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Washington’s Weirdest Think Tank

Led by Trita Parsi and backed by Charles Koch and George Soros, the Quincy Institute seeks to redefine the contours of American foreign policy in the Middle East, China—and beyond

by
Armin Rosen
April 28, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

When the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft launched in 2019, its founders chose a name that would connect the group to a primordial era of U.S. foreign policy. Although John Quincy Adams was hardly an isolationist—he pursued territorial expansion and argued for America’s direct interests in Latin America as secretary of state and later as president—his 1821 formulation that the United States “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy” has become a catchphrase for those who believe Washington has lost all sense of proportion and reality in its dealings with the rest of the world.

According to its application for tax exemption filed with the Internal Revenue Service in July 2019, which Tablet has obtained, Quincy’s purpose would be “to educate the public about ‘restraint,’ a foreign policy grand strategy developed by interdisciplinary academic thought-leaders,” and to support scholars who “generally argue that in regions where the US possesses vital interests, it should lead with diplomacy.” The institute’s titular director and president is Andrew Bacevich, a historian, former U.S. Army colonel, and a widely respected if sometimes overwrought proponent of the idea that a military-industrial complex has hijacked American society. The IRS document identifies Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council until 2018, as another one of Quincy’s co-founders and as its executive vice president. The tax exemption application lists Parsi’s estimated compensation at $275,000 a year, compared with $50,000 for Bacevich—a fair indication of who is actually running Washington’s weirdest and most intriguing foreign policy shop.

Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and one of the elder statesmen of the realist movement in American foreign policy, told me he was “part of the group consulted about [Quincy’s] formation,” though he has no affiliation with the institute. “I think the main organizer was Trita Parsi, and perhaps that was a product of his disappointment as head of NIAC,” Freeman recalled. “I think he probably thought: How can I play a role in trying to shake things loose a little bit, not particularly on Iran, but generally.” Freeman said Parsi described his future organization as an “‘action tank,’ meaning that it would comment on contemporary foreign policy issues in a way that punctured familiar stereotypes and narratives.”

Lawrence Wilkerson, a Quincy nonresident fellow who is himself a retired Army colonel and served as Colin Powell’s chief of staff during his time as secretary of state, recalls that Parsi approached him at a NIAC-related meeting in New York during the summer of 2018. Parsi had only recently announced his departure after 16 years of leading the Iranian-American activist group he founded, and said he was working on launching a new foreign policy organization, with a scope beyond U.S.-Iranian relations.

“He wanted to do something that would be national, that would be across the country, even international,” Wilkerson told me. “And it certainly has international implications, to stop the empire from trying to establish hegemony over every rock in the world.” According to Wilkerson, Parsi entered “a sort of study, analytical period, to figure out how one would do this, whether he could get the money for it, achieving some of the money, and then having a meeting in New York.”

The meeting Wilkerson referred to was a donor and stakeholder retreat held at the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, New York, at some point in mid-2019. Wilkerson told me he encountered a diverse group at the gathering that included “flaming liberals,” “Bernie Sanders and AOC types,” and “the vice president of the Charles Koch Institute.” While roughly $500,000 each in initial funding came from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and the Charles Koch Institute, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF)—which in recent years has plowed millions of dollars into backing the Iran nuclear deal and advancing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel—has also given $350,000 to Quincy, along with some $335,000 to NIAC, Parsi’s former group. Stephen Heintz, RBF’s president, is now on Quincy’s board.

Much of Quincy’s work, especially on China and the Syria conflict, would appear to clash with the Open Society Foundations’ liberal internationalist ethos and emphasis on human rights abroad. Quincy’s steely pragmatism toward the persecution of Uyghurs, the future of Tibet, and the survival of the Assad regime hardly aligns with Soros’ well-known belief in civil society as the ultimate hedge against tyranny. Five sources, all of them involved in the Washington foreign policy ecosystem, told me that some within Open Society are queasy about aspects of Quincy’s work and are second-guessing their financial support for the group.

But if Quincy’s stances on China and Syria might clash with much of Open Society’s other activities, there is plenty of agreement on Iran, one of the most politically divisive overseas challenges the Biden administration faces. According to Open Society’s online record of past grants, Soros’ philanthropy has given money to several other organizations involved in the effort to rescue President Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal, including $100,000 to NIAC’s political action committee in 2019, $125,000 to J Street between 2017 and 2019, $115,000 to the Arms Control Association between 2018 and 2019, and $158,000 to the Ploughshares Fund. Dwarfing this support is the $11.7 million Open Society gave to the International Crisis Group (ICG) between 2016 and 2019, when the organization was mostly led by Robert Malley, President Joe Biden’s Iran envoy and the Obama administration’s lead negotiator on the nuclear deal. Like Quincy, ICG receives money from both Soros and from Koch, who announced a $2.4 million grant to the organization in January 2021.

Normalization with Iran is a genuine point of convergence between the far left, the realist right, and elements of the Democratic Party mainstream.

