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Mr. Namazi declined to comment on the record for this story.

A year later, Mr. Namazi and Mr. Parsi collaborated on a paper that they delivered at a conference in Cyprus. They described their vision for an organization modeled after the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby. The paper, among other things, proposed seminars on lobbying for Iranian Americans, based on AIPAC’s youth leadership seminars. One of NIAC’s first actions was to sponsor similar events.

Mr. Parsi later disputed that AIPAC was the model for NIAC.

“I don’t think it is a blueprint for NIAC. I stand by what I wrote, absolutely, Iranian Americans have a tremendous interest in making sure that relations between the USA and Iran do not evolve into a military conflict,” he said.

As early as December 2002, however, Mr. Parsi envisioned that his nonprofit would join with a full-fledged “grass-roots lobby” to push for an end to sanctions on Iran. He wrote in a memo to Roy Coffee, a former aide to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush: “Although the mission of the proposed lobby should be to improve relations between the U.S. and Iran and open up opportunities for trade, the initial targets should be less controversial issues such as visas and racial profiling/discrimination.”

No such separate organization was ever established, however.

Defamation lawsuit

An Iranian-American journalist from Arizona named Hassan Daioleslam first publicly asserted in 2007 that NIAC was lobbying for Iran. Mr. Parsi then sued him for defamation. That court case, which is still unfolding, led to the disclosure of the NIAC documents.

Mr. Daioleslam’s claim is a serious matter. If NIAC has been lobbying on behalf of a foreign government or a foreign company, Mr. Parsi could be subject to prosecution.

The Times asked two former federal law-enforcement officials to review documents from the case showing that Mr. Parsi had helped arrange meetings between members of Congress and Mr. Zarif.

“Arranging 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; in this case it would be Iran,” said one of those officials, former FBI associate deputy director Oliver “Buck” Revell.

The other official, former FBI special agent in counterintelligence and counterterrorism Kenneth Piernick, said, “It appears that this may be lobbying on behalf of Iranian government interests. Were I running the counterintelligence program at the bureau now, I would have cause to look into this further.”

However the case is not definitive. Two lawyers who read some of the same documents said they did not provide enough evidence to conclude that Mr. Parsi was acting as a foreign agent. Neither of the lawyers agreed to be quoted by name.

According to documents, Mr. Parsi appeared at times to be coordinating his advocacy work with Mr. Namazi, who was until 2007 a managing director of a company called Atieh Bahar. Atieh Bahar is the international consulting arm of the Atieh Group, a Tehran-based holding corporation for concerns that have contracts both with Iranian government ministries and Iran’s banks, as well as international firms looking to do business in Iran. Had Congress lifted sanctions, Atieh Bahar stood to benefit.

Mr. Namazi has since left Iran and is based in the United Arab Emirates. The head of Atieh Bahar, Bijan Khajehpour, was arrested after the June 12 elections and imprisoned for several months, apparently because the current Iranian government distrusts anyone who has traveled frequently to the United States.

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