Background: What is the pro-Iran lobby in the US?

Apr 5th, 2015

Iranian Forum, April 2015

lobby2 Since the beginning of the Islamic Republic in Iran 36 years ago, 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, that means to accept Iranian influence and hegemony in the region and treat the Iranian Mullahs as genuine partners.

On top of Iran’s unconditional allies in the US that demand removal of economic sanctions are the trade lobbies, notably the oil l companies. Iran has the fourth largest oil reserves and second natural gas reserves of the world. The US oil corporations want to have access to Iranian oil and gas sector and believe that better relation with Tehran could bring stability to the region and oil supply from the Middle East and will facilitate access energy resources in Central Asia.

The Iranian regime considers these business and political forces that favor more Tehran friendly policies as the pro-Iran lobby in the US. The Iranian regime has maintained a practical relationship with these groups. (Read the detailed report: “The trade lobby and US policy with Iran”)


1990s: Hashemi Rafsanjani’s charm offensive and the start of “pro-Iran Lobby” in Washington

In 1988, the eight year deadly war with Iraq that killed tens of thousands and ruined the Iranian economy came to an end. A year later, Ruhollah Khomeini the founder of the Islamic Republic died and Hashemi Rafsanjani regarded as a moderate politician, became President. He vowed to improve the economic situation and also planned to improve relations with the West, notably with the US. In 1991, Iran signed a pre-agreement with US oil company Conoco to develop gas and oil fields in Iran, a move designed to push US oil giants to lobby the US administration to change its policy with Iran and lift the sanctions.

Consequently, the US oil giants started a modest campaign to soften public opinion about Iran and get a green light from the US administration to conduct business with Iran. This campaign was also supported by the regime and as a result, Hooshang Amirahmadi, a University of Rutgers professor who had previously worked with the Iranian government, launched a series of “Iran-US conferences” to promote friendship between the two countries. (See pictures here and here)

Amirahmadi told an Iranian newspaper that he coordinated this initiative with the Iranian ambassador to the UN. Amirahmadi’s main partner in this campaign was Gary Sick, a former White House staffer who launched his “Gulf 2000” project in 1993 to improve US-Iran relations.

Sick’s project was funded by US oil corporations, and Amirahmadi also reported in his CV that from 1993 to 1996, he had received $350.000 from Oil companies to organize these conferences.

The Clinton administration welcomed the Iranian business overture and hoped that it would signal a new chapter in Iran’s foreign policy and its relation with the US. But Rafsanjani’s charm offensive, the anti-sanction lobby and US optimism were to be hindered by the true nature of the Iranian regime.


1991, Iran’s strategic decision to oppose Middle East peace process, spread of terrorism

In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed creating a political and ideological vacuum in the region which Iran intended to fill in order to expand its influence in the Islamic world. To do so, it embarked on an anti-Israeli crusade under the guise of freeing Palestine.

In 1991, the US sponsored Madrid Conference assembled Arab states, Israel and Palestinian delegations to seek a peaceful solution to the hostilities and pave the road for the creation of a Palestinian state. As the prospect for peace emerged, the Iranian regime was faced with two options: the first was to support the peace process, improve relations with the US, ending Iran’s isolation and economic sanctions. But the Iranian leadership felt that peace between Israel and the Palestinians would deprive Iran of its ideological and political justification for interfering in the Middle East and seeking hegemony in the Islamic world. As a result, Iran made a strategic decision and chose the second option, to oppose and destroy the peace process.

On October 17, 1991 the Iranian Supreme Leader, Khamenei released a fiery statement against the recognition of Israel by the peace process and opposed the two state solution, urging Palestine to “make the entire world unsafe for the Zionists.” A few month later, On March 17, 1992 a suicide car hit the Israeli embassy in Argentine that killed 30 and wounded hundreds. Two years later, on July 18, 1994 another suicide truck hit the AMIA building in Buenos Aires killing 85 and wounding hundreds. The next day, a bomb exploded in a small Panamanian plane killing all 20 passengers including 12 Jews. A week later, on July 26 two bombs exploded near the Israeli embassy and a Jewish center in London injuring scores of people.

The Iranian sponsored terror campaign continued in Israel. Tens of terrorist attacks targeting buses and public places killing tens of civilians. As a result, the hostilities increased between Palestinians and Israel, the moderate factions in the Palestinian authority were weakened and the peace process was halted.

The Iranian terror madness was not limited to Jewish targets and in June 1996 Iran proxies executed a terrorist attack against a housing complex in Khobar, Saudi Arabia that killed 19 US Air Force servicemen.