Normalization with Iran is a genuine point of convergence between the far left, the realist right, and elements of the Democratic Party mainstream, which might explain why so many Quincy-related figures have built their careers around closer relations between Washington and Tehran. The group’s board includes not just Heintz, who helped launch a trailblazing effort within elite circles to push for diplomacy with Iran beginning in 2002, but also former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Pickering, a one-time NIAC advisory board member who emerged as a leading public supporter of the Iran deal, testifying before Congress on its behalf—while failing to disclose that he was also a paid consultant for Boeing, which was then eyeing a $25 billion aircraft sale to Iran guaranteed under the deal. Quincy’s board also includes Francis Najafi, an Arizona-based Iranian American businessman whose foundation donated $465,000 to NIAC between 2010 and 2018. Adam Weinstein, a Quincy research fellow, is NIAC’s former senior law and policy analyst. Suzanne DiMaggio, Quincy’s board chair, is a private-sector diplomat known for organizing closed-door conferences between American academics and former officials and their counterparts from enemy countries like North Korea and Iran. DiMaggio has pursued these so-called “Track II” dialogues from positions at the New America Foundation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, roles which were also funded by grants from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

“The way they would phrase it to me is, we think there’s an overlap of interests, and we know the Trita Parsi crew well,” one foreign policy scholar told me of Open Society’s support for Quincy. Several senior staff from Open Society knew Parsi from the Iran Strategy email list, organized in the early 2010s by Joe Cirincione, then head of the Ploughshares Fund, a group that dispersed grants to research institutes, public affairs organizations, and media outlets to advance Obama’s Iran diplomacy (Cirincione is currently a distinguished nonresident fellow at Quincy, which includes Ploughshares in the $50,000-$99,000 donor tier on its website). The list was a high-powered group—at times in the early 2010s Malley was a member, as was Colin Kahl, Biden’s eventual national security advisor as vice president and his current nominee for the No. 3 position at the Pentagon. Parsi was one of the more active members of the list, and of the broader infrastructure of public messaging organized through Ploughshares under the heading of its Iran Strategy project. The overlap between Open Society and the “Parsi crew” now also extends to Quincy’s staff: Lora Lumpe, Quincy’s CEO, was an advocacy director for Open Society when the organization was active in backing the Obama administration’s Iran policy.

Quincy has supported the Biden administration’s nascent efforts to revive the nuclear deal, while also criticizing the president’s team for not going far enough. The group can give the impression of being merely the next stage in Iran normalization advocacy that Parsi—who was raised in Sweden and previously worked for its United Nations mission in New York—pioneered over the first two decades of his checkered career in the United States. But that would be too narrow a read on the organization and its possible larger purpose. Is Quincy, in Parsi’s description to the Boston Globe, a “transpartisan” joining of right and left, launched by substantial contributions from George Soros and Charles Koch, marking an alliance of seemingly polar opposites in the fight against U.S. militarism? Is it reputation-laundering for Koch, who became the “dark money” boogeyman of decent liberals everywhere thanks to reporting from the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer and campaigning from organizations like the Center for American Progress? Is it a hard-left beachhead in Washington, a venue to organize and amplify critics of the liberal order who see little difference between Democrats and Republicans on foreign policy?

In other words, is the Quincy Institute a high-profile sanctuary for dissident voices in the Washington foreign policy debate? Or is it a three-ring circus of governmental, academic, and think tank washouts, funded by two megalomaniacal billionaires and led by a man alleged to be a cheerleader for a hostile foreign government?

While Quincy may turn out to be a new Iran lobby in waiting, the Iran issue is also a useful vehicle for Quincy’s disparate funders, scholars, and activists to bring about a transformation in how America views itself and its role in the world. Iran isn’t America’s most pressing foreign challenge, but it’s the one on which a policy reversal would most dramatically signal a new era in U.S. policy. A United States that is no longer enemies with Iran is likely to see its entire global posture through a much different lens than whatever its current one might be.

Over the years, Parsi has faced down repeated scandals, accusations, and blunders to continue presenting himself as mediating between these two rival governments, making himself out to be a pivotal figure in the approaching rethink of U.S. foreign policy. He has never actually done much to advance real diplomatic ties between Washington and Tehran—“Track IIs” are of limited use to the U.S. government in its communications with the Iranian regime, which has a U.N. mission and a diplomatic interest section on American soil—but Parsi’s self-manufactured appearance as a one-man clearinghouse for an impending U.S.-Iranian thaw still streamlines channels of funding, messaging, and public attention. The skills needed to playact so convincingly on an international scale aren’t the usual attributes of scholars or even most activists. But they do help explain some of Quincy’s peculiarities, and the role it wants to play in solving what it sees as Washington’s problems.

“We’ll be a failure if in 10 years, we’re still criticizing,” Parsi told the Boston Globe in 2019 of Quincy. “In 10 years, we want to be driving the bus.”

The Quincy Institute fills a real and, in retrospect, obvious gap in the Washington think tank environment, which helps explain why Parsi and his co-founders were successful in assembling funding and other forms of support for the group. Believers in some aspect of realism or strategic restraint could be found at a number of D.C. policy shops and throughout academia—there were the so-called “progressive realists” at the mainstream Center for a New American Security, the anti-imperialists at the leftist Center for Policy Studies, the James Baker-nostalgic right-realists at the Center for the National Interest, and the skeptics of foreign entanglement at the libertarian Cato Institute. But until Quincy, no single organization had tried to unite or organize them.

“While I haven’t heard this specific analogy made by the Quincy people,” Stephen Metz, a professor at the U.S. Army War College and a nonresident fellow at Quincy wrote to me in an email, “I think they want to play the role that Heritage played for the conservative movement in the 1970s and 1980s—take what they saw as growing support for a body of thought—for Heritage it was free market conservatism and for Quincy, global restraint—and sort of intellectually put some meat on the bones.”

