The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) says it advocates for the rights of Iranians living in the United States — but its critics claim it is a lobby organization for the Islamic Republic. The debate about the NIAC’s actual role has been going on for years, always becoming more vocal whenever a new clash ignites between Iran and the US. The recent rise in tensions and talk of war between the two countries is the latest example.
The conflicting views of the two sides on these new tensions, and analysis of these views, have been posted on Twitter more than anywhere else. After the NIAC published a video of Reza Aslan, the Iranian-American scholar of religious studies, asking Iranians in the US to unite against war and sign a petition against it, opponents accused the NIAC of lobbying for the Islamic Republic — along with the hashtag “#NIACLobbies4Mullahs,” which was tweeted close to 300,000 times.
Almost every week Iranians on Twitter create and use various hashtags in connection with political and human rights issues in Iran, although they rarely trend. But this one seems to be different.
The Iranian website Tabnak claims that Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the hawkish think tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), is behind the recent success of this hashtag. And Jamal Abdi, the president of the NIAC, has pointed the finger at the Iran Disinformation Project, which the US Department of State’s Global Engagement Center launched in late 2018. The project’s stated mission is bringing to light “disinformation emanating from the Islamic Republic of Iran via official rhetoric, state propaganda outlets, social media manipulation and more.”
At the time of writing, IranWire’s efforts to get comments from Jamal Abdi, the director of the NIAC, and Trita Parsi, its founder and former director, had not been successful.
The “Boogeyman” of War
Shervan Fashandi, a member of the anti-Islamic Republic group Farshgard (“Iran Revival” in English) and an opponent of the NIAC, told IranWire that the “#NIACLobbies4Mullahs campaign is a response to the NIAC’s scheme to use the “boogeyman” of war to recruit Iranian allies in the US to change the atmosphere to the benefit of the Islamic Republic. The NIAC’s “No to War” campaign, he says, “is meant to save the regime from the present impasse and, of course, to brand as warmongers those who want to overthrow the Islamic Republic. This hashtag was created by a group of Twitter users to foil these efforts and reveal the true nature of the NIAC.”
The NIAC, however, has stated that, by publishing the video, by writing letters and by gathering signatures, it has been trying to turn American public opinion or, at least, the opinion of US politicians, against launching a war with Iran.
But Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a professor of social science at the University of Syracuse in New York state, believes that, given the current atmosphere in Washington, such efforts have little chance of success. “It is very unlikely that such campaigns would influence ordinary people deeply or for long,” he says. “As for politicians, during Obama’s time such campaigns and contacts had some impact and at a certain point the NIAC was consulted as well. But under present conditions, when politics both within the government and in the Congress has become more polarized, it appears that the influence of the NIAC over American statesmen has diminished.”
But since lobbying for the Islamic Republic in the US, especially under present conditions, is not legally possible, can the NIAC’s efforts to influence American public opinion and politicians be considered a form of unofficial lobbying for the Islamic Republic?
“As far as I know, this claim cannot be proven,” says Mehrzad Boroujerdi. “Such a complaint against the NIAC has been made before but the plaintiffs could not prove this accusation in court. Perhaps in the media, on websites and on social networks such charges can be brought against individuals and groups, but this accusation was not proven in court and the NIAC has neither registered as a lobbyist for Iran in the US nor does it claim to be one.”
Lobbyist “in Practice”
Unlike Boroujerdi, Shervan Fashandi believes that although the NIAC might not be registered as a lobbyist, in practice, it plays that role for the Islamic Republic. “The NIAC pretends to support the interests of Iranians who reside in the US but, in practice, it aims to protect the interests of the Islamic Republic,” he says. “NIAC’s record shows that during the Green Movement [in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election] this organization said very little about violations of human rights in Iran and the crimes of the regime. Under the cover of playing an intermediary in US-Iran relations, NIAC represents the interests of the regime.”
The NIAC emphasizes that its recent “No To War” campaign, as its name suggests, opposes war and is an invitation to peace. But NIAC opponents believe that the organization and its campaign are not being honest and this campaign is a lobbying service for the Islamic Republic, not a move for solidarity with the Iranian people.
Mehrzad Boroujerdi says that, in this politically polarized atmosphere, leveling accusations against this or other groups has become very common. “Of course, I do not have close knowledge about the NIAC but, as far as I can say, the charge that they are lobbying for the Islamic Republic is not credible,” he says. “The NIAC has been focused on the relations between Iran and the US, on the nuclear deal and, now, on avoiding war. Perhaps in their latest campaign they have exaggerated a little about the possibility of war but we cannot hastily label groups such as the NIAC as lobbyists for the Islamic Republic.”
What About the Role Played by the Islamic Republic?
But critics of the NIAC believe that although the “No to War” campaign mentions the horrors of war and emphasizes the role of the US in contributing to the current environment, it makes only a vague reference to the Islamic Republic’s oppression, without any mention of the role played by the regime in creating this situation and giving a one-sided account of what has been happening.
Boroujerdi says that perhaps this criticism has merit, but points out that the NIAC is based in the US and addresses Americans. “The NIAC is trying to influence US policy but I cannot figure out how it can focus on Iran at the same time,” he says. “Of course, I remember that during the Green Movement it was engaged in criticizing the naked violations of human rights in Iran but it seems that, under these conditions, the NIAC’s more balanced approach is a better approach.”
Shervan Fashandi says that the NIAC’s opposition to war is an exercise in posturing, and that it has been practically silent in the face of the Islamic Republic’s warmongers. “While the Islamic Republic has been plundering Iran’s national wealth to fan the flames of war in the region and to support terrorist groups, the NIAC has been at best silent and has sometimes, implicitly or even explicitly, supported the regime’s activities. This sudden pacifism by the NIAC is strange and unbelievable, especially since there is no war.”
National Interests vs. the Rulers’ Interests
Opponents of the NIAC say that in an undemocratic system, what the rulers say are national interests are simply their own interests. Fashandi says not only are the interests of the Islamic Republic regime different from Iranian national interests, but the two are often in direct contradiction. Therefore, lobbying for the Islamic Republic cannot be considered the same as lobbying for Iran. “Most Iranians have nothing against lobbying for Iran’s national interests or for the interests of Iranians who live in America. But what the NIAC is doing is lobbying for the Islamic Republic and this amounts to treason” against Iran, he says.
Boroujerdi argues that many of those who have signed the NIAC petition against the war are not supporters of the Islamic Republic. “Opposing the Islamic Republic is one thing and opposing the war that would harm Iranian people is something else,” he says.
This disagreement over how to define national interests has been part and parcel of politics in the history of nations. And yet when one side accuses the other side of treason, it goes beyond normal political disagreements — and in this case, the treason accusations are aimed at an organization that affirms its support for Iranians in the US and for peace and reconciliation between the two countries. This signals a deep division among Iranians who live outside the borders of Iran. And it is difficult to imagine that such a deep divide will heal anytime soon.