Israeli and AIPAC oppose the Iran lobby

Iran’s spread of Islamic extremism and terrorism throughout the Middle East posed a grave danger to the future of Israel threatening the peace and stability in the Middle East. Consequently, the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin depicted Iran as the main threat against Israel.

Israel and AIPAC begun confronting the pro-Tehran lobby in Washington that was campaigning for the removal of sanctions and a friendlier policy toward Iran. As the Iranian policies in the Middle East threatened both Israeli and the US interests, AIPAC had little difficulty in convincing the Clinton administration to maintain and increase sanctions and pressure against Iran.

In 1995, President Clinton issued several Executive orders banning U.S. trade with and investment in Iran notably, U.S. investment in Iran’s energy sector. These sanctions were intended to respond to the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons and its support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestine Islamic Jihad. Then, In July 1996, the US Congress passed the Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) imposing economic sanctions on Iran.

This was a victory for the Israeli lobby and a defeat for Iran’s lobby, predominantly due to Iran’s activities in the Middle East.


1997, Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, anti-sanction lobby by USA*Engage

In 1997, the so-called reformist Mohammad Khatami became president and Iran launched a new charm offensive to soften Western attitudes toward Iran in order to reduce the pressure and sanctions. American business interests grasped this opportunity and the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), representing large US corporations, launched its lobbying arm called USA*Engage and begun a large scale lobbying campaign to change US policy with Iran and remove sanctions.

Under these favorable conditions, Hooshang Amirahmadi the veteran anti-sanction lobbyist, was supported by business lobbies to establish the American Iranian Council (AIC) in 1997. AIC is a revealing example of the tacit collaboration between US oil corporations and the Iranian regime unified in their goal to lift economic sanctions and influence US foreign policy toward Iran.

AIC’s board has included former US diplomats and senior executives from the oil sector including Halliburton, Chevron, Exxon Mobile, and other corporations. At the same time, AIC’s president Amirahmadi received political and financial support from Tehran and publicly called AIC a lobby organization on behalf of Iran. (Amirahmadi’s interviews with government controlled newspapers in Iran (here and here)

In its mission to garner friendlier policies with Iran, AIC introduced a series of Congressional briefings and conferences with extensive media coverage (see AIC report). AIC activities culminated in March 2000 when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke at an AIC reception and extended a friendlier US hand to Iran and apologized for US involvement in the military coup that toppled Mossadegh’s government in 1953.


2001: Extension of Iran sanctions bill, a victory for AIPAC, a new defeat for Iran lobby

In June 2001, a new round of battles between the Iran lobby and Israeli lobby loomed as Congress was considering an extension of Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) for five more years. The extension was largely approved and only ten members of Congress opposed the bill. This was primarily due to the Iran’s failure to change its radical foreign policy in the Middle East.

The extension of ILSA was a new victory for the Israeli lobby and a setback for Iran which remained relatively silent until the mid-2000s when the US invasion of Iraq and public opinion against George Bush’s Middle East policies revived the Iran lobby and shaped its anti-Israeli campaign.

Since its revival in 2005, the Iran lobby and its anti-Israeli campaign have been led and coordinated by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and its president, Trita Parsi.



The National Iranian American Council (NIAC)


Background on NIAC, the defamation lawsuit and NIAC’s internal documents

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) is a Washington-based lobbying organization that was founded by its president Trita Parsi in 2002. NIAC lobbies for a friendlier policy with Iran and opposes economic sanctions. NIAC maintains an active presence in Washington D.C., particularly working to influence members of Congress and the White House on their views on Iran. The government press in Tehran calls NIAC the “Iran lobby in US.” Many within the Iranian-American community consider NIAC to be a de-facto lobby for the Iranian regime.

In 2008, NIAC and its president, Trita Parsi brought a defamation lawsuit against one of its critics to break him under financial burdens of the lawsuit and as a result, silence all other critics. The lawsuit obliged NIAC to release parts of its internal documents that revealed the organization’s ties to Tehran and some of its illicit activities. (Read MoreNIAC lost defamation lawsuit and was punished for legal abuses)

Some of these documents are posted here and reveal NIAC’s relation and collaboration with Iranian officials and business interests inside Iran. They show that NIAC coordinated its lobby with the Iranian ambassador to the UN to influence the US policy with Iran. Some of NIAC’s internal documents released during the lawsuit have been used to prepare this report.

On September 13, 2012 U.S. District Judge John Bates dismissed the lawsuit and in a second ruling, sanctioned NIAC and Trita Parsi for discovery abuses including false declaration to the court and ordered them to pay $184,000 for the defendant’s legal expenses.