Max Abrahms, a professor at Northeastern University and a nonresident fellow at Quincy, explained the pre-Quincy market gap to me somewhat differently: “I’m very hostile to think tanks and I think that understanding that hostility is important for understanding the Quincy Institute.” In 2003, not long after receiving his graduate degree in international affairs from Oxford, Abrahms took a fellowship at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he claims he “was literally tasked with writing pro-war op/eds. There would be meetings about how we could sort of sell the Iraq War.” In the runup to the U.S.-led invasion, Abrahms became “aware that there was this sort of bifurcation in terms of predictions between the policy community and the academics. And I said to myself, I’m gonna pay very close attention to see who gets this right.”

The divide between academics and think tankers is an underappreciated subplot in U.S. foreign policy discourse: It exists in part because the think tanks, alleged to be captive to interventionist or partisan agendas, are thought to have a disproportionate impact on policy and on how the media frames America’s relationship with events overseas. The truth is harder to parse. Think tanks are often most powerful as external validators of decisions an administration has already made, or as employment programs for the party out of power, than as shapers of policy. But their perceived guardianship of foreign policy groupthink does help explain the appeal of an institutional critic like Quincy, which has tried to position itself as a truth-teller within a fundamentally corrupt industry. “You know in the media, they very often interview a whole bunch of different think tank people and it makes it seem as if each individual is its own data point,” says Abrahms. “But in reality, they’re very often just interviewing some person who works down the hall. They’re eating kabobs together at lunch at [D.C.-area restaurant] Moby Dick’s.”

For the past 20 years, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been seen as ultimate proof that the think tank-abetted system of policymaking is a failure. For critics, examples have only accumulated since then: The U.S.-led intervention in Libya came at no real human cost to the United States but destabilized much of North Africa, while U.S. deployments to Syria and Afghanistan have become such a permanent part of America’s strategic architecture that not even direct orders from then-President Donald Trump succeeded in ending them.

Supporters believe Quincy seeks to rebalance the foreign policy debate. “There have been strategic alliances for decades between liberals and neocons, so why not amongst their enemies?” asked Quincy nonresident fellow Samuel Moyn, a professor at Yale University who has written several books on the history of human rights, in a Zoom interview. “Even the liberal internationalist foreign policy-neoconservative alliance is a left-right alliance. So that fact alone can’t be problematic.” Moyn says that Quincy’s range of left- and right-leaning figures share “a commonality around querying the purposes of dominance, whether it’s military or not, in part because of the costs involved.”

Moyn, who described himself as part of the political left, came to his critique of what he sees as the U.S. foreign policy consensus partially from personal experience within the policy apparatus. In the late 1990s, Moyn worked on the Europe desk at the National Security Council under current Secretary of State Antony Blinken. His time at the NSC included the American-led NATO bombing campaign in Serbia in response to Slobodan Milošević’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians, an event that, as Moyn put it, “certainly had the power of example for people who thought that they could send force for humanitarian ends and have it work out.”

For Moyn, the potency of the example was exactly the problem, as it fed an unexamined bipartisan belief that American global hegemony is not only necessary but inherently moral. Realists on both the American right and left believe this kind of arrogance has weakened and isolated the United States while destabilizing large swaths of the globe. “The narrative has got money and business plans behind it, and what Quincy has is reason,” Chas Freeman told me. “What’s the efficacy of reason in the modern age? To be determined.”

Overturning an impoverished policy consensus that has wrecked vast regions of the world sounds like an exercise in idealism, even if the larger mission is grounded in a realist view of foreign affairs. But the Quincy brand of idealism is not proving infectious. “Trans-partisanship” aside, Quincy has made no real inroads with Republicans, among whom Parsi is a conversation-ender. The challenge can even extend to the other side of the political spectrum, where Parsi is also sometimes regarded with wariness. “He is an activist, not an analyst,” Peter Juul, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, told me. “His analysis goes to further his activism. That’s what’s in the driver’s seat.”

“The guy is basically an ideologue, and he is pushing a very focused agenda, but the agenda has to do with representing a perspective of a certain wing of the Iranian government,” Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, said to me of Parsi. “Why anyone would make him the executive vice president of a supposedly American foreign policy association doesn’t make any sense. It is to announce that you are compromised from the outset, that you are basically nonserious, and that you don’t understand the implications of what you are doing.”

The guy is basically an ideologue, and he is pushing a very focused agenda, but the agenda has to do with representing a perspective of a certain wing of the Iranian government.

Before mellowing into a Washington operator whose persistence, personality, networking, and perceived usefulness made him a permanent fixture in a city where he’s widely distrusted, Trita Parsi began his public career as an Iranian nationalist. In the mid-1990s, Parsi was the rare diaspora Iranian whose fervor extended to supporting the country’s theocratic dictatorship against the perceived encroachments and temptations of the West. “They died for You and me,” Parsi wrote in a Google group in 1996, referring to the Iran-Iraq war dead. “Our brothers and sisters did not die for us so we could marry an american and call our child Betty-Sue or Joey, they did not die so we could speak english to our children ... there is no substitute for Iran!” He fretted in another message to the group that Americans “demand assimilation” from immigrants of foreign cultures. In the same Google group in 1997, Parsi wrote a kind of open letter to Kenneth Timmerman, a former journalist and founder of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran: “Your organisation is nothing else but a facade, a facade to make it seem as if Iranians support the US and Israel’s stance towards the IRI [Islamic Republic of Iran]. By your name, I suspect that you are a Jew.”

