Commentary Magazine


Topic: NIAC

How Lobbyists Reflect Countries They Support

In certain corridors of Washington, in smug discussions in university faculty lounges, and in the fevered conspiracies of the Middle East and Turkey, much is made of the “Israel lobby.” While broadly speaking, figures such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, or former diplomat Chas Freeman use the term broadly in order to suggest dual loyalty on the part of those with whom they disagree in the policy debate, more narrowly, the idea of an Israel lobby usually surrounds the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which operates under the slogan, “America’s pro-Israel lobby.”

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In certain corridors of Washington, in smug discussions in university faculty lounges, and in the fevered conspiracies of the Middle East and Turkey, much is made of the “Israel lobby.” While broadly speaking, figures such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, or former diplomat Chas Freeman use the term broadly in order to suggest dual loyalty on the part of those with whom they disagree in the policy debate, more narrowly, the idea of an Israel lobby usually surrounds the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which operates under the slogan, “America’s pro-Israel lobby.”

But AIPAC is hardly the only lobby in Washington. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the de facto lobby of the Islamic Republic of Iran, works tirelessly to reduce sanctions and alleviate pressure on the Iranian regime. Saudi Arabia and Qatar spread money around and successfully tempt many former ambassadors with lucrative golden parachutes. Turkey supports a multitude of organizations such as the American Turkish Council or the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TUSIAD).

It is easy to demonize lobbying in Washington, but it is not simply about money: many lobbyists truly believe in the cause they espouse and argue, and they advocate for those causes just the same as a paid member of Greenpeace, the Audubon Society, or the Human Rights Campaign might. If someone believes that a strong U.S.-Israel relationship benefits American national security and reflects American values more than, say, a strong U.S.-Iranian relationship or any U.S. relationship with Hamas or Hezbollah, than it makes sense to support AIPAC. If one would rather see normalized ties between Washington and Tehran, regardless of the Islamic Republic’s ideology and sponsorship of insurgencies and militias, then it makes sense to support a group like NIAC.

What is truly interesting about these foreign-policy lobbies, however, is just how much they have come to reflect the countries with which they seek greater U.S. strategic alignment.

Take AIPAC: At present, its president is Bob Cohen, elected in 2013. Before him, it has had well over a dozen presidents and executive directors, most serving just two or three years before the membership elected a new leader. As such, AIPAC has very much reflected the democratic nature of both the United States and Israel. As in Israel and the United States, its audience actively debates issues—there is seldom an easy consensus in AIPAC circles and contrary to the caricatures put out by some in more fringe circles, AIPAC remains a big tent, with its rank-and-file actually leaning toward the liberal and progressive within the American political context.

NIAC is a different animal entirely. Since its inception more than a decade ago, it has been led by a single leader, Trita Parsi, a dual Swedish-Iranian citizen permanently residing in the United States. NIAC has no regularly scheduled elections and so Parsi seems intent to remain his organization’s leader for life. Indeed, it’s a parallel not lost on Iranian-Americans, who often mock Parsi as the “rahbar,” or supreme leader. NIAC reflects Iranian political culture in other ways as well. While AIPAC tends to ignore criticism or simply argue back, NIAC has responded to criticism with ad hominem attack or by seeking to silence those it dislikes. Hence, it sued an Iranian-American journalist for defamation, a suit it ended up losing after also being sanctioned for seeking to surreptitiously alter its record and for failing to uphold discovery orders.

