Founded in 2002 as a tax-exempt 501(c)3 entity, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) describes itself as “a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the voice of Iranian Americans and promoting greater understanding between the American and Iranian people.” Pursuing this mission “through expert research and analysis, civic and policy education, and community building,” NIAC is recognized as a lobbying organization by the Iranian regime in Tehran.
NIAC’s roots can be traced back to the 1990s. In 1997, Trita Parsi, a 23-year-old Iranian native residing in Sweden, established a small organization called Iranians for International Cooperation (IIC), which lobbied members of the United States Congress to take “a more Iran-friendly position” and to support “the removal of U.S. economic and political sanctions” against Iran. But IIC was never able to gain much political traction or influence.
Meanwhile, Parsi’s friend Siamak Namazi, who was three years older than Parsi, was working as a political analyst for Tehran’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning from 1994-98. In 1998, Namazi founded Future Alliance International (FAI), a Washington-based consulting company that aimed to promote business opportunities in Iran – even though all U.S. trade with Iran had been banned by the American government since 1995. Namazi was also the managing director of Atieh Bahar Consulting, a major Iranian conglomerate which was active in the fields of banking, finance, and energy, and was closely tied to the theocratic Islamic regime in Tehran.
In 1999, Parsi and Namazi collaborated to co-author and publish a seminal paper titled “Iranian-Americans: The Bridge Between Two Nations.” Echoing the central themes of IIC’s “Iran-friendly” orientation, this document advocated the formation of an influential, Washington-based Iranian lobby to promote Tehran’s interests in Congress while opposing the agendas of the Israeli lobby group, the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC). As the authors put it: “[A]n 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.”
Parsi and Namazi presented their paper at a Cyprus conference organized by the Iranian regime.
In 2001, Parsi moved to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. While enrolled in his doctoral program, he took a job as a foreign policy advisor to Republican Congressman Robert Ney. Also during his time in Washington, Parsi took a second job as managing director of the American Iranian Council (AIC), a pro-Iran advocacy organization backed by the regime in Tehran and funded by U.S. oil companies that were eager to gain access to Iran’s oil fields. AIC president Houshang Amirahmadi had been an active pro-Tehran figure since the early 1980s, and he would eventually become a presidential candidate in Iran’s 2005 elections.
In 2001, one of AIC’s chief objectives was to fight to prevent the renewal of the Iran & Libya Sanctions Act of 1996 (ILSA). Robert Ney led congressional efforts to defeat ILSA and initiate Tehran-friendly policies in concert with AIC, but ILSA nevertheless passed overwhelmingly. Disappointed and angered by the ILSA vote in Congress, Ney began to plan for the next battle of the war: forming a pro-Iran lobby in the United States. “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,” he told AIC in a June 2001 speech.
In 2002 Trita Parsi formally put Ney’s plan in motion by founding NIAC, thereby bringing to fruition the principal aims that Parsi and Namazi had laid out in their paper three years earlier. Two additional NIAC founders were a pair of Washington lobbyists, Roy Coffee (former director of the Texas office of State-Federal relations) and Dave DiStefano (Rep. Robert Ney’s chief of staff in the mid-to-late 1990s). Parsi served as the fledgling organization’s first president.
Once NIAC had been established, state-sanctioned Iranian newspapers started a campaign to promote the nascent organization and its founder. Pro-government publications outside of Iran followed suit. The former head of the Iran interest in Washington, Ambassador Faramarze Fathnejad, was thrilled with the efforts of Parsi and NIAC. The regime in Tehran had enormous trust in Parsi, as evidenced by the fact 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 Robert Ney, to President Bush’s advisor, Karl Rove. Tehran’s trust in Namazi was further demonstrated by the fact that his company, Atieh Bahar Consulting, provided the network and computer services for almost all of Iran’s banks, its Majles (parliament), and numerous other important institutions.
One of NIAC’s key advisors in its early days was Siamak Namazi’s father, Muhammad Baquer Namazi. The elder Namazi was the director of Hamyaran, a watchdog group that helped the Iranian regime monitor and control the activities of non-governmental organizations.
Not long after NIAC’s formation, a blogger named Hassan Dai (a.k.a. Hassan Daioleslam) exposed the organization’s links to the Iranian regime – i.e., the elder Namazi’s ties to Hamyaran, the younger Namazi’s position with Atieh Bahar Consulting, and Parsi’s connection with AIC.
