EXCLUSIVE: Iran advocacy group said to skirt lobby rules

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Mr. Parsi, who holds Iranian and Swedish passports and lives in the United States as a resident alien, told The Times that neither he nor his wife had received any money from the Iranian government or Iranian nationals.

As part of the lawsuit, Mr. Daioleslam’s attorneys have subpoenaed bank records for the Parsis. Mr. Daioleslam said his lawyers had just received Mr. Parsi’s bank records that have been requested since May.

In his interviews with The Times, Mr. Parsi said his organization did not have to register as a lobby or foreign agent because NIAC is allowed to conduct activities to educate the public.

At other times, he said the tax code and lobbying registration laws allow for lobbying on foreign policy, which he distinguished from advocating in Congress for specific legislation.

However, Hooshang Amirahmadi, the founder and head of a rival group, the American Iranian Council (AIC), said, “NIAC has a direct connection to Congress, they ask their members or others to send their positions and views, they provide form letters and e-mails to their members …

“We do none of this at AIC because we are not a lobbying organization,” Mr. Amirahmadi said. “If AIC was to do what NIAC does, then we would be violating our 501(c)(3) status. That is my understanding of the law.”

“Personal Diplomacy”

From 2002 until 2005, NIAC focused on combating discrimination against Iranian-Americans. Mr. Parsi said the focus shifted in 2006 and he became engaged in what he called “personal diplomacy” when he became convinced that the United States and Iran were headed toward war.

That year, the U.S. military was seeing signs that Iran-backed groups were planting the homemade bombs that were killing U.S. troops in Iraq. Iran had also begun enriching uranium over the objections of the U.N. Security Council. An Islamic council had purged most reformers from parliament and Iran had an aggressive new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

E-mail correspondence between Mr. Parsi and Mr. Zarif show Mr. Parsi suggesting that the Iranian diplomat meet with members of Congress.

“Happy to hear that you will meet with [Rep. Wayne] Gilchrest and potentially [Rep. James] Leach. There are many more that are interested in a meeting, including many respectable Democrats,” Mr. Parsi wrote in an Oct. 25, 2006, e-mail.

Mr. Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican who left office in 2009, said he remembered meeting with Mr. Parsi but did not consider him a major player in his efforts to meet Iranian officials.

“Trita was one person that we would use as a source of information. But I would not say we viewed Trita as a lobbyist,” Mr. Gilchrest said. “He was a small part of our circle who wanted to meet with Iranians.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Leach, an Iowa Republican who left office in 2007 and now serves as chairman of the National Endowment for Humanities, said, “Hundreds of people attempt to make appointments with members of Congress every week. Chairman Leach has no memory of Trita Parsi or the National Iranian American Council.”

Mr. Parsi also sought to publicize a 2003 Iranian offer to negotiate a so-called grand bargain with the United States. The Bush administration did not respond to the offer, which was sent to Washington after the U.S. overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

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