NIAC also reflects the Islamic Republic’s tendency toward conspiracy theories. The group has been fundraising off a non-existent threat of war with Iran for more than a decade, often aligning with fringe groups like Code Pink, Daily Kos, the Institute for Policy Studies, and WarIsACrime.org in joint letters or actions. While Parsi tones down his public rhetoric, his private writing embraces conspiracies. Hence, his comment “It is not unusual that Israelis run their business under the safety of an American flag.” At a time when it is now agreed that Iran was working on nuclear-weapons components, Parsi sought to defend the regime, answering one person raising concerns regarding Iranian activities, “There is no proof what so ever for Iran’s nuclear ambition. the IAEA just cleared Iran’s nuclear programme for the third time this decade last week. You have been reading too much AIPAC propaganda!” And while both members and leaders of AIPAC take pride in their assimilation into the United States, Parsi denigrates those who leave the Islamic Republic’s interests behind:

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. WE OWE IRAN OUR LIVES…. There is no substitute for Iran!

The Saudi lobby, of course, like the monarchy itself, likes to operate in the shadows. Whereas AIPAC and NIAC seek to influence ordinary constituents, hence their frequent forums in cities across the country, Saudi lobbyists concentrate on those in the White House and Congress or by seeking to buy the support of prominent universities. Saudi lobbyists would no more hold a public forum in Indianapolis than would Saudi royals hold a public forum in Dhahran: The public is something to be tolerated and imposed upon, but not engaged. Those whose influence Saudi Arabia seeks can expect beneficence beyond their wildest imagination; those who Saudi Arabia deems independent or not useful are ignored.

Turkey may once have been an aspiring democracy, but in recent years, it has become hostile to political pluralism. The Turkish embassy in the United States has moved from representing all of Turkish society to instead substituting as an office for President Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and, according to former Turkish diplomats stationed there, actively maintains a blacklist of those critical of the AKP. Such blacklisting—which has become the norm inside Turkey—extends to the Turkish lobby. Groups like the American Turkish Council understand their access depends on the AKP, and so will seek to limit their interactions to those who embrace the AKP. When they cross the line, they know Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian leaders will have no forgiveness. Hence, former Ambassador James Holmes, after long seeking to cozy up to the AKP and downplay changes inside Turkey, found himself ousted merely for the sin of including articles in a regular news roundup from a newspaper associated with groups disliked by Erdoğan. Such behavior has led to greater fracturing: just as Turkish society has divided along political and religious lines, so too have Turkey’s various lobby and business groups to the point where Turkey has dozens of lobbies, each ineffective, with only the president back in Ankara able to speak on Turkey’s behalf.

In recent years, paranoia about various foreign-policy lobbies has grown. And while pay-to-play is always wrong and should certainly be disclosed, many of the actual lobby groups for various countries do less to whitewash the nature of countries with which they wish the United States to partner, and far more to reflect those countries, whether open or closed, tolerant or intolerant, realistic or conspiratorial.

Lobbying will never go away, but let’s hope that one day all lobbies will be open, transparent, and governed democratically. That would be a sure sign that, finally, principle has triumphed over cash, and democracy really has taken root in the dark corners of the world.

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WH Relaxed Iran Sanctions Under Pressure

The Cable’s Josh Rogin has more on the Obama administration’s decision to allow non-profit groups to send hundreds of thousands of dollars each in cash to Iran as part of earthquake relief efforts. Rogin reports that the White House was initially worried about the optics of temporarily relaxing sanctions so close to the election, but eventually agreed after getting support from the State Department:

State Department officials argued in favor of granting the license, while the White House resisted the move, worried about how even a temporary and limited relief of sanctions against Iran would play in the media so close to the presidential election. Eventually, with the support of top State Department officials, the White House was persuaded to agree to the move, these sources said.

The National Iranian American Council, a group that has advocated for weaker sanctions and other pro-regime policies, also played a major role in lobbying the administration (the organization touts a conference call it set up with the White House about this issue on its website).

Unsurprisingly, Rogin also reports there are concerns on Capitol Hill over whether the cash will make it to the people who need it, or whether it will intercepted by the Iranian government.

