I have often been asked why someone with my credentials joined the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) -- a political institution, not "nonpartisan" as it sometimes suggests -- and advanced the interests of Iran's ruling clerics, who now lead the world in human rights violations, with a regime that ranks number one in executions per capita.
They also ask why one would work with an organization that is run by a director who is not even Iranian-American; not an American citizen, but holds Iranian and Swedish passports?
Before coming to the United States, I did not know about NIAC and no one I knew in Iran was aware of it either.
Although I wanted to contribute socially in helping Iranian-American communities in the U.S., I also did not want to join a partisan political organization that pretended to help the communities but instead was partisan and sought money, fame, and media attention.
At first, NIAC seemed fine: its mission statement says, "The National Iranian American Council is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the voice of Iranian Americans and promoting greater understanding between the American and Iranian people."
But soon after joining, I discovered several issues.
First, after joining NIAC in a voluntary and unpaid capacity, I felt as if I were back in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I began receiving calls and emails from NIAC indicating that some media outlets were introducing me as "ambassador" for NIAC. Well, one does not always get to choose what title the TV media outlets or magazine use to introduce one. Further, in many instances, journalists would Google my name and find it listed as ambassador for NIAC on its website.
I was still wondering why NIAC would be opposed to the idea that media introduces me as their ambassador. Later on, I encountered an article which said:
"NIAC's inner contradictions never cease to surprise me, but then I guess that is the nature of Politics. Trita Parsi who staunchly opposed Western intervention in Libya virtually blaming it on Sarkozy's warmongering and conforted [sic] in his views by the ever clueless moralist Hamid Dabashi accusing the hidden agenda's of Western 'Imperialism' with his Broken record rants on European 'Neo Colonialism' while people were being mercilessly slaughtered by Libya's Caligula has now added to it's [sic] new list of Ambassador's [sic] for 2012 an Iranian academic of Syrian heritage. But One who for a change seems to speak some sense in regard to a country he seems to understand far more deeply than NIAC understands Iran..."
It seemed most likely their opposition to me being introduced as their ambassador had to do with my personal views, which differed from those of NIAC. I criticized Iran's political establishments, strongly condemned human right violations, criticized the Syrian regime for the bloodshed, and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for assisting the Syrian regime.
It soon felt as if my freedom of expression were being taken away. I started to worry that a journalist somewhere might quote an interview or text and use the title "Ambassador to the National Iranian American Council," if he might have found my name on its website. I would then have to track down the journalist, find his or her contacts, and plead with him or her to remove the title. I was also worried that I might say something on television or write something that NIAC might not like. These fears of expressing myself freely were similar to those that I grew up with having lived and worked in Iran and Syria.
I was also wondering why, if NIAC had issues with my personal views, it kept me for some months more. Perhaps, I wondered, it might have had to do with what I had mentioned to them earlier: that I knew some philanthropists who might donate money to the institution.
I also felt that NIAC's image was bigger than what the organization really was. Its website gave the impression that it is large, influential institution, and only works to advance the interests of all Iranian-Americans.
Many Iranian-Americans had mentioned that the NIAC did not represent them, and that it is solely a political institution pursuing its own interests. Some argued that NIAC's policies did not seem to be aimed at improving the lives of Iranian-Americans, but were political and partisan policies more likely aimed at making more money, getting more fame, media publicity and self-promotion, satisfying those who provide funding to them, or going towards where the money is.
I also started to wonder whether the NIAC and Trita Parsi's lawsuit against the journalist Hassan Daioleslam, which they lost, was a way to silence criticism, restrict freedom of expression and of the press, frighten people and silence journalists.
The appellate judges wrote:
"Throughout discovery, the Appellants (NIAC and Parsi) engaged in a disturbing pattern of delay and intransigence. Seemingly at every turn, NIAC and Parsi deferred producing relevant documents, withheld them, or denied their existence altogether. Many of these documents went to the heart of Daioleslam's defense. The Appellants' failure to produce documents in a timely manner forced Daioleslam — whom they had hualed into court — to waste resources and time deposing multiple witnesses and subpoenaing third parties for emails the Appellants should have turned over. Even worse, the Appellants also misrepresented to the District Court that they did not possess key documents Daioleslam sought. Most troublingly, they flouted multiple court orders."
"We have previously recognized a trial judge's authority to punish and deter abuses of the discovery process, and we do so again today. A court without the authority to sanction conduct that so plainly abuses the judicial process cannot function. We affirm the bulk of the District Court's sanctions as the wages of Appellants' dilatory, dishonest, and intransigent conduct, though in a couple of minor respects, we reverse and remand for reconsideration under the proper standard."
"one of the three appellate judges in the Court of Appeals, Judge Robert Wilkins reminded NIAC and Trita Parsi of their numerous false and misleading declarations to the court and told NIAC's attorney: "I have got to tell you that your client is lucky that I was not the district judge, because you will be here appealing much more severe and higher sanctions because I think he [the district court judge] had extreme patience in dealing with lots of misleading and false representations and countless times when your client was trying to slice the baloney very thin, as far as trying to parse what their obligations were."