It’s unclear whether the dark suspicions on display in these messages—written when Parsi was a graduate student in his mid-20s—reflect his current views, but he did exhibit similar compulsiveness later in his career. In 2008, the National Iranian American Council, which Parsi founded in 2002, sued Seid Hassan Daioleslam, an Arizona-based critic of the group, accusing him of libel for claiming that NIAC operated as the Washington lobby for the Iranian regime. Daioleslam was granted discovery in his defense of the lawsuit, unearthing a wealth of information about NIAC’s founding and Parsi’s contacts with officials in both the Iranian and U.S. governments, including extensive email between Parsi and Javad Zarif, now Iran’s foreign minister. Daioleslam, who changed his last name to Dai after becoming a U.S. citizen in 2013, has generously shared this documentary record with journalists, including with Tablet.

In the course of dismissing the suit, Judge John Bates cited NIAC’s “inexcusable” and “indefensible” failure to produce emails during the discovery process, found that one document had been “intentionally altered,” and cited 82 instances in which references to “lobbying” had been scrubbed from documents Daioleslam’s legal team had requested. The dismissal meant that accusing NIAC of stealth lobbying for Tehran was henceforth a nonlibelous point of analysis.

Crucial to understanding Parsi—and perhaps the broader Washington discourse from which Quincy emerged—is that this humiliation didn’t impact his rise. Instead, the publicity and pugnaciousness only raised his profile. When it came time for finding an Iranian American communal validator for Obama’s nuclear deal, Parsi’s past as an alleged regime mouthpiece eager to sue his critics into submission didn’t disqualify him. During Obama’s second term, Parsi visited the White House some 33 times.

Parsi’s first job in activism was as development director for the American-Iranian Congress, then the only organization pushing for reconciliation between Washington and Tehran. In 2001, when Parsi began working for AIC, the group was largely funded by oil companies eager to access the Iranian market. Hooshang Amirahmadi, the group’s founder and a professor at Rutgers, told me he helped Parsi obtain a U.S. work visa, and that he introduced the young activist to Zarif, then Iran’s ambassador to the U.N.

By the mid-2000s, Parsi had left AIC to form NIAC and was juggling a number of other responsibilities. He wrote reports from Washington for Atieh Bahar, a consulting firm with extensive business in Iran and ties to the clique surrounding Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the country’s reform-minded president in the 1990s. Parsi also served as an adviser to Congressman Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, at a time when Ney became perhaps the most forward-leaning member of Congress on pushing for closer ties between the United States and Iran. In 2002, Parsi listed a house.gov email address on a memo outlining his vision for a future Iranian-American lobbying group. He began work on a Ph.D. thesis at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, based in Washington, which he completed in 2006, and which still allows him to present himself as a dispassionate analyst of global events in establishment outlets like Foreign Affairs. At Hopkins, Parsi’s thesis advisor was Francis Fukuyama, the bestselling author of The End of History and the Last Man, who was often tagged as a Reaganite idealist and even a neocon. Parsi also asked Zbigniew Brzezinski to join his dissertation committee, thus linking his impending credential to one of the giants of U.S. foreign policy.

Another scholar who helped oversee Parsi’s studies was Charles Doran, the respected originator of the neorealist power cycle theory of state relations. A version of Parsi’s Ph.D. dissertation, which used this theory to analyze the relationship between Iran and Israel, was later published in 2008 as Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, a book arguing that Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) formed the primary obstacles to America’s normalization with Iran. (AIPAC was one of Parsi’s obsessions, and a group whose activities were the focus of newsletters he wrote from Washington for Atieh Bahar.) The book was unique in quoting both Iranian and Israeli defense and intelligence officials by name, as Parsi made at least one trip to the Jewish state in the course of his research.

“This is a remarkable thing,” noted Doran when I spoke with him in early 2021. “You don’t have the respect of the two sides very often. You just can’t get it. And he got it.” Doran says that Parsi wasn’t just a dogged researcher but also “very politically sensitive.” When I asked Doran what he meant by this, he cited Lyndon Johnson’s famous self-assessment as a way of describing Parsi: “When somebody comes through the door of the Oval Office, before they get halfway, I know what they want.”

As Doran recalled, Parsi’s thesis stood in direct opposition to the ideas espoused by Stephen Walt, the future co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy who, like his writing partner, John Mearsheimer, is now a Quincy nonresident senior fellow. Contra Walt’s emphasis on ideological clashes between implacable foes, the power cycle theory argues that the nature of a government, or the ideas that a regime claims to believe in, matter less than shifting differences in the relative strength of enemy states. Applied to Israel and Iran, as in Parsi’s book, power cycle analysis has the effect, intended or not, of downplaying the relevance of the Iranian regime’s revisionist and theocratic mission in its decades-long conflict with Israel. In Parsi’s interpretation, it is the geographically inevitable rivalry between two regional powers, and not the antisemitic, millenarian theocracy enshrined by the 1979 revolution, that explains why Tehran would be involved in, say, bombing a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

The Daioleslam case revealed several instances in which Parsi used his Hill connections and position as NIAC’s leader to prove his worth to his most senior Iranian government contact. In 2006, Parsi attempted to broker meetings between Javad Zarif and members of Congress. In 2008, Parsi tried to arrange meetings in Europe between members of Congress, other U.S. officials, and senior deputies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then the homophobic, Holocaust-denying president of Iran.

Meanwhile, the career of Parsi’s former boss, Congressman Bob Ney, imploded when he was implicated in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. At least some of Ney’s graft related to attempted circumvention of U.S. sanctions on Iran. Federal prosecutors found that during a 2003 trip to London, Ney accepted tens of thousands of dollars in casino chips from Fouad al-Zayat, a Syrian businessman who co-owned an aviation company seeking a U.S. sanctions exemption in order to facilitate the sale of a presidential aircraft to the Iranian government. Al-Zayat effectively acted as the Iranian military’s buyer in the transaction (the regime later sued him in a British court for failing to produce the aircraft). Ney pleaded guilty to accepting various favors from al-Zayat, Abramoff, and others in late 2006 and served 17 months in prison.