Trita Parsi and start of his anti-sanction lobby

In 1997 as the anti-sanction lobby by USA*Engage and its Iranian-American partner AIC was gaining momentum in the US, Trita Parsi a student in Sweden founded a small anti-sanction group called “Iranians for International Cooperation” (IIC). IIC web archive shows press releases and some grassroots lobbying activities in opposition to US sanctions against Iran. In a document written by Parsi, he explained IIC’s activities and goals:

“IIC was founded in August 1997 by Trita Parsi, the present President … our agenda is topped by the removal of US economic and political sanctions against Iran… IIC is capable of organizing the grassroots and pressure US lawmakers to pose a more Iran friendly position.” Trita Parsi’s main partner in Washington was the corrupted Congressman Bob Ney who was finally caught by the justice system and sent to prison, partly because of accepting bribes by Tehran related businessmen.

In his first statement posted on the web in 1997, Parsi explained that his lobby is designed to combat AIPAC and pro-Israeli groups in Washington.


2001-2002: Creation of NIAC

In 1999, Trita Parsi and his Tehran based partner Siamak Namazi, a businessman with ties to the Iranian regime co-authored a seminal paper that provided the roadmap for the organization which was later to become NIAC. They argued that an Iranian-American lobby should be created to influence US policy with Iran and eventually remove sanction: “An Iranian-American lobby (which is different from a lobby group purely pursuing the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran) is needed in order to create a balance between the competing Middle Eastern lobbies. Without it, Iran-bashing may become popular in Congress again.”

In the report, they explained how the Israeli lobby, AIPAC, operates in Washington and argued that the Iranian lobby should use the same strategy to recruit among Iranians in order to combat the sanctions. (Read the detailed report on the creation of NIAC)

In June 2001, Trita Parsi and some of his lobby partners discussed the creation of the anti-sanction lobbying organization that became NIAC. The documents related to these discussions show that Parsi’s main goal was to combat Israel that according to him “is the sole force behind the lobby efforts to impose and extend the sanctions against Iran.”

These documents show that Tehran based Baquer Namazi assisted Parsi in establishing NIAC. Namazi was assigned (as the lead of an Iranian NGO called Hamyaran) by the Iranian Foreign Ministry to coordinate relationships with Iranian expatriates. Few months NIAC was officially created but remained ineffective in Washington until 2005 when the anti-war and left organizations became active and started to oppose George Bush’s hostile policies toward Iran.


Iranian regime’s relation with part of American left and anti-war groups

The Iranian regime has forged alliances with various political, social, religious and cultural organizations in the US to further its political agenda. However, its practical alliance with parts of the American left and anti-war groups could be deemed the most inconvenient and difficult to comprehend.

One episode best defines the troubling nature of this relationship which occurred in September 2008, when the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to New York to attend the UN general assembly. The Iranian mission at the UN invited religious and peace groups to meet with him. One hundred-fifty representatives of these groups participated in a reception with Ahmadinejad, some of them praised the Iranian regime and offered to help combat the US pressure and sanctions against Iran. At the end of the ceremony, Ahmadinajad who received a gift joyfully expressed his desire to be a member of the American peace movement. The next day, some sixty of these activists met again to elaborate action plans to combat US pressure and sanctions against Iran.

The relationship between the Iranian regime and part of the US anti-war groups dates back to the Bush administration. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the anti-war movement and opposition to George Bush’s policy in the Middle East gained support in the US. In 2005, after Ahmadinejad became president, Iran resumed its nuclear activities and the hostilities between Iran and the West increased. As a result, the US anti-war movement feared a new war in the region and voiced its concern criticizing US animosity toward Iran. As the anti-war movement’s opposition to US policy toward Iran became more vocal, the Iranian regime launched an ambitious plan to connect with American anti-war groups, recruit amongst them and use their social networks in a grassroots lobby to influence public opinion and prevent tougher policies against Iran.

NIAC and its president Trita Parsi played a pivotal role to bridge the anti-war activists with the Iranian regime to use them in their pro-Tehran lobby in the US. (Read the detailed report: Relation and cooperation between Iranian regime and American anti-war groups)


2008: Transforming the Iran lobby, high jacking the anti-war movement

The Iranian regime’s successful connection to the American left and anti-war groups paved the road to broaden the Iran lobby in the US and create a powerful coalition of groups and individuals that could effectively shape US policy toward Iran.