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The Cable’s Josh Rogin has more on the Obama administration’s decision to allow non-profit groups to send hundreds of thousands of dollars each in cash to Iran as part of earthquake relief efforts. Rogin reports that the White House was initially worried about the optics of temporarily relaxing sanctions so close to the election, but eventually agreed after getting support from the State Department:

State Department officials argued in favor of granting the license, while the White House resisted the move, worried about how even a temporary and limited relief of sanctions against Iran would play in the media so close to the presidential election. Eventually, with the support of top State Department officials, the White House was persuaded to agree to the move, these sources said.

The National Iranian American Council, a group that has advocated for weaker sanctions and other pro-regime policies, also played a major role in lobbying the administration (the organization touts a conference call it set up with the White House about this issue on its website).

Unsurprisingly, Rogin also reports there are concerns on Capitol Hill over whether the cash will make it to the people who need it, or whether it will intercepted by the Iranian government.

Treasury officials and NIAC downplayed these worries:

Parsi said the best way to prevent the money from getting into Iranian government hands is to work through respected NGOs that are based in the United States and have a presence in Iran.

There are some checks on the aid, Treasury officials say.

“The license specifically forbids any dealings with entities on the OFAC SDN list such as the IRGC,” Treasury Department spokesman John Sullivan told The Cable, referring to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. “There is also a mandated report to the Treasury and State Departments so we can make sure the money does not end up in the wrong hands.”

Obviously that’s the hope, but what about the groups controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps?

For example, will American groups be able to send money to the Iranian Red Crescent — Iran’s most prominent “humanitarian relief” group? The Red Crescent isn’t on the Specially Designated Nationals list, but the group is reportedly controlled by the IRGC, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables from 2008.

While NIAC maintains that there’s precedent for the Obama administration’s decision, citing a similar sanctions waiver by President Bush after the 2003 earthquake in southern Iran that may not be the most assuring comparison. There have been allegations that much of the international aid was stolen at the time, as the New York Times reported yesterday:

Pouria, an office manager with broad shoulders, said he made a similar trip in 2003 to Bam, a southern city where a powerful earthquake killed 25,000 people, many of them buried in rubble. After the world gave money to help, Pouria said, he saw a lot of it disappear in the wrong pockets.

“Bam was a lesson for me,” Pouria said he had reminded his wife after news of this month’s earthquakes. “We normal people should take the initiative.”

His feeling was echoed in the doubts expressed by many Iranians, even senior leaders and lawmakers, about the ability of the official aid organizations. Members of Parliament representing the quake-stricken region complained to Iranian news agencies of shortages. Parliament called in the director of the Red Crescent for questioning.

What exactly are the safeguards to ensure that won’t happen again?

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Why is WH Meeting With Iran Apologists?

White House officials held a day-long meeting yesterday with the National Iranian American Council, a group that advocates for policies supported by the Iranian regime, including opposition to sanctions and acceptance of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Officials in attendance included Valerie Jarrett and Treasury Department Secretary for Financial Institutions Cyrus Amir-Mokri, according to a posting on NIAC’s website:

In a demonstration of the Obama administration’s eagerness to build and sustain relations with the Iranian-American community, top officials yesterday hosted the first ever Iranian-American Community Leader’s Roundtable at the White House.

The day-long roundtable was attended by National Iranian American Council staff, as well as individual community leaders and representatives of national organizations, including Iranian Alliances Across Borders and Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans. …

The officials on hand were eager to listen to the interests and concerns of the Iranian-American community and to determine ways to better serve and inform the Iranian-American community about important policies and programs.  All of the officials made clear that there would be a sustained effort to engage with Iranian Americans going forward.  “This is not good-bye,” many of the officials repeated, “this is hello.”

The fact that this meeting took place the day after five Israeli tourists were killed in what is believed to be an Iranian suicide attack in Bulgaria is a slap in the face to the pro-Israel community.

