC events is evidence of Parsi’s assiduous cultivation of friendly contacts, both here and in Iran. The biggest NIAC booster in academia is the author of The Israel Lobby himself, Harvard University’s Stephen Walt. The in-house portion of Parsi’s network also includes public intellectuals, like Iranian-American authors Hooman Majd and Reza Aslan, as well as figures from Iranian business concerns, like Atieh Bahar, who are reportedly close to the Iranian regime, especially former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
According to a deeply informed video series posted earlier this month by Iranian-American activist Hassan Dai, Parsi has partnered with Atieh Bahar since the very beginning of his career as an Iran lobbyist in order to promote a pro-trade agenda, which of course will inevitably help the regime. (In 2008, Parsi sued Dai, claiming he had “defamed them in a series of articles and blog posts claiming that they had secretly lobbied on behalf of the Iranian regime in the United States.” The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found in 2012 the work of NIAC, which wasn’t registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, “not inconsistent with the idea that he was first and foremost an advocate for the regime.”) “Parsi believed that what stood between U.S.-Iran trade and dialogue,” said Dai, “was AIPAC.”
NIAC not only modeled itself after AIPAC, Dai said, it waged a crusade against it. “Back in 2004 Parsi gave a talk to European ambassadors saying that Israel and AIPAC stood between better relations between the United States and Iran. That turned into his dissertation at Johns Hopkins and later his  book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the US.”
As it happens, Parsi was able to tap into a pool of support for his ideas. According to NIAC’s financial statement, the majority of the organization’s money comes from community support, while a portion comes from foundations, like the Ploughshares Fund, which has spent lots of money to influence U.S. policy toward Iran—“millions of dollars,” according to Michael Rubin writing for Commentary, “to pro-administration groups to support whatever Iran deal came out of Vienna.”
Most important, of course, Parsi found common cause with a White House that believed the same things he did: The United States and Iran should be closer, and all that was preventing rapprochement was Israel and AIPAC. “NIAC didn’t really need to write their talking points anymore,” said Dai. “Because they were coming from the White House.”
To push through the Iran deal, the White House, including the president himself, waged a brutal campaign against the prime minister of Israel and the pro-Israel community, even, some have argued, accusing JCPOA opponent Sen. Chuck Schumer of dual loyalty. Parsi, some of whose anti-Israel sentiments have previously been documented, followed suit. Most recently, he suggested that the Associated Press had printed an Israeli forgery of an IAEA agreement with Iran that allowed the Islamic Republic to self-inspect its Parchin military base. When AP reporters and others on Twitter challenged Parsi’s absurd allegation slandering a trusted Western news source, the Iran lobby chief backed down—but not before he’d put his obsession with Israel and Jewish power on full display.
NIAC, whose direct expenditure of a little over a million dollars is a tiny fraction of AIPAC’s Iran deal campaign budget, won because it was aligned with the White House. And instead of boasting and posturing about his power and top-level access, as AIPAC is wont to do, Parsi understood his role. Like J Street, NIAC was cast to play second banana to the President’s star turn and stay close to the White House and make the case to journalists and other intellectuals who weren’t already sold on the idea of rapprochement with Iran—and on the idea that Israel is a big problem for the United States.
The paradox is that Parsi deserves lots of credit for his victory, but he can’t cash his checks too publicly—because the American public doesn’t like Iran. Which in turn points up a major difference between the pro-Israel lobby and the pro-Iran lobby—both of which, I want to add, contrary to critics on both the left and the right, make entirely legitimate use of the American democratic system to advocate for their respective points of view.
Where NIAC differs from AIPAC is in its relation to American public opinion. AIPAC has never been about selling access to the Israeli economy: In fact, AIPAC piggy-backed on the huge well-spring of affection that the American public has for Israel in order to establish itself as a power in Washington. If Americans want to invest in an IT firm in Herzliya, or a gift shop in Tzfat, donating money to AIPAC is unlikely to be of much help: They’re free to take their chances and fight through the red tape. Nor is it clear that pursuing exciting economic opportunities in Israel has ever been a particular motivating force for pro-Israel activism. The pro-Israel lobby never sold anything except the opportunity for Americans—Jews, evangelical Christians, and mainstream Democrats and Republicans alike—to feel even better about supporting something they already felt good about, for personal, ethnic, ideological, religious, sentimental, and other such reasons.
The pro-Iran lobby on the other hand has no real base of popular support in America: Many Iranians in America are in fact deeply opposed to the regime in Tehran, and see NIAC as a regime tool. What NIAC has to offer instead, like the Saudi lobby before it, is access, which is a big reason why Parsi has been fighting sanctions for nearly two decades. For an Iran Lobby to have any heft, it needs to be able to deliver the goods to its supporters. With sanctions, the Iran Lobby has been largely crippled, because it has very little to offer: It was able to accumulate the power it has now only because the Administration clearly signaled its desire to do business with Iran, thereby offering NIAC supporters at least some mathematical expectation of a future payout. Now, if the JCPOA gets through Congress, that payout is likely to be tremendous, as the Iran Lobby will be able to help broker access to anything and everything in Iran—from industry, to schools, to opportunities for journalists and academics, etc.—which will in turn make NIAC and the Iran Lobby that much more powerful.
One of the chief ironies of the ongoing debate over the Iran deal is that both defenders and detractors of a supposedly all-powerful “Israel Lobby” have been wasting their breath over an entity that has notably failed to affect U.S. policy on a single issue of major concern over the entire course of Obama’s 6-year Presidency—a record of unmitigated failure that would clearly condemn it to the black hole of Beltway irrelevance if not for the bizarre imaginative hold, and political utility, of the myth of a powerful conspiracy of Jews who secretly rule the planet. Or perhaps it’s not an irony at all. Some of the loudest detractors of the “Israel Lobby” are in fact paid staffers and partisans of the Iran Lobby—an entity that, unlike the Israel Lobby, has succeeded in radically altering U.S. foreign policy, with the help of the President and his advisors. Seen from a certain angle, the Iran Lobby has pulled off the neat trick of using the specter of the Israel Lobby to shift U.S. policy away from Israel and toward Iran—while actually succeeding at the same dark arts that it blames the Jews for employing. The Iran lobby used a combination of lobbying, donations, propaganda, and back-door personal connections to top policy-makers to radically alter American foreign policy, and align the United States with an oppressive authoritarian regime that is destabilizing the Middle East.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).