Penetrating the U.S. Political System
By Hassan Daioleslam
See SOURCE for full list of references.
Inside the National Iranian-American Council.
Robert William (Bob) Ney is a current federal prisoner and a former Ohio Congressman from 1995 until November 3, 2006. On October 13, 2006 Ney pled guilty1 to charges of conspiracy and making false statements in relation to the Jack Abramoff lobbying and bribery scandal. Ney reportedly received bribes from Abramoff, other lobbyists, and two foreign businessmen – a felon and an arms dealer – in exchange for using his position to advance their interests.
Conspicuously missing from this dossier of disservice to the country is Ney’s masterful creation of an active and disguised Washington-based lobbying enterprise for the Iranian theocratic regime, The National Iranian-American Council (NIAC). NIAC is an effective node of Tehran’s comprehensive US lobbying web. This article will address the creation of NIAC, the motives underlying its formation, NIAC’s manifesto, Tehran’s role, NIAC’s connection to Iran’s oil mafia, and NIAC attempts to penetrate the US political system.
Creation of NIAC
The National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) was founded by four non Iranian-Americans: Roy Coffee, Dave DiStefano, Bob Ney and Trita Parsi. Coffee and DiStefano, both Washington lobbyists, were investigated by the Justice Department for arranging a trip for Bob Ney to meet a known felon and a Syrian arms dealer in a conspiracy to circumvent sanctions to sell US-made airplane parts to Tehran.2
Roy Coffee sent a letter to the Dallas Morning News in February 2006 to justify his relationship with the two London-based felons. Part of the letter discussed the creation of NIAC in 2002. In this letter, Coffee described the events following the meeting of his former classmate Darius Baghai (who had just returned from Iran) with Bob Ney:
From that meeting, Darius, Dave and I began to work with Trita Parsi, another Iranian-American, to try to form a political action committee of Iranian-Americans to pursue a strategy of normalization of relations between the two countries. The 4 of us worked very hard for about 9 months to form this committee.
Trita Parsi at the time was a Swedish-Iranian graduate student in his early twenties with ties to Iran’s ambassador in Sweden.3 He was working part-time as a Congressional aid in Ney’s office in Washington on a temporary visa. Parsi was subsequently appointed president of NIAC. Should we believe that one of the most expensive lobbying teams in the US, one of the most corrupt lawmakers in Washington and a Congressional aid in his office, none of them Iranian-American, worked hard for nine months out of their humanitarian concern for the Iranian people?
The New Lobby
In the 1990’s, the American-Iranian Council (AIC), with backing from multinational oil companies, was a front for the Iran’s lobbying efforts in the US. Houshang Amir-Ahmadi served as its president. Amirahmadi has been an active pro-Tehran player in the US since the early 1980s. While residing in the US, he was also a presidential candidate in Iran’s elections. He officially collaborated with different Iranian institutions and notably the foreign ministry.4 In 1999 and 2000 Trita Parsi was closely working with Amirahmadi and was well positioned in the leadership of AIC.5,6
In 2001, the pro-Iran lobby in the United States became intensely active to prevent the renewal of the Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), and to improve US-Iran relations. Despite extraordinary pressure from the lobby, ILSA passed overwhelmingly.
Prior to his imprisonment, Bob Ney, in concert with AIC, was Tehran’s dogged warrior in Washington as he relentlessly led Congressional efforts to end ILSA and initiate Tehran-friendly policies. Ney, disappointed and angered by the ILSA vote, began to plan for the next battle of the war.
The ILSA vote doesn’t look very promising, but that doesn’t mean the struggle should stop on this entire issue. It is a matter of education and re-education and people getting together and forming a citizen’s lobby to make sure that members of Congress and their offices are educated on this issue.
– Speech to AIC, June 2001,7 (Emphasis added).
While Ney was hard at work “forming a citizen’s lobby,” Trita Parsi claimed that the majority of lawmakers voted against their true wills. In a tone apologetic to Tehran, he expressed his hope that the Iranian regime understood that he and his colleagues had worked hard to prevent this result:
Hopefully, Tehran will recognize that an honest attempt was made to defeat or at least weaken the sanctions. The call for a review and Speaker Hastert's pledge to insist on Congressional action based on the review must also be interpreted by Tehran as a step in the right direction.