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White House officials held a day-long meeting yesterday with the National Iranian American Council, a group that advocates for policies supported by the Iranian regime, including opposition to sanctions and acceptance of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Officials in attendance included Valerie Jarrett and Treasury Department Secretary for Financial Institutions Cyrus Amir-Mokri, according to a posting on NIAC’s website:

In a demonstration of the Obama administration’s eagerness to build and sustain relations with the Iranian-American community, top officials yesterday hosted the first ever Iranian-American Community Leader’s Roundtable at the White House.

The day-long roundtable was attended by National Iranian American Council staff, as well as individual community leaders and representatives of national organizations, including Iranian Alliances Across Borders and Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans. …

The officials on hand were eager to listen to the interests and concerns of the Iranian-American community and to determine ways to better serve and inform the Iranian-American community about important policies and programs.  All of the officials made clear that there would be a sustained effort to engage with Iranian Americans going forward.  “This is not good-bye,” many of the officials repeated, “this is hello.”

The fact that this meeting took place the day after five Israeli tourists were killed in what is believed to be an Iranian suicide attack in Bulgaria is a slap in the face to the pro-Israel community.

On Wednesday, NIAC’s leader Trita Parsi suggested that Israel intentionally provoked the suicide bombing so it would have justification to attack Iran’s nuclear program:

U.S. officials have privately expressed concern that one of the purposes of Israeli attacks in Iran has been to generate an Iranian response that could serve as a casus belli for Israel. That way, Israel could target Iran’s nuclear facilities without paying the heavy political cost of starting a preventive war.

It was partly for this reason that the U.S. immediately and forcefully condemned the latest assassination of an Iranian scientist and denied any U.S. involvement. Simultaneously, other major powers pressed Iran not to retaliate, arguing that Israel would use any retaliation to expand the war.

The next day, Parsi’s organization went to the White House and met with high-ranking officials who were reportedly “eager to listen” to their “interests and concerns.” NIAC’s interests and concerns include advocating for pro-regime policies, opposing serious efforts to halt Iran’s enrichment program, and — apparently — blaming Israel for inciting Iranian terrorist attacks. The administration appeared to have distanced itself from NIAC in 2009, after the Washington Times reported that the group was setting up meetings between Iran’s UN ambassador and members of Congress — a potential violation of the Foreign Agent Registration Act. If the White House is now back to courting NIAC that raises serious concerns.

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Does Obama Want to Contain a Nuclear-Capable Iran?

President Obama clarified today that he’s looking to prevent, not contain, a nuclear-armed Iran, during his speech to AIPAC. While this was a welcome acknowledgement, it’s not particularly meaningful. Containment policy toward Iran has become so unpalatable that even American apologists for the Iranian regime rarely openly advocate it in mainstream discourse.

Instead, these regime allies promote a different kind of containment policy: containment of a nuclear-capable Iran. In other words, the bomb is the redline – but everything that Iran does leading up to the bomb, including high-level enrichment, is acceptable.

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President Obama clarified today that he’s looking to prevent, not contain, a nuclear-armed Iran, during his speech to AIPAC. While this was a welcome acknowledgement, it’s not particularly meaningful. Containment policy toward Iran has become so unpalatable that even American apologists for the Iranian regime rarely openly advocate it in mainstream discourse.

Instead, these regime allies promote a different kind of containment policy: containment of a nuclear-capable Iran. In other words, the bomb is the redline – but everything that Iran does leading up to the bomb, including high-level enrichment, is acceptable.

This strategy brings Iran within arms-length of obtaining a nuclear weapon (which is also well after Israel would have the ability to take military action). And it gives regime apologists more time to argue that a nuclear-armed Iran is less of a threat to the world than commonly believed.

The National Iranian-American Council, an American group that advocates for pro-regime policies, has been one of the most vocal supporters of this policy of containing a “nuclear-capable” Iran. The organization has pushed back against a Senate resolution that would specify Iran’s capability to build a weapon as a redline:

“This measure contradicts and confuses the existing United States ‘redline’ that Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon is unacceptable. Instead of reinforcing existing standards, the measure lowers the bar to assert that even the capability to pursue a nuclear weapon would be grounds for war.  This is dangerous policy to be toying with.