There’s no evidence that Parsi, who often presented himself as an adviser to Ney on Iran-related affairs during this period, was aware of Ney’s trip to London or its purpose. But in the discovery process of NIAC’s lawsuit against him, Daioleslam uncovered documentation showing that Parsi had been in touch with two other men involved in the scandal. According to Newsweek, Ney’s felonious trip had been arranged by Roy Coffee and former Ney chief of staff David DiStefano, who were the Washington lobbyists for al-Zayat’s American business partner, a man also looking to import U.S.-built aircraft parts to Iran. (DiStefano and Coffee were never charged with anything. In a lengthy statement published in D Magazine in 2006, Coffee claimed they were never the target of any investigation.) Parsi sent Coffee and DiStefano an October 2002 memo titled “Towards the Creation of an Iranian-American Lobby,” which Daioleslam shared with Tablet. Their names and biographies also appeared in a 2003 document, which Daioleslam gave to Tablet, outlining in detail the mission and organizational structure of Parsi’s plan for a new Iranian-American lobby. The memo strongly implied that the two Hill veterans were consulted for Parsi’s venture, a legislative pressure group closely resembling NIAC’s eventual political action committee. Such were Parsi’s allies as he built his early career.

From an early point, Parsi had positioned himself as essential to improving U.S.-Iranian relations. Treacherous Alliance includes a long analysis of the so-called Grand Bargain document, a supposed road map to U.S.-Iranian normalization that Parsi, Ney, and others treated as an authentic Iranian government product, even though in March 2006, nearly two years before the book was published, Zarif told Parsi in an email, which Daioleslam obtained and shared with Tablet, that the Grand Bargain “had come through an intermediary from [U.S. official Richard] Armitage. … The claims and counterclaims about the source of the proposals and motivations of intermediaries remain a mystery for me.” But the document tapped into a cherished dream of both the Democratic and Republican political establishments: full U.S. divestment from a 25-year-old conflict with a faraway Middle Eastern power.

Whatever their emigre parents thought about the Khomeinist regime, there were plenty of young Iranian Americans who saw NIAC as the only real political voice in their community and who were eager to intern and work for the organization. Parsi even caught the attention of the U.S. intelligence apparatus: According to two sources active in U.S.-Iran policy at the time, Parsi spoke at at least one event organized by the CIA’s National Intelligence Council in the late 2000s. According to an email that Daioleslam obtained during his defense of the NIAC lawsuit, think tank and nonprofit executive Steve Clemons discussed Parsi’s work with George Soros at a September 2006 dinner at Zarif’s New York residence.

As he rose in prominence, Parsi was increasingly accused of acting as the Iranian regime’s lobbyist in Washington. Attendees at the 2015 nuclear talks in Switzerland recall frequently seeing Parsi with the Iranian delegation. But viewed from another perspective, Parsi’s connections to Iran are actually surprisingly faint. Parsi appears to have traveled to Iran only once or perhaps twice in the 2000s. And his ties to the regime were largely through one official: Javad Zarif.

“Anything Trita writes comes from Zarif,” says Amirahmadi, who says he introduced the two in the early 2000s. “Trita doesn’t have an independent mind.”

A former senior U.S. intelligence official had a similar read on Parsi. “When you speak with Trita Parsi you are in essence hearing the voice of Javad Zarif,” the source told me. “In that anyone can get Zarif’s positions by following his social media, Parsi’s work adds little insight but does reinforce those positions using U.S. media.”

In Persian-language television interviews, and again when we spoke, Amirahmadi has suggested that it was Zarif—with whom the Rutgers professor had been friendly for two decades—who recommended that Parsi launch an organization like NIAC. “The bottom line of it is that Zarif wanted this organization and he developed it,” Amirahmadi told me. In cultivating Parsi as one of his primary U.S. contacts, Zarif helped create someone who stood at the center of a burgeoning network of donors and activists—someone who could remain useful far into the future, even if his work wasn’t nearly as central to U.S.-Iranian affairs as either his supporters or his enemies liked to claim.

In its first couple of years in business, the Quincy Institute hasn’t been able to escape the contradictions embodied in Parsi. At times, Quincy operates like a steady and boring policy shop satisfied with the slow work of making incremental headway in a crowded Washington thought environment. At the same time, it has committed errors of speed and inattention characteristic of the kind of activist enterprises Parsi has led for most of his career.

If “responsibility” and “realism” are Quincy’s taglines for the kinds of policies it wishes to promote, there is often something notably unbalanced about the policies themselves and the way they are presented. In early 2021, Responsible Statecraft, Quincy’s web publication, posted and then deleted an article by former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who in addition to flying to Baghdad to stand in solidarity with Saddam Hussein shortly before the U.S. invasion, was convicted of exposing himself to a police officer posing as a 15-year-old girl on the internet in 2011.

Quincy has committed errors of speed and inattention characteristic of the kind of activist enterprises Parsi has led for most of his career.

The website has published critiques of notable human rights advocates: Quincy research director Eli Clifton wrote an article alleging that Masih Alinejad, a leading Iranian feminist whose brother is currently imprisoned in Iran in retaliation for her activism, was a U.S. government shill because of her work for Voice of America. Russian opposition leader and Putin critic Alexei Navalny is not a moral exemplar, per one February article, but an ethnonationalist and leader of a political bloc “whose anti-Western positions are much more extreme and reckless than those of Putin himself.” An article in January argued that raising human rights concerns in negotiations with Russia, North Korea, and China is a “poison pill” that disrespects their internal sovereignty, an argument with few takers on any side of Washington’s foreign policy debates. One Quincy report on U.S. strategy toward China reassured readers that Beijing has been “a relatively responsible military actor on the global stage.”