One of NIAC’s internal documents obtained during the defamation lawsuit explains this transformation. This document is a report titled “lobby groups” that Parsi sent to Siamak Namazi, his Tehran based lobby partner. In this report, Parsi detailed the activities of the anti-war groups and explained how it should be transformed to a larger coalition that would include the trade lobby and therefore, more focused on preventing sanctions against Iran. He wrote:

“As of early 2005, Washington’s heated rhetoric over Iran has attracted the attention of a variety of interest groups eager to prevent the escalation of tensions in the Middle East and the prospects of a war between the US and Iran. These groups have managed to build unprecedented support in Congress in favor of dialogue and against military action among progressive Democrats as well as conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill.

This coalition of pro-dialogue and anti-war entities consists of a diverse group of organizations ranging from arms control organizations, to Iranian American organizations, to religious groups. Key players in this coalition are the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, which coordinates a coalition of approximately 50 organizations, MoveOn and the National Iranian American Council.

While these groups have focused extensively on passing measures to reduce the risk for war with Iran, little attention has been paid to efforts to intensify sanctions against Iran. Furthermore, while a momentum exists for anti-war measures, no comparable opportunity exists currently for an anti-sanctions campaign. Nor is the coalition of disarmament, religious and progressive groups best suited to take on this issue. Here, the absence of pro-business interests on Capitol Hill active constitutes a key point of advantage for AIPAC.”

Then, Parsi explained the importance of bringing in the pro-trade lobby group and notably USA*Engage to this coalition:

“Pro-Business groups: With the exception of USA Engage, American businesses and oil companies have after September 11 next to eliminated their efforts on Capitol Hill in favor of greater trade and contacts with Iran.

USA Engage is a coalition of approximately 500 major US companies which has retained a distant interest in the Iran issue, though the coalition has devoted little resources towards promoting trade or preventing new sanctions from being imposed. In particular, the recently imposed UN sanctions have granted the sanctions track with Iran new legitimacy and made efforts to oppose such measures on trade grounds more difficult.

However, initial efforts are currently being made to make align the trade groups with the pro-dialogue coalition and frame sanctions an initial step that invariably will lead to war. If such a coalition of pro-trade and pro-dialogue groups can be formed, the current momentum for sanctions may be significantly hampered.

Conclusion: The balance of power on Capitol Hill is currently shifted in favor of sanctions on Iran but against military action. AIPAC continues to seek both military strikes against Iran and draconian sanctions and has benefited from the absence of active lobbying by pro-trade groups. A change in heart by pro-trade coalitions may significantly hamper efforts to have Congress impose new draconian sanctions on Iran. This is great significance since Congressional sanctions are far more difficult to undo than those imposed by the Executive Branch.

A year later in 2008, NIAC became the coordinator of this anti-war coalition, brought in USA*Engage and the “Campaign for a new American policy on Iran” (CNAPI) was created.”


Campaign for a new American policy on Iran (CNAPI), the new face of pro-Iran lobby

On December 18, 2008, shortly after Obama’s election, the monthly meeting of the coalition “Campaign for a new American policy on Iran” (CNAPI) was held in Washington and representatives of twenty groups gathered to discuss their lobby efforts to influence US policy for a friendlier policy toward Iran. Boosted by Obama’s victory, the coordinator of this 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.”

CNAPI was formed in 2008 and brought together nearly forty groups including USA*Engage (pro-trade lobby), Open Society, serval pro-engagement groups and two dozen peace and religious organizations. A number of Iran experts, former administration officials and diplomats worked with CNAPI and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) coordinated this coalition and its lobby efforts. Some of CNAPI’s internal documents were obtained during a defamation lawsuit involving NIAC. Some of them show that J Street worked with CNAPI.

As the CNAPI meeting minutes show, the coalition pushed for a new American policy of engagement with Iran that meant no additional sanctions, rolling back the existing sanctions, providing more incentives to the Iranian regime, accepting Iran as a regional power, recognizing the Iranian regime’s legitimacy and ending the regime change policy and rhetoric.

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 Leila Zand and Campaign against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII), both worked for Ahmadinejad’s office. (See also: CASMII and FOR organized “Peace trips” to Tehran.)

Since 2010, the coalition partners ceased using the CNAPI name but they continue 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 coordinate Iran related activities of anti-war, left and religious groups and at the same time, it coordinates lobby efforts with trade lobbies and former US officials. For example, Parsi has been a key member of The Atlantic Council’s Iran Task Force since 2010.

This broad coalition is precisely what the Iranian regime correctly considers as the “Iran lobby” as it opposes sanctions on Iran, accepts the Iranian position in the Middle East, asks the US administration to be more flexible in nuclear talks and demands a friendlier policy toward Tehran.



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