In 2006, Roy Coffee and Dave DiStefano were investigated by the Justice Department for arranging a trip to London for Robert Ney, where the latter met with a Syrian arms dealer and convicted felon who was involved in a conspiracy to sell U.S.-made aircraft parts to Tehran, in violation of American sanctions against the Iranian regime. In 2007, Ney was convicted and sentenced to federal prison for accepting bribes from political lobbyist Jack Abramoff and two foreign businessmen – in exchange for using his political influence as a congressman to promote the aircraft-parts deal.
NIAC and Parsi filed a defamation lawsuit against Hassan Dai in 2008, but their case ended ignominiously. Internal NIAC documents that were obtained as part of the discovery phase of the lawsuit, showed that NIAC was indeed intimately linked to Tehran. As The Washington Times stated in a November 2009 front-page article: “Law-enforcement experts who reviewed some of the documents … say [that] 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…”
Particularly notable were some of Zarif’s email exchanges with Trita Parsi. In April 2006, for instance, Zarif gave a copy of the so-called “Iranian 2003 offer for [a] grand bargain” to Parsi, who in turn offered the document to the American press as evidence of Iran’s purported willingness to engage in respectful and productive dialogue with the United States. By logical extension, Parsi argued, Iran could be trusted to develop a nuclear program for purely peaceful, rather than militaristic, purposes.
Ultimately, in 2012 a court dismissed NIAC’s defamation lawsuit against Hassan Dai. It also punished NIAC and Mr. Parsi for abuses they had committed during the discovery process—including false declarations to the court—and ordered them to pay a significant portion of the defendant’s legal expenses.
Over the years, NIAC has depicted Israel and AIPAC as bellicose agitators guilty of persistently trying to bully Iran and undermine its interests. In 2006, for example, Parsi asserted that “Israel is playing hardball to prevent Washington from cutting a deal with Tehran that could benefit America, but deprive Israel of its military and strategic supremacy.” Two years later, Parsi condemned the Jewish state for demonizing Iran as a nation governed by “irrational” clergymen with “suicidal tendencies” and an “infatuation with the idea of destroying Israel.” “Washington started to adopt the Israeli line on Iran,” Parsi added, “in response to Israeli pressure—and not to Iranian actions.”
When President Barack Obama took up the reins of the U.S. government in 2009 with an aim toward improving American relations with Iran, he sought NIAC’s help in shaping public opinion in favor of such a move—a task that became particularly challenging after the Iranian regime brutally crushed a popular uprising among its people in 2009-10. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed in the streets of Iran, and thousands more were arrested, beaten, raped, and tortured—all while the Obama administration kept a silent, hands-off approach. As a onetime Obama administration official later explained: “The core of it was we were still trying to engage the Iranian government and we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters.”
NIAC, for its part, dutifully churned out rhetoric designed to give a patina of legitimacy to Obama’s approach toward Iran. Parsi, for one, wrote an article in June 2009 stating that: “The White House’s position has been on the mark. The Iranians want to make sure that the world knows and sees what is happening on the streets of Tehran and other cities. And they want the U.S. to stay out of the fight.” In a similar spirit, NIAC policy director Patrick Disney published a July 2009 article titled “On Iran, the Power of Obama’s Silence,” which said: “For now, the Obama administration is just taking a step back and assessing the situation, and rightly so.” By October 2009, while the Iranian uprising was still active, the Obama administration had joined the leaders of five other countries in initiating high-level talks that would eventually evolve into the Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015.
In addition to praising President Obama’s approach to US.-Iran relations, NIAC in 2014-15 echoed both Tehran and the White House in arguing that economic sanctions against Tehran always had been, and always would be, counterproductive. While then-Foreign Minister Zarif derided “the futility of sanctions against Iran,” and President Obama said that “the sanction [had] always led to Iran making more progress in its nuclear program,” NIAC was busy orchestrating a large-scale media campaign that portrayed President Obama as a force for peace, and advocates of sanctions as paranoid, dangerous warmongers:
Because NIAC’s view of U.S.-Iranian relations was very much in line with that of the Obama administration, the organization became a highly influential working partner of the White House. Parsi’s status in particular moved from one of relative obscurity, to that of an “expert” whose views reflected those of a broad American constituency. As Hassan Dai explains:
“The convergence of views between the Obama administration and the pro-Iran lobby helped NIAC and its partners to evolve from a pressure group to a high-level White House player. Philip Gordon — special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region — spoke at the NIAC 2014 annual conference, and in September 2016 Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes spoke at the NIAC conference to highlight the White House alliance with the organization. Similarly, Alan Eyre, the State Department’s Persian-language spokesperson, regularly participated as a keynote speaker at the NIAC conferences, and, even more amazingly, the State Department and U.S. embassy in Jeddah organized a series of speeches for Trita Parsi in Saudi Arabia about U.S.-Iran relations. It was therefore not surprising that Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, a former NIAC employee, became National Security Council Director for Iran. According to official records, NIAC president Parsi visited the White House 33 times between 2013 and 2016.”