The defendant, Daioleslam, stated,
"NIAC sued me in April 2008 to break me under financial burdens. I hired a lawyer and paid from my own pocket until I had no more resources. I asked for help and in September 2008 contacted the Legal Project at Middle East Forum. They contacted several law firms and finally, Sidley Austin LLP and Senior Litigation Partner and 2012 Best Lawyers' Chicago Products Liability Lawyer of the Year Mr. Timothy Kapshandy graciously accepted to defend me pro bono.
I am grateful to the Iranian-American community, to the Middle East Forum, to Dr. Daniel Pipes, to Sidley Austin and its attorneys who defended my case, notably Mr. Timothy Kapshandy."
It seemed that the media outlets, politicians, or some institutions that give funds or grants seem to have fallen for the image of the NIAC as being very influential in the U.S. and Iran, having very powerful connections in Iran or in the U.S., and being the representative of almost all Iranian-Americans. Those who are major decision makers in Iran -- Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and senior officials of the IRGC -- keep issues within their gilded circle and those Iranians to whom we have access, are not the major decision makers in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
To illustrate this issue, one possible example is the case of Siamak Namazi, a friend of the NIAC director and co-founder of NIAC. If the NIAC and Trita Parsi were really influential in Iran and had connections with the major decision makers, they would have most likely had Namazi released instead of him languishing as a political prisoner in Tehran's Evin prison.
It seems that the White House, the mainstream media, some journalists and politicians, and some donor organizations have been totally fooled by the exaggerated influence and image of the NIAC.
Nevertheless, the "Ploughshares" group, which the White House has identified as a key surrogate in "selling" the Iran nuclear deal, gave NIAC more than $281,000.
The Associated Press's Big Story added that,
"In The New York Times Magazine article, [Ben] Rhodes [deputy national security adviser] explained how the administration worked with nongovernmental organizations, proliferation experts and even friendly reporters to build support for the seven-nation accord that curtailed Iran's nuclear activity and softened international financial penalties on Tehran.
"'We created an echo chamber,' said Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, adding that 'outside groups like Ploughshares' helped carry out the administration's message effectively."
The editor and publisher Robert Lifson argues, "In the wake of Ben Rhodes chortling to the New York Times over how easy it was to fool the American media to get favorable coverage of the Iran nuclear deal comes news that the media "echo chamber" (as Rhodes called it) was funded by a hard-left foundation."
Some questions remain unanswered: Where and how did NIAC spend this money?
According to the Washington Times, "Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an acclaimed Iranian filmmaker and unofficial spokesman for Iran's opposition Green Movement" told The Times previously that "I think Trita Parsi does not belong to the Green Movement. I feel his lobbying has secretly been more for the Islamic Republic."
Journalists, policy makers, and organizations should be careful not to exaggerate the NIAC's influence and give it more attention than it deserves; doing so might only help the NIAC to gain publicity, funding, access to American politicians, and so on.
Two crucial issues that NIAC possibly fears are: Ignoring the NIAC or following up with what Washington Times stated about the possibility of violations of federal law, "Now a lawsuit has brought to light numerous documents that raise questions about whether the organization is using that influence to lobby for policies favorable to Iran in violation of federal law."
The Washington Times adds that
"Much of NIAC's less public work has come to light through e-mails, documents, board of directors meeting minutes and strategy memos that were made public as part of the discovery process during a current defamation lawsuit against a critic of the group... Law enforcement experts who reviewed some of the documents, which were made available to The Times, by way of the defendant in the suit, said that e-mails between Mr. Parsi and Iran's ambassador to the United Nations at the time, Javad Zarif - and an internal review of the Lobbying Disclosure Act - offer evidence that the group has operated as an undeclared lobby and may be guilty of violating tax laws, the Foreign Agents Registration Act and lobbying disclosure laws.... Neither Mr. Parsi nor anyone else at NIAC has registered as a lobbyist or filed papers with the Justice Department as a local agent of the Iranian government or Iranian companies. Mr. Parsi was shown and read the documents cited in this article."
The Washington Times asked two ex- federal law enforcement officials about this issue:
"'Arranging meetings between members of Congress and Iran's ambassador to the United Nations would in my opinion require that person or entity to register as an agent of a foreign power; in this case it would be Iran,' said one of those officials, former FBI associate deputy director Oliver 'Buck' Revell. The other official, former FBI special agent in counterintelligence and counterterrorism Kenneth Piernick, said, 'It appears that this may be lobbying on behalf of Iranian government interests. Were I running the counterintelligence program at the bureau now, I would have cause to look into this further.'"
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist, Harvard-educated, and president of the International American Council. He can be reached at Dr.firstname.lastname@example.org or followed at @Dr_Rafizadeh