In the Arena

Sane Iranians Attacked

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In my continuing effort to not write a word–to not give any additional publicity–to a certain former vice presidential candidate who has “written” a “book” this week, I’ve gone deeply afield into the Moonian recesses of the Washington Times and looked at an article by Eli Lake, who specializes in middle east reporting and does it a higher level than most of his colleagues at the neo-religious-cult publication. The article, about an Iranian-American advocacy group, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), has set hearts aflutter with outrage among the usual suspects–the neoconservatives who’ve been plumping for war with Iran.

I know many of the players involved, in Iran and here, though not very well. They are, so far as I know, the good guys in all this–the people not only trying to find some means to a rapprochment between the U.S. and Iran, but also those who are hoping for a freer, less extreme government in Iran.

Lake’s argument seems to be that NIAC has been lobbying for those goals without declaring itself as a lobbying organization. I’m not an expert on lobbying law, but even if Lake has caught NIAC in the act of imitating AIPAC without a license, this is a misdemeanor at best.

But it is important to take a look at some of the things that NIAC and its leader, Trita Parsi, have been accused of…

To start with, I know Parsi, not well, and I’ve found him to be an eminently reasonable voice on US-Iranian relations. I also know the two Iranian businessmen involved in the case, Siamak Namazi and Bijan Khajepour, again not well–I interviewed both when I visited Iran in 2001. They had set up a consulting firm on the assumption that, with the moderate Mohammed Khatami in charge, relations between Iran and the rest of the world would be improving dramatically. They were wrong. Namazi has left Iran and Khajepour, a diabetic, was arrested and thrown in jail after the June 12 elections.

These are not suspicious characters. The fact that Parsi was in contact with them is a sign that he was on the right track–consulting with the members of the Iranian business community most threatening to the Khamenei Regime, i.e. those who wanted closer relations with the rest of the world. As we’ve seen in recent months, the regime finds such relationships subversive. So do I, so should you. If the Supreme Leader is denied his Satans, Great and Small, he loses the rationale–and the public constituency–for repression.

Another suspicious character here is Javad Zarif, Iran’s former UN Ambassador, whom I also know fairly well. Parsi apparently set up some meetings ¬†between Zarif and members of Congress. Zarif was the reformer Khatami’s designated Ambassador. He was replaced by Ahmadinejad, undoubtedly because he was too moderate. When I was in Iran in June, mutual friends advised me not to contact Zarif, since he was in a delicate position and email exchanges with Americans might jeopardize his safety. I hope he is safe. In my experience, he was a strong advocate for his country, but also someone who hoped for better relations with us. Certainly, meetings with Iranians like Zarif could only improve the knowledge and nuance of U.S. members of Congress. I’m glad Trita Parsi set them up.

I’m in disagreement with NIAC on a third area of controversy. There are emails that indicate NIAC was opposed to having Dennis Ross as the U.S. negotiator with Iran, since he had a reputation as a hard-liner. These are private emails; the leaders of NIAC have a right to their opinions. But I don’t think NIAC should have a dog in that hunt. But then, I’m sure there are emails extant that indicate leaders of AIPAC were not so thrilled about George Mitchell being named Middle East negotiator (and, indeed, hoping that Ross was named to that spot instead). I’m glad that the Obama Administration had the wisdom to make both NIAC and AIPAC unhappy in this case. I also believe that if NIAC is anywhere near the bright line when it comes to lobbying, it should register as a lobbying organization.

But the bottom line is this: NIAC favors sanity in the US-Iran relationship. It is no friend of the Iranian regime. (Parsi told me last summer that it was too dangerous for him to even visit Iran.) It criticized the regime after the June 12 elections. Its friends–people like Namazi, Bhajepour and Zarif–are those who are considered suspicious by the regime. But it also opposes the “bomb, bomb Iran” policies favored by the neoconservatives, who are now attempting to make NIAC radioactive. This seems a terrible perversion of ¬†the truth about the organization and its leader.