– IranAnalysis, July 2001, Peyvand’ Iran News.
Their failure to block the renewal of ILSA marked the start of a new era for the pro-Iran lobby in the United States. The lobbyists recognized that they must broadly reach out to Iranian-Americans. Iran became directly involved in creating, organizing and implementing a far-reaching lobbying campaign in the US, fundamentally different in its organization, which targeted the strategic needs of Tehran’s rulers. The creation of NIAC as the main executer of this new endeavor had been meticulously planned since the late 1990s. Parsi stepped down from the board of directors of the AIC. An influential US Congressman and a posh Washington lobbyist came to Tehran’s help to create NIAC. An unknown Iranian Swedish student was selected to serve as president of this new organization.
Trita Parsi was the regime’s trusted man within the new network. Tehran’s faith in Parsi was so profound that in 2003 when Iran decided to send a highly secret proposal for negotiations to the White House, Parsi was called on to arrange the delivery of the message through Bob Ney to Karl Rove.8 Parsi, moreover, was among the few chosen men (along with Mahallati, Iran’s former ambassador to UN) to present the results of a shady Tehran-friendly poll of the Iranian population which indicated the popularity of Iran’s nuclear program.9,10
Trita Parsi and the Regime’s Inner Circle
During the eight years of Rafsanjani’s presidency, which ended in 1997, the Iranian regime had attempted without success to attract the Iranian Diaspora to its cause. Khatami’s presidency recharged Tehran’s efforts. With the Supreme Leader’s direct involvement, the High Council for Iranian Compatriots Overseas9 was created in 2000 under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry. The President heads the Council, and the Foreign Minister serves as its deputy director. The Ministry of Intelligence and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance collaborate to implement the decisions of the council. The objective was to create a network of organizations to infiltrate and seemingly represent the Iranian community abroad, and promote policies favorable to the Iranian government. Tehran anticipated that this strategy would neutralize opposition activities abroad and legitimize the new lobby.
State-sanctioned Iranian newspapers started a campaign to promote Trita Parsi and NIAC. Pro-government publications outside Iran followed suit. The former head of the Iran interest in Washington, Ambassador Faramarze Fathnejad, was thrilled about Trita Parsi’s efforts and NIAC, highlighting11 “the importance of relations with Iranian organizations in the U.S. and specially pointed to NIAC and his young leader who is a consultant to CNN and has been very successful in his efforts.” The Iran Ambassador even claimed 20,000 members for NIAC (while only 150 is claimed by NIAC itself)!
But token rhetorical support would not alone turn an inexperienced graduate student and a corrupt Washington politician into a lobbying enterprise. Entities with ample financial resources and direct access to Iran’s top leaders had to enter the scene. Understanding the NIAC’s activities in the US necessitates familiarity with Trita Parsi’s main partner in Iran, Siamak Namazi, one of the most important figures of this new lobbying enterprise and a prominent member of the Iranian oil Mafia.
Namazi, along with his sister Pari and brother Babak, control the Atieh enterprise12 in Iran and its three sister companies Atieh Roshan, Atieh Bahar and Atieh Associates, as well as numerous other direct and indirect partnerships, including13 Azar Energy, Menas companies in England, Atieh Dadeh Pardaz, FTZ Corporate services and MES Middle East Strategie.12 Particularly noteworthy is the fact that Baquer Namazi14 (the father) is the Chairman of Hamyaran, an umbrella organization for the NGOs in Iran – a man of considerable influence in the internal and foreign affairs of the country.
