If there’s one rule-of-thumb in Washington, it’s that you know your foreign policy legacy isn’t great when even Jimmy Carter criticizes it as weak and ineffective. That’s like “Seinfeld” character George Costanza bragging that he could beat an NBA star in one-on-one hoops, with everyone in the media just nodding in agreement. Democrats may still go through the motions of defending the president’s strategy or lack thereof, but when all is said and done, even they acknowledge Barack Obama’s foreign policy will be an outlier. Whether a Democrat on Republican comes next, there will likely never again in our lifetimes be a president as cavalier toward American security or disdainful of America’s place in the world as Obama has been.
To believe that time spent cultivating the Obama White House will translate into lasting influence, therefore, is risible. But that’s exactly what the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) has done. The reality is that its access to the White House will end precipitously once the Obama administration ends, and its interaction with the State Department will peter out as diplomats increasingly recognize it for what it is: Through both rhetoric and action, NIAC has long acted as the Islamic Republic of Iran’s de facto lobby in Washington. Now, however, it plans to make it official. According to Politico:
NIAC Action aims to direct money from the Iranian-American community, which is relatively well-off compared to other immigrant groups, toward more concerted political activism. “We’ve got all this money on the table, all this political influence that’s not being utilized,” said Jamal Abdi, NIAC Action’s executive director. “Now we can actually start playing the full political game…” Abdi and others make no secret of their desire to shift the political landscape in Washington away from groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has criticized the talks with Iran, and toward movements more inclined to pursue diplomacy with the longtime U.S. nemesis.
Trita Parsi, NIAC’s leader for life, and Abdi make several crucial mistakes, though, that will undercut the success of the Iran lobby they seek to launch:
- For what exactly is NIAC to lobby? Israel is a democracy that has exported medical devices across the globe; Iran is a theocratic dictatorship that has exported explosively formed projectiles. Israel accepts gays; the Iranian government claim they simply don’t exist in Iran (and it executes them when it finds them). The Iranian regime regularly spews the vilest rhetoric and publicly executes dozens per month. The realist argument that through size and resources the Islamic Republic can be a partner also falls flat. David Verbeteen, at the time a doctoral candidate at King’s College, University of London, penned an important analysis in 2009 about why President Eisenhower and the State Department’s plan to shift the United States away from partnership with Israel and into the Arab camp failed. In short, the White House and even the State Department quickly realized that Israel simply made a better ally than most if not all Arab states. Business may be one thing, but should the United States really align its policy with the chief state sponsor of terrorism, one that holds Americans hostage and represses religious minorities? Pride in Iranian heritage should never mean apologia for the Iranian regime. Iranian Americans understand that, and most everyone in the national security community does as well.
- NIAC is not bipartisan; it is hyper-partisan. NIAC has aligned itself consistently with groups like CodePink, Daily Kos, the Institute for Policy Studies, and WarisaCrime.org, and political radicals like Stephen Walt and Juan Cole. Parsi has antagonized a broad range of mainstream policymakers of both parties with partisan cheap shots and polemic, anti-Semitic aspersions, and policy prescriptions far outside the mainstream. His twitter feed is a repository for snark, conspiracy, and personal aspersion. He and NIAC spin conspiracy theories about inevitable plans for war against Iran simply to fundraise. AIPAC, conversely, has always cultivated broad, bipartisan appeal and is probably the most effective lobbyist not only for a strong U.S.-Israel partnership, but also for moderate Arab states like Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and the Gulf Cooperation Council emirates. Just the fact that NIAC casts itself as the anti-AIPAC suggests what a confrontational frame-of-reference the NIAC lobby espouses. Forget AIPAC. What about the Islamic Republic does NIAC really want to promote?
- NIAC does not represent the broader Iranian-American community. The Iranian American community is diverse. As Ayatollah Khomeini led his Islamic Revolution, he ruthlessly purged political opponents and made life unbearable for religious minorities; many fled to Europe and the United States. Among the hundreds of thousands of Americans of Iranian descent are Baha’is, Christians, and Jews. NIAC’s fealty to the theocracy which oppressed them is unattractive to many, which is why NIAC remains relatively small compared to other Iranian-American organizations like the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) which already do what NIAC claims it wants to. The mistake NIAC makes is that it conflates pride in Iran and Iranian heritage with the Islamic Republic. Most Iranian Americans, however, recognize that the Islamic Republic is an anomaly and is not representative of the Iran most Iranians seek. And just as the Islamic Republic seeks to limit political discourse, so too does NIAC which remains incredibly hostile to monarchists and constitutional republicans on one hand, and the Mujahedin al-Khalq (MKO) on the other. Personally, I’m antagonistic to the MKO as well, but an organization that represents Iranian-Americans must take a big tent approach rather than allow Tehran to define political legitimacy.
- Iranian-Americans should be Afraid to Donate to NIAC. Many Iranian-Americans, even those that agree with Parsi’s politics, recognize how careless NIAC can be. After launching a frivolous lawsuit to silence an Iranian-American journalist far from the mainstream, Parsi allowed reams of correspondence to be exposed to the press. Rather than acknowledge error, Parsi and NIAC have doubled down raising the possibility that they will treat confidential information frivolously in the future. Poor judgment can betray anonymity and betray donors. Also, while NIAC promises its donors anonymity, they should be aware that the government and journalists both will be putting NIAC fundraising under the microscope because of the suspicion, already voiced by many in the Iranian American community, that anonymous donations could provide a mechanism for other Iranian proxies or the Iranian government themselves to support NIAC. The FBI raid on the Alavi Foundation and subsequent convictions and confiscations provide a warning to those tempted to hide behind financial opacity.
Congratulations to NIAC for finally recognizing that, with the Obama administration ending, it could no longer risk violating lobbying rules. When it comes to foreign policy, however, democracy trumps theocracy every single time. Political tolerance will always trump polemic. And community representation can’t be fudged with empty platitudes. Nor can sleight-of-hand substitute for financial transparency.