Iran’s lobbyists aim to be inconspicuous

Iran’s lobbyists aim to be inconspicuous

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Some people might argue that the Islamic Republic is unlikely to have lobbyists or agents working on its behalf in foreign countries, particularly the US, where Tehran does not have an embassy and with which it has not had official diplomatic relations for almost four decades. But such an argument appears to be far from the reality on the ground.

Iranian officials have previously acknowledged they have lobby groups and operatives in the West, including in the US, who are pushing to advance the regime’s parochial and geopolitical interests. For example, the Iranian intelligence minister and Iran’s chief spy, Mahmoud Alavi, made an astonishing announcement in 2017, when he boasted that Tehran runs a lobby group in Washington that promotes the hard-line agenda of the ruling mullahs. He declared that the “lobby group for the Islamic Republic of Iran” is loyal to the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary ideals.

Furthermore, when Mehdi Hosseini, the chairman of Iran’s Oil Contracts Restructuring Committee, was asked in 2013 whether there were Western entities that pressure their governments on behalf of the Islamic Republic, he responded: “Yes. They have done this in the past.” He added that these lobbying efforts “will help us and we should exploit these opportunities.”

Now, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Mike Braun have called on the US Department of Justice to open an investigation into a group called the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), as they believe it to be a lobby group that is acting as a “foreign agent of the Islamic Republic.” NIAC has reportedly been operating for more than a decade but is not registered as a lobby group. Instead, the organization calls itself a “nonpartisan, nonprofit organization advancing (the) interests of (the) Iranian-American community.”

US law requires lobbyists to register for many reasons, including transparency. The senators who urged an investigation into NIAC’s activities added: “(The Foreign Agents Registration Act) requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts, and disbursements in support of those activities. FARA does not compel any American to refrain from certain types of speech; rather, it helps guarantee transparency and accountability in our political system.”

Intriguingly, according to the statement, the former acting policy director of NIAC, Patrick Disney, even admitted “in internal emails that he and the organization’s legislative director spend more than 20 percent of their time conducting lobbying activities.”

Lobbyists may avoid showing affiliation with the authoritarian and unpopular regime to maintain their legitimacy, public image and status in democratic nations.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Furthermore, former FBI associate deputy director Oliver Revell pointed out that “to arrange 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.” Revell’s comment came after NIAC’s Swedish-Iranian founder Trita Parsi reportedly arranged meetings between the Islamic Republic’s former ambassador to the UN and current Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and members of the US Congress. According to Iranians Forum, “documents 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 US policy with Iran.”

Some people might wonder why any lobbying entity in the West might refrain from registering as a lobby group? Would it be to dodge transparency rules or hide dealings and financial transactions with a regime? Would it be to evade taxes, receive taxable charity donations or to maintain an image of being a nonpartisan group? If Iran has lobbyists in the West, as Alavi stated, does Tehran pay them? If so, since it cannot use the US banking system, how are payments made — through European banks and in cash? Lobbyists might avoid showing their affiliation with authoritarian and unpopular regimes to maintain their legitimacy, public image and status in democratic nations. 

Iran’s apologists in the West may appear to fly under the radar or act less conspicuously. And some might think that they seem determined to satisfy the mullahs by cajoling, prodding and persuading US policy-makers into believing that appeasement, the lifting of sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and being a soft touch are the only ways to contain the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism.

The US and other Western governments must closely monitor and investigate any entity that may illegally lobby and advance the interests of a regime that is sworn to damage the West’s national security.

• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh.

* This is an updated version that replaces the original content at the request of the author.

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