Atieh claims to be a “. . . fully private strategic consulting firm that assists companies to better understand the Iranian market, develop business and stay ahead of competition.” People familiar with the oil industry in Iran know what this description is code for. In reality, Atieh is notorious for being a conduit for racketeering, bribery and money laundering, mainly for corrupt Iranian rulers. Atieh’s customers include the foreign corporations who wish to do business in Iran and find no choice but to bribe officials. One of their fiascos involved Norway’s Statoil,15 a customer of Atieh Bahar.16 Their bribery of Iranian officials through consultants was exposed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice. A number of high officials in the company were fired and the company had to pay tens of millions of dollars in penalties to the US and Norwegian governments for “payments to an Iranian official in 2002 and 2003 in order to induce him to use his influence to obtain the award to Statoil of a contract to develop phases 6, 7 and 8 of the Iranian South Pars gas field.”
The most recent debacle of Atieh enterprise was in March of 2007, when the CEO of the French oil company Total SA17 was charged for bribery of Iranian high officials to secure contracts. Total is one of the major customers of the Namazi’s Atieh enterprise and is mainly represented in Iran by Atieh and its affiliate companies. Tens of millions of dollars of bribes were paid by Total through individuals and third party corporations.
Tehran’s trust in Namazi is elucidated by the fact that his enterprise provides the network and computer services for almost all Iranian banks, parliament, and other important institutions. Namazi’s groups monitor18 nearly all Iranian economic or political activities and have access to the country’s most sensitive data. This is a clear indication of his prominent place inside the inner circle of power in Tehran.
While representing Tehran, Namazi, disguised as a scholar,19,20 travels to the US to seemingly pursue academic activities through think-tanks close to the Iranian regime. This link between the Iranian oil Mafia and “scholarly” pursuits in the US is hardly isolated. Three former Iranian deputy foreign ministers currently live in Boston posing as “scholars:” Mohammad Mahallati21 who was also the Iranian ambassador to the UN in the late 1980s, Farhad Atai and, Abbas Maleki.22 In addition to his diplomatic past, Maleki has been one of the most important figures within the Iranian oil Mafia.
Trita Parsi and Namazi worked very closely on developing the details of the grand plan of forming an Iranian-American “Citizen’s Lobby” in the US. They traveled to Iran together.23 They organized joint conferences and meetings, launched lobbying projects and wrote joint papers.24
In 1999, Parsi and Namazi presented a joint paper titled, “Iranian-Americans: The bridge between two nations,” at the DAPIA conference organized by the Iranian government in Cypress. This report comprises the manifesto and roadmap of the new Iranian lobby in the US. In this paper, the authors suggest that: “an Iranian-American lobby is needed in order to create a balance between the competing Middle Eastern lobbies. Without it, Iran-bashing may become popular in Congress again.” The “competing lobby” was AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee). The pillars of the road map were24:
• To have the appearance of a citizen’s lobby.
• To mimic the Jewish lobby in the US.
• To impede Iranian opposition activities.
• To infiltrate the US political system.
• To break the taboo of working with Iran’s cleric rulers for the Iranian Diaspora
• To improve the image of the Iran’s government abroad.
In their report, Namazi and Parsi admitted that the Iranian community by large rejects the clerical regime and there is no hope that this community will help a pro-regime lobby in the US.
This group’s [Iranian Americans] role has not been utilized anywhere close to its potential, however, for several reasons: A good portion of them were against the IRI [Islamic Republic of Iran], therefore would not do anything to help.
The point is, the said group [Iranian Americans] was not about to form a lobby group that would benefit the establishment in Tehran, or benefit the Iranian-Americans themselves as a community, nor was it for the most part interested in forming a pressure group against the Islamic Republic.
This was also underlined by Roy Coffee, one of the NIAC’s founders:25
We [NIAC’s founders] found that most Iranians do not want to get involved in politics because of their experiences in Iran during and after the revolution. They have come to this country to make a better life for themselves and their children and don't want to get involved.
The lack of genuine participation from the Iranian-American community in this lobby has been overcome with a sophisticated machine of professional lobbyists and “friendly” circles who favor a rapprochement with the Iranian regime.