In February 2016, Obama’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was running for U.S. President at that time, attended a campaign fundraiser hosted by Twitter executive Omid Kordestani, his wife Gisel Hiscock, NIAC board member Lily Sarafan, and Ploughshares Fund executive Noosheen Hashemi.
NIAC’s pro-Democrat, anti-Republican stance continued unabated as the Obama administration gave way to the that of the newly elected U.S. President, Donald Trump. In January 2017, NIAC condemned an executive order by which Trump sought to place a temporary moratorium on the issuance of visas for people seeking to travel to the United States from seven majority-Muslim nations that were known to be hotbeds of Islamic terrorism. “Donald Trump is making good on the most shameful and discriminatory promises he made on the campaign trail,” said NIAC. “He called for a Muslim ban and is now taking the first steps to implement one. This will not stand. The American people are better than this.” Lamenting that the President’s executive order represented a “fundamental challenge to what America represents,” NIAC added that “Donald Trump appears intent on … taking us down a slippery slope towards a dark future.”
According to a lengthy 2017 exposé by Hassan Dai in Tablet magazine, NIAC’s professed devotion to improving relations between the American and Iranian people is a farce. “The group spends very little of its time or energy working with Iranian Americans,” the article states. “Instead, it works to pressure the U.S. government to adopt a friendlier policy with Tehran and lift economic sanctions against the Iranian regime.”
Equally “deceitful and fraudulent,” says Dai in Tablet, is NIAC’s claim “that it is the largest Iranian-American organization in the United States, and hence best equipped to represent the views of more than one million Iranian-Americans.” In 2005-06, Parsi falsely claimed that NIAC consisted of some 10,000 members. But according to evidence culled from various documents, board meeting minutes, and sworn testimony, the organization’s membership rolls consisted of no more than about 1,100 people during the period of 2005-11. “The reason for NIAC’s unimpressive membership numbers,” states the Tablet piece, “may be simple: NIAC doesn’t represent the views of Iranian Americans, the vast majority of who[m] oppose Iran’s clerical regime and reject appeasement policies toward Tehran. As a result of its unpopularity among its presumed base, NIAC’s primary source of income is not dues-paying Iranian-Americans, but American foundations.”
Notably, NIAC’s leading donor is the Ploughshares Fund, a philanthropy with a long record of supporting anti-American causes.
NIAC is also supported, in part, by funds that are appropriated annually by the U.S. government’s National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a private non-profit organization created in 1983 “to strengthen democratic institutions around the world.”
In July 2019, NIAC supported a resolution that Barbara Lee, Jan Schakowsky, and David Price introduced in the House of Representatives, calling for the United States to return to compliance with the Iran Nuclear Deal from which President Trump had withdrawn the U.S. in May 2018. Said NIAC president Jamal Abdi:
“Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal has put the U.S. on the brink of war with Iran and threatened to undo the hard won constraints against Iran’s nuclear program. Thankfully, many Members of Congress recognize that there is no military solution to the present crisis, and that the best way to de-escalate is for the U.S. to return to compliance with the nuclear deal. Representatives Lee, Schakowsky and Price should be commended for their years of leadership in advancing peace and diplomacy, including by introducing this important resolution…. We proudly supported the DNC’s adoption of a resolution committing to return the U.S. to its [nuclear deal] commitments. And we advocated for and welcome the strong majority of Democratic Presidential contenders who have also committed to returning to our diplomatic obligations — including [Elizabeth] Warren, [Bernie] Sanders, [Kamala] Harris, [Pete] Buttigieg, [Joe] Biden, [Tulsi] Gabbard, and [Beto] O’Rourke.”
On January 8, 2020, NIAC members joined Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in a “strategy call” with Democrat Representatives Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna. Following President Trump’s then-recent decision to have the U.S. military kill Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, leader of the terrorist Quds Force division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, both Lee and Khanna were pushing measures designed to restrict Trump’s ability to respond militarily to future Iranian provocations. Also participating in the call were members of MoveOn, Win Without War, Indivisible, and About Face: Veterans Against the War.
The day after the aforementioned “strategy call”—January 9, 2020—NIAC joined