“Acquisition is very different from capability.  Nuclear weapons capability is a nebulous term that could theoretically be applied to every state from Canada to the Netherlands that possesses civilian nuclear capabilities.  We should not be staking questions of war on such a shaky foundation.”

So while Obama was right to reject containment of a nuclear-armed Iran today, it’s noteworthy (and concerning) that he declined to rule out containment of a nuclear-capable Iran:

Iran’s leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I’ve made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.

Trita Parsi, the president of NIAC, praised Obama for keeping the door open to containment. He wrote in the Huffington Post today:

The Obama administration puts the red line not at enrichment — which is permitted under international law — but at nuclear weapons. This is a clearer, more enforceable red line that also has the force of international law behind it.

While expressing his sympathy and friendship with Israel, Obama did not yield his red line at AIPAC. With the backing of the U.S. military, he has stood firm behind weaponization rather than weapons capability as the red line.

The fact that the head of NIAC drew this conclusion from the president’s AIPAC speech is something that should deeply worry supporters of Israel.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

How to kill a senate candidacy: Alex Giannoulias has his bank seized by the Feds. “Whether the issue remains a central one in the race is yet to be seen, but today is surely not a happy day in the Giannoulias camp. GOPers will have a reason to celebrate this weekend.” I think that seat is gone for the Democrats, unless they can pull a Torrecelli.

How to kill cap-and-trade: “The bipartisan climate bill to be unveiled Monday isn’t dead on arrival but it’s not likely to be taken up this year — and not before an immigration bill comes to the Senate floor, according to Democratic aides.”

How to kill the recovery: “Vast tax increases will be inevitable under President Barack Obama’s budget blueprint, the nation’s largest business groups complained on Friday.The groups blasted tax increases on businesses and wealthy individuals and families in the budget in a letter to members of the House and Senate, while warning that escalating public debt threatened the underlying economy.”

Kill the slams on the tea partiers! “House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Thursday he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a mistake when they called anti-health care protests ‘un-American’ last year.” Maybe he figured out these people are voters.

Naturally the Iranian Lobby — NIAC and Peace Now — want to kill sanctions against the mullahs.

Obama is doing more to kill off civility in public debate than any president since Richard Nixon. Charles Krauthammer on his Wall Street speech: “The way — and he‘s done this before — he tries to denigrate, cast out, and to delegitimize any argument against his. And here he’s talking about that it’s not legitimate even to suggest that the bill he’s supporting might encourage a bailout. It’s certainly possible [to] argue [that] because of the provisions in the ball, and one in particular, where the Treasury has the right to designate any entity — private entity – as a systemic risk, and then to immediately, even without Congress approving and appropriating money, to guarantee all the bad loans. That is an invitation to a bailout. Now, the president could argue otherwise, but to say that to raise this issue is illegitimate is simply appalling.”

Obama continues to kill off the freedom agenda and democracy promotion: “Just this week word came that the administration cut funds to promote democracy in Egypt by half. Programs in countries like Jordan and Iran have also faced cuts. Then there are the symbolic gestures: letting the Dalai Lama out the back door, paltry statements of support for Iranian demonstrators, smiling and shaking hands with Mr. Chávez, and so on. Daniel Baer, a representative from the State Department who participated in the [George W. Bush] conference [on dissidents’ use of new media tools], dismissed the notion that the White House has distanced itself from human-rights promotion as a baseless ‘meme’ when I raised the issue. But in fact all of this is of a piece of Mr. Obama’s overarching strategy to make it abundantly clear that he is not his predecessor.”