Tehran’s Advice: Mimic Jewish Lobby in Washington
One of the hallmarks of the new lobby was its desire to rival the “Israeli Lobby” in the United States. This aspiration was so strong that an organization26 was created and called IAPAC (Iranian American Political Action Committee) as compared with AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee). Three of IAPAC’s board members came from the AIC’s leadership.27
In their 1999 DAPIA paper, Parsi and Namazi analyzed at length the techniques used by AIPAC, and suggested that the same approach should be taken to create an Iranian lobby in Washington:
Creating similar types of seminars and intern opportunities to Iranian-American youth may not improve Iran-US relations in the short run, but it will help integrate the Iranian-American community into the political life of America. In the long run, a strong and active Iranian- American lobby, partly established through these seminars and by the participants of these programs, may serve to ensure that the US and Iran never find themselves in violent opposition to each other again.
Trita Parsi has been reciting this comparison to the Israeli lobby since the late 1990’s, about the time that the High Council was formed. At the beginning his tone was more contentious and resembled the mullah’s usual rhetoric. While he has toned down his anti-Israeli remarks in his English communiqués, the governmental newspaper Aftab published on December 28, 2006 an interview with Trita Parsi.28 In his introduction, the reporter underlined the role of Parsi’s lobby on behalf of the Iranian regime. The article’s title is interesting: “The Iranian Lobby Becomes Active.” Translation:
The conflict between Iran and the West on Iran’s nuclear file has entered a critical state. The government must now utilize all the possible resources to defend the national interest. In this, we have not paid enough attention to the potentially significant influence of the Iranian American society in moderating the extremist policies of the White House. In comparison of this untouched potential to the influence of the Jewish lobby in directing the policies of Washington in supporting Israel, we see the difference between what is and what could be.
In coordination with Trita Parsi, Siamak Namazi also started singing the same songs:29
I propose that we should start showing up to the leadership training seminars and other events organized by the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) for their youth. Not only will this create an opportunity to learn the fine skills of community organization and grassroots lobbying, but it also takes away from AIPAC's ability to spread misinformation about Iran through a deliberate campaign to further its own political agenda.
As Ney’s criminal bribery and lobbying fiasco became more public, NIAC’s president Trita Parsi attempted to deny the lobbying nature of NIAC. NIAC was not registered as a lobbying organization, and lobbying activities would have been illegal. Furthermore, being lobbied by a former aid would have added to Ney’s already complicated and ugly situation and impede Parsi’s career in Washington! Therefore in an interview with Washington Prism in 2005, Parsi in response to a direct question asking whether his group lobbies the US congress, declared:30
Our group does not do any lobbying at all. We do not contact the Congressmen to support or oppose a bill.
Reality exposes the falsehood of Parsi’s claim. NIAC has strived to penetrate the US political system as per the 1999 roadmap by Namazi and Parsi. NIAC’s actions lucidly reveal the nature of the organization. The Washington Post reported on June 25, 2006:31
The NIAC helped persuade a dozen conservative House members to sign a letter to President Bush earlier this month calling for unconditional negotiations with Iran's regime.
The external communications of Parsi and other NIAC leaders shed further light on NIAC’s lobbying activities.32
The NIAC members have educational and experimental knowledge on the lobbying process and politics in America.
. . . we must establish connections on Capitol Hill to establish early-warning systems about proposed votes or bills that may oppose the best interests of Iranian-Americans.
Bob Ney, Roy Coffee, and Dave DiStefano arranged numerous workshops, training classes, seminars and speeches in which they themselves and others with experience prepared members and affiliates of NIAC to lobby and influence Congress. Parsi, Namazi and Ney organized public gatherings and discrete and exclusive fundraiser events (with $1,000 plates). They developed training manuals on lobbying.
NIAC itself admits that,32 “In 2002, Congressman Ney benefited from letters sent by Iranian-Americans through NIAC's Legislative Action Center in support of his resolution on US-Iran relations.”
