Shortly before Barack Obama took office, leaders of a prominent Iranian-American group in Washington began to fret.
If the new president were to tap former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross to oversee the nation’s Iran policy, they feared their long-running effort to persuade American officials to lift sanctions could wind up in tatters. Patrick Disney, acting policy director of National Iranian American Council (NIAC), summed up the strategy: “Create a media controversy” concerning Mr. Ross, whose support for a tough line on Iran was well known.
“Those groups that feel comfortable being more aggressive in opposing Ross publicly (possibly Voters for Peace, [Friends Committee on National Legislation] , Physicians for Social Responsibility, others) will do so,” Mr. Disney wrote in an e-mail obtained by The Washington Times, “while others who may have less latitude on the matter will declare their preference for a more agreeable envoy.”
Mr. Ross was appointed anyway and wound up on the National Security Council. But the episode highlights NIAC’s emergence as a major player in Washington and leading voice for engaging Iran and ultimately lifting U.S. sanctions.
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. If so, a number of prominent Washington figures could come to regret their ties to the group.
Among NIAC’s advisory board members are former Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, and John Limbert, a former U.S. hostage in Iran, was a board member until his recent appointment as deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran.
Mr. Pickering, reached by The Times, acknowledged he is on the board but said he has never attended a meeting and is not familiar with the organization’s operations. Based on his participation in two panels on Capitol Hill, he said, he did not think NIAC was a lobby.
Mr. Limbert declined to comment, citing his new position, but has appeared at NIAC conferences in the past and expressed admiration for the organization and for its charismatic leader, Trita Parsi.
Mr. Parsi, a green card holder, has become more critical of Iran’s government since its disputed June 12 presidential elections, urging President Obama to condemn human rights abuses in Iran and to implement a “tactical pause” in efforts to arrange negotiations. But Mr. Parsi’s history suggests a continuing commitment to changing U.S. policy on Iran, and he has clearly become more influential in Washington since the change of administrations.
Mr. Parsi has been called to the White House, lectured at the CIA and visited Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. He boasted in internal e-mails that he learned of Mr. Obama’s speech to Iranians on the occasion of the Persian New Year in March several hours before it was posted on the Internet.
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 the defendant in the suit, say 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.
Mr. Parsi said in one of a series of lengthy interviews with The Times that he founded NIAC in 2002 to enable Iranian Americans to condemn the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and that he has since run it as a grass-roots group aimed at strengthening their voice.
“We realized that our primary thing that separates the Iranian-American community from the Jewish-American community, the Arab-American community, the Armenian-American community is that the Iranian-American community has shunned political participation,” he said.