Making some progress in killing off business with Iran: “Two giant American accounting firms, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst and Young, disclosed this week that they no longer had any affiliation with Iranian firms, becoming the latest in a string of companies to publicly shun the Islamic republic. Following a similar decision by KPMG earlier this month, that leaves none of the Big Four audit firms with any ties to Iran. In recent months, other companies have announced that they would stop sales, cut back business or end affiliations with Iranian firms, including General Electric, Huntsman, Siemens, Caterpillar and Ingersoll Rand. Daimler said it would sell a minority share in an Iranian engine maker. An Italian firm said it would pull out after its current gas contracts ended. And the Malaysian state oil company cut off gasoline shipments to Iran, following similar moves by Royal Dutch Shell and trading giants like Vitol, Glencore and Trafigura.”

How to kill a senate candidacy: Alex Giannoulias has his bank seized by the Feds. “Whether the issue remains a central one in the race is yet to be seen, but today is surely not a happy day in the Giannoulias camp. GOPers will have a reason to celebrate this weekend.” I think that seat is gone for the Democrats, unless they can pull a Torrecelli.

How to kill cap-and-trade: “The bipartisan climate bill to be unveiled Monday isn’t dead on arrival but it’s not likely to be taken up this year — and not before an immigration bill comes to the Senate floor, according to Democratic aides.”

How to kill the recovery: “Vast tax increases will be inevitable under President Barack Obama’s budget blueprint, the nation’s largest business groups complained on Friday.The groups blasted tax increases on businesses and wealthy individuals and families in the budget in a letter to members of the House and Senate, while warning that escalating public debt threatened the underlying economy.”

Kill the slams on the tea partiers! “House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Thursday he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a mistake when they called anti-health care protests ‘un-American’ last year.” Maybe he figured out these people are voters.

Naturally the Iranian Lobby — NIAC and Peace Now — want to kill sanctions against the mullahs.

Obama is doing more to kill off civility in public debate than any president since Richard Nixon. Charles Krauthammer on his Wall Street speech: “The way — and he‘s done this before — he tries to denigrate, cast out, and to delegitimize any argument against his. And here he’s talking about that it’s not legitimate even to suggest that the bill he’s supporting might encourage a bailout. It’s certainly possible [to] argue [that] because of the provisions in the ball, and one in particular, where the Treasury has the right to designate any entity — private entity – as a systemic risk, and then to immediately, even without Congress approving and appropriating money, to guarantee all the bad loans. That is an invitation to a bailout. Now, the president could argue otherwise, but to say that to raise this issue is illegitimate is simply appalling.”

Obama continues to kill off the freedom agenda and democracy promotion: “Just this week word came that the administration cut funds to promote democracy in Egypt by half. Programs in countries like Jordan and Iran have also faced cuts. Then there are the symbolic gestures: letting the Dalai Lama out the back door, paltry statements of support for Iranian demonstrators, smiling and shaking hands with Mr. Chávez, and so on. Daniel Baer, a representative from the State Department who participated in the [George W. Bush] conference [on dissidents’ use of new media tools], dismissed the notion that the White House has distanced itself from human-rights promotion as a baseless ‘meme’ when I raised the issue. But in fact all of this is of a piece of Mr. Obama’s overarching strategy to make it abundantly clear that he is not his predecessor.”

Making some progress in killing off business with Iran: “Two giant American accounting firms, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst and Young, disclosed this week that they no longer had any affiliation with Iranian firms, becoming the latest in a string of companies to publicly shun the Islamic republic. Following a similar decision by KPMG earlier this month, that leaves none of the Big Four audit firms with any ties to Iran. In recent months, other companies have announced that they would stop sales, cut back business or end affiliations with Iranian firms, including General Electric, Huntsman, Siemens, Caterpillar and Ingersoll Rand. Daimler said it would sell a minority share in an Iranian engine maker. An Italian firm said it would pull out after its current gas contracts ended. And the Malaysian state oil company cut off gasoline shipments to Iran, following similar moves by Royal Dutch Shell and trading giants like Vitol, Glencore and Trafigura.”

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