Quincy has a combativeness that sets it apart from other think tanks. It’s attacked The New York Times for failing to note the funding sources of foreign policy scholars it quotes, including Hussein Ibish; flatly accused two-thirds of the experts in a congressionally mandated Afghanistan study group of being captive to the arms industry; and characterized the Washington Institute for Near East Policy—a pipeline into both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations—as a “dark-money think tank.” In each of these instances, Quincy’s authors did not try to rebut someone else’s arguments or ideas; they just accused their perceived opponents of being corrupt.

Even people who say they are sympathetic to Quincy’s work spoke of the group’s prickly and seemingly off-kilter self-presentation. “Attitudinally they’re just wildly antagonistic towards Washington,” says Van Jackson, a former Obama administration Pentagon official who is now a professor at Wellington University in New Zealand. Jackson, who described himself to me as a progressive, sees Quincy’s confrontational tack as almost a philosophical choice, a decision to emphasize ideological warfare at the expense of intellectual heft. In one instance, Quincy published an open letter from 71 Korean American leaders calling for an end to the Korean War—which is different from a policy document explaining how an end to the official state of conflict between North and South might be achieved or implemented. “They’re basically doing Overton Window work,” Jackson says of Quincy, “and that has nothing to do with the policymaking milieu per se. The way that they make arguments does not resonate with policymakers.”

From a Quincyite perspective, the Biden administration’s early record is mixed. On China, Quincy has been critical of Biden policies that it sees as overly confrontational, warning of attempts to “manufacture” a “new cold war” with Beijing. The February U.S. bombing of Iranian-backed militia positions in Syria drew a rebuke from Parsi himself. And while Stephen Wertheim, the director of Quincy’s Grand Strategy Program, has become a frequent presence on The New York Times opinion page, it’s worth wondering how many well-placed essays it takes to bury something like Sarah Leah Whitson, then Quincy’s director for research and policy, tweeting that the Israeli experience of living under coronavirus lockdowns was “missing a tablespoon of blood.”

No one embodies Quincy’s tension between respectability and weirdness better than Lawrence Wilkerson, who is both the group’s most senior former U.S. foreign policy official and the least guarded of its various affiliates. In addition to being a former director of the Marine Corps War College, Wilkerson was Colin Powell’s chief of staff from 2002 to 2005, putting him close to some of the most consequential decisions in recent American history. This is a formidable resume, and it opens doors: Wilkerson estimated to me that he’s met with between 20 and 30 members of Congress in meetings where he’s led with his Quincy affiliation; in total, he says he’s met with over 200 members.

Wilkerson also participated in “Track II” talks with counterparts from both Cuba and Iran, claiming he was involved with the former for six years before talks were “turned over to Western Hemisphere Affairs at State” in preparation for the Obama administration’s detente with the Castro regime. Wilkerson says the Iran efforts included both Parsi and Heintz, the influential president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and a Quincy board member. Wilkerson was an adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, and one of many Quincyites who lined up behind either Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren during the last couple Democratic primaries (Parsi donated roughly $1,000 to Sanders’ 2020 primary campaign, per filings with the Federal Electoral Commission). Inasmuch as there’s a progressive foreign policy establishment, Wilkerson is part of it.

And yet Wilkerson’s read on the world can seem disorienting to people accustomed to normative analysis from either end of the U.S. political spectrum. Take Chinese state persecution of the country’s Uyghur minority: “Yes, China treats the Uyghurs about like we treat Blacks and other minorities in this country—let’s say they treat them like we treat Native Americans,” Wilkerson told me. “Maybe they even treat the Uyghurs a little bit better than we treat Native Americans. But they’re not committing genocide.” Wilkerson said he suspected the U.S. is “starting a covert operation based in Afghanistan against the Han Chinese” using Uyghurs who had fought in Syria. He also described as “very dubious” the prospect that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad ever used chemical weapons over the course of his country’s civil war.

Wilkerson’s memories of his time in government, though no doubt satisfying to his ideological allies, have a similarly angular relationship to events. Among the dangerous neocons he encountered in government, Wilkerson said, was Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. “He had dual citizenship and practiced law in Israel, and once said in my presence U.S. interests and Israel’s interests coincide,” Wilkerson told me. “The question then arose in that meeting: All the time? Every day, was the answer. And a lot of us went away from that meeting wondering why Doug Feith was a U.S. citizen.” (When reached for comment, Feith said that he is not a U.S.-Israel dual citizen, never practiced law in Israel, and does not recall ever seeing Wilkerson at any meetings during his time at the Pentagon.)

Wilkerson is hardly the only Quincy expert who has cast doubt on commonly accepted accounts of foreign atrocities. In February, Quincy nonresident fellow Joshua Landis tweeted that claims of genocide against the Uyghurs were a “far-right” invention, and claimed that the Uyghur population of Xinjiang had been growing 25% faster than the rest of China. In 2020, Quincy affiliate Jessica Stern published a controversial book about her friendship with the former Bosnian Serb militia leader Radovan Karadžić, of which Bosnian critics allege she romanticized the convicted war criminal and provided inadequate balance to his misleading interpretation of the Bosnian War, a conflict during which he personally oversaw a genocide. One Quincy figure was himself uncomfortably close to an actual ethnic pogrom: Mark Perry, a senior analyst with the group, was an adviser to Yasser Arafat during the Second Intifada, when terrorists loyal to the Palestine Liberation Organization leader were blowing up buses and cafes in Israel.