Trita Parsi, Namazi and company fully intended to infiltrate the US Congress. Its methods included both engaging unsuspecting Iranian-Americans working in various Congressional offices and recruiting and placing young Iranian-Americans to serve as interns or pages in these offices by offering room, board and financial incentives. NIAC’s website brags of success stories in this venture. The young Iranian-American Press Secretary for Rep. Marcy Kaptur is drafted to help in improving the lobbying skills of NIAC members and affiliates. An Iranian-American student at the University of Minnesota receives a financial scholarship in his senior year and becomes an intern in Senator Norm Coleman’s (R-MN) Washington office.33 Another intern, a graduate of the University of South Florida, is placed in Congressman Jim Davis’ (D-FL) Washington, D.C. office. Expanding the operation to penetrate the US political system, NIAC has now formally implemented a paid trainee program and is actively in search for unwary Iranian- American youth.
Since the early 1990’s, Tehran has embarked on developing a sophisticated lobby enterprise in the United States. Iran’s government has devoted significant manpower and financial resources to this cause. This lobbying enterprise consists of a complex, convoluted and intermingled web of entities and organizations with significant overlap of leadership and rank and file, and heavy involvement of the notoriously mafia-like inner circles of the Iranian regime. Disguised as scholars, many of the former Iranian government officials reside in the US and constitute an important piece of the lobbying machine. NIAC and its major figures, such as Bob Ney and Trita Parsi, are effective nodes of Tehran’s efforts to manipulate US policy toward self-serving ends.
1. Kiel, P. "Ney Faces Possible 2 Years Plus in Prison."
2. Bresnahan, J. "Casino Chips Sealed Ney’s Fate."
3. Dialog between Iranian Ambassador and Iranian exiles in Sweden.
4. Parvin, M. "Boxed In on Iran."
http://article.nationalreview.com/print/?q=MjhiYmYyOWM5ZTBjMDI5NWI0NjQwYzBhZTY3Nzk0MjY= (June 12, 2006).
5. "The Iranian Presidential Elections and Its Implications for US-Iran Relations."
6. Javid, J. "Act as a community."
http://www.iranian.com/Opinion/2002/May/Group/ (ed. Iranian, T.) (May 10, 2002).
7. AIC UPDATE - Vol. 2, No. 20.
http://www.american-iranian.org/pubs/aicupdate/05262005.html (May 2005).
8. Clemons, S.
http://www.thewashingtonnote.com/archives/001953.php (ed. Note, T.W.) (February 17, 2007).
9. "Council to defend Iranian expatriates: Iran's FM"
http://www.iranmania.com/News/ArticleView/?NewsCode=32645&NewsKind=Current+Affairs (June 18, 2005).
10. "Public Opinion in Iran and America on Key International Issues."
http://www.sfcg.org/documents/iranus.pdf (ed. World Public Oppinion, S.f.c.g.) (January 24, 2007).
15. "Statoil chairman resigns from anti-corruption group board after Iran bribery case," Intl. Herald Tribune - Europe (October 20, 2006).
17. PIERRE-ANTOINE SOUCHARD, A. "Total CEO held for questioning over company's Iran activities." (March 21st, 2007).
20. National Endowment for Democracy.
21. Ilex Foundation. http://ilexfoundation.org/.
22. Senoir Researcher. http://bcsia.ksg.harvard.edu/.
23. Namazi and Parsi pictures in their joint Iran trip are on:
24. Namazi, S. & Parsi, T. "Iran-Americans: The bridge between two nations," in DAPIA Conference (Cyprus, November 1999).
28. "The Iranian Lobby Becomes Active." Aftab Newspaper (December 28, 2006).
29. Namazi, S. If Mahdi doesn't come.
http://www.iranian.com/SiamakNamazi/Nov98/Reform/index.html (November 9, 1998).
30. http://www.washingtonprism.org/eng/showarticle.cfm?id=50. Washington Prism (2005).
31. "Iran on the Potomac." Washington Post
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/23/AR2006062301345_pf.html(June 25, 2006).
Hassan Dai is an independent researcher and writer who worked closely with two experienced investigative reporters inside Iran to explore and expose Iran's lobbying enterprise in the United States.
Read more articles in Foreign Affairs, National Defense.
Read more articles by Hassan Daioleslam