A level of comfort with the Iranian-allied Assad regime, packaged as world-weary pragmatism, unites a number of the institute’s other affiliates. Steven Simon, a senior research analyst at Quincy and a leading Middle East figure on the National Security Council during Obama’s first term, lost his position as a paid consultant with the Middle East Institute after visiting Assad in Damascus in 2015. During his time in government Simon was a successful voice of American restraint with regard to the Syrian dictator, a stance he shares in common with Landis, who Steven Heydemann, director of the U.S. Institute for Peace’s Syria program from 2011 to 2015, described to me as someone with “lots of visibility as a pro-regime commentator on Syria and the recent conflict.” Heydemann noted that the anti-intervention position on Syria, shared among Quincy experts, is in fact well inside the U.S. foreign policy mainstream, given that the United States has yet to mount any significant military operation against Assad. “What we need to know then is how to construct an effective foreign policy in the absence of military force. I think what we’ve gotten from Quincy is pretty incoherent in that regard.”

Max Abrahms, who is also an outspoken critic of the anti-Assad movement in his writing and on Twitter, stresses that he would never want to spend “a single day” living under the Syrian dictator. But he inveighed against “the brainless mantra that the war in Syria unraveled as part of the Arab Spring, where Assad cracked down on nonviolent protesters. I’m not going to say that that narrative is itself actually incorrect. But what I will say is that I know for a fact, with 100% certainty, that the U.S. was actually planning on toppling Assad many years before the Arab Spring, and that Assad was very much aware of that. And so the narrative from Damascus is never included—because it’s part of Western propaganda to exclude the views of adversarial leaders.” Quincy has published articles and policy briefs calling for the lifting of U.S. sanctions on the Assad regime, another idea with few takers anywhere in Washington, at least for now.

“I think people at Quincy genuinely understand the conflict and know what’s happening in Syria,” said Noor Nahas, a Canada-based Syrian diaspora activist and researcher. “But they’re misrepresenting what’s happening in Syria. That’s why I think they’re dangerous. They’re not stupid. They’re smart people. But they’re finding a way to push certain ideas, certain decisions that would actually hurt the Syrian people.”

It is hardly fair to define any organization by its most controversial members, or by cherry-picking the oddest things they have ever said or written. But aside from a few nonresident fellows who don’t seem to draw a salary, Quincy and its funders had little interest in offering me a clear definition of what the group seeks to accomplish or why. During a quick conversation with a Quincy public affairs employee, I was told that arranging an interview with any of the organization’s leadership would be an “uphill climb” thanks to my past reporting on Trita Parsi (a body of work that includes one article, a 2015 report for Business Insider about NIAC having to pay Hassan Daioleslam’s legal fees). Weeks of unanswered calls and emails followed. Michael Zak, a retired Marine Corps officer and software entrepreneur who, according to Quincy’s website, donated between $250,000 and $499,0000 to the organization and now sits on its board, declined to discuss his reasons for supporting the group when reached by email. “I prefer to have QI respond to questions about QI,” he wrote to Tablet, drawing a distinction between himself and the entity he helps finance and lead.

The Ford Foundation, reached by phone and email, confirmed that it had donated to support Quincy’s “work on China,” but would not respond to follow-ups asking why it had given this money to Quincy, as opposed to any other foreign policy organization. (Ford is listed under the $100,000-$249,000 tier on the list of financial supporters on Quincy’s website).

The Giustra International Foundation, though based in the Netherlands, lists an American and a Canadian as its chief officers, neither of whom could be reached by phone or email. (Giustra gave between $100,000 and $249,000, per Quincy’s website).

A representative of the Charles Koch Institute, which has donated tens of millions of dollars in recent years to support pro-restraint programs at a range of American universities and think tanks, twice quizzed me by phone on my reasons for focusing on what seems to be a single $500,000 donation, fairly minor in the broader context of the libertarian billionaire’s giving. (It is miniscule compared to, say, the $3.7 million the Koch Foundation gave to a program that Quincy affiliate Stephen Walt co-directs at Harvard). They eventually sent a terse statement: “The Charles Koch Institute invests in a diverse and trans-partisan group of organizations with the goal of expanding the marketplace of ideas around foreign policy. Along with dozens of others, we invested in Quincy to help promote a broader discourse around the future of American grand strategy. We support nearly every major think tank doing work in this area.”

The Open Society Foundation, after a brief introductory discussion with a spokesperson, did not respond to further emails and calls.

Only one Quincy funder, a New York-based extractive industries entrepreneur named Brian Hinchcliffe, offered a substantive response to inquiries. Hinchcliffe does not donate to any political causes or to any other think tanks. He told me he has been a longtime admirer of Andrew Bacevich’s writing and seems earnestly concerned about the potential costs of American foreign policy overreach. He has given between $50,000 and $99,000, per Quincy’s website. “The power of the military-industrial complex, combined with the idea of us needing to continue to be the world’s policeman is a very unbalanced situation, a very expensive situation,” he explained.

In the absence of clear answers from the donors themselves, and in light of the organization’s own willingness to go after other think tanks and scholars for their alleged corruption, it is tempting to point out potential mercenary aspects to the group’s work. The liberal billionaire and former Bill Clinton confidante Ron Burkle, a Quincy donor in the $100,000-$249,000 tier, purchased a 12% stake in Xinhua Finance Media in 2007, a now-defunct company aimed at digital advertising targeting China’s wealthiest consumers. Frank Giustra, a mining financier and entertainment executive who helped launch Vancouver as a filming location, has a complex and diversified global portfolio. In 2005, Giustra brought Bill Clinton to a meeting with Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazerbaev, after which one of Giustra’s companies received uranium mining rights inside the country. According to The New York Times, Giustra donated over $30 million to the Clinton Foundation shortly after the trip. In 2018, Lithium X, an energy company founded by Giustra’s Vancouver-based Fiore group, was acquired by NextView Capital, an investment firm based in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Brian Preas-Praga, Lithium X’s founder and CEO, is vice-chair of the Giustra International Foundation.

For his part, Charles Koch has substantial business interests in China, with an industrial network that extends deep into the Chinese economy. Koch-owned Molex LLC, an electronics manufacturer, makes components for Huawei products and has a large production facility in Chengdu. The Koch subsidiary Invista announced a $1 billion investment in a new plant in China in 2019; in 2017, Koch Industries purchased $1.3 million in stock for SINA, a telecommunications firm and the parent company of the heavily policed Chinese social networking website Weibo.

There are potential conflicts of interest even from smaller donors. According to 990s from his personal foundation, Amir Handjani, a Quincy nonresident fellow, donated $25,000 to the Social Good Fund, then Quincy’s fiscal sponsor, in 2019. As of 2019, Handjani’s company, PG International Commodity Trading Services, was the exclusive broker for the agricultural giant Cargill inside of Iran, making him the point person for one of the only areas of U.S.-Iranian trade permitted under U.S. law. Between 2016 and 2019, Handjani donated an eye-popping $500,000 to the Atlantic Council, some of which was specifically earmarked for the think tank’s Future of Iran Initiative, according to a council spokesperson, who confirmed that Handjani is currently on the think tank’s board. The face of that particular program is Barbara Slavin, the leading advocate for the Iranian regime within the Washington think tank scene for much of the past two decades.

For a time, Handjani was an adviser to the relatively pro-Iranian ruler of Ras al-Khaimah—one of the United Arab Emirates and an occasional Iranian money laundering hub—and was the first-ever employee of the emirate’s state oil company. During trips to Washington in the mid-2010s, a time when he was apparently living in Dubai, Handjani would present himself as a “commodities trader,” and probe connected young Iranian Americans in the D.C. policy scene. “The whole time he would try to very smoothly get information out of me about other people,” one employee at a D.C.-based research institution recalled to Tablet of a meeting with Handjani. “Really weird information, about people’s sexuality and personal lives.” Handjani has been named in two separate lawsuits, one in London and one in the United States, as allegedly advising the emirate’s ruler in efforts to go after perceived political and business opponents. In the Middle East, Handjani entered into business with regimes on both sides of the Persian Gulf, while in Washington, he provided funding to think tanks to help advance policies that would make his business activities seem farsighted and perhaps even progressive, rather than potentially craven. At the Atlantic Council, Handjani was once listed as a senior nonresident fellow, a quasi-academic title dropped in 2018 for reasons the council won’t quite explain, although he still sits on the organization’s board. Quincy was happy to restore his old title, minus the “senior” part.

Koch, Giustra, Burkle, and Handjani could all take potential hits from greater U.S. confrontation with China or Iran, and thus might personally benefit from the policies Quincy advocates—exactly the kinds of perceived conflicts of interest for which Quincy has attacked other foreign policy organizations. For instance, in June 2020, Eli Clifton published an article accusing five Washington think tanks of failing to adequately publicize the fact that they received money from a Taiwanese diplomatic mission. “None of their researchers disclose the potential conflict of interest between Taiwanese funding and advocating for more security guarantees for and trade with Taiwan,” Clifton wrote in an article co-published by Responsible Statecraft and the American Prospect, which did not disclose that Clifton’s own employer takes money from an industrialist deeply invested in China.

In Koch’s case, donations to Quincy also fit into a longer-term reappraisal of his role in the American political system brought on by scrutiny from left-wing think tanks, journalists, and politicians who turned him into the Democratic Party’s public enemy in the early 2010s. But as American politics realigned, and as engagement with the Republican Party mainstream has become a potential elite reputation-ender, Koch is upending many of his earlier conservative alliances.

In 2015, Soros and Koch’s philanthropy launched a bipartisan campaign aimed at eventually halving America’s prison population. Between 2016 and 2018, Koch provided $2.5 million in funding for the Daily Caller News Foundation, accounting for 35% of the budget for the nonprofit arm of the right-wing news website co-founded by Tucker Carlson during those three years. In 2019 the funding stopped, supposedly over Carlson’s outspoken advocacy for immigration restriction, which Koch opposes. That year, Koch’s money went to help launch Quincy, an organization co-founded by Clifton—who had investigated the Kochs’ potential impact on labor and environmental regulation rollback at an earlier point in his career. “Koch is for big tech,” one veteran conservative activist explained. “And you can’t be conservative and for big tech now.”

For the time being, Quincy may be, as Samuel Moyn put it, “a fledgling band of critics.” But Koch, Soros, and Rockefeller are not exactly anti-establishment brands—they define the American establishment perhaps as well as any other three names one can think of. Aspects of Quincy’s agenda are moving forward: The U.S. may be finally leaving Afghanistan, and negotiations over reviving the Iran deal are gaining momentum. When the Biden administration needs to sell decisions it’s already made as the height of restraint and the pinnacle of sober statecraft, and wants to appear to have the backing of both the activist left and the realist right, it will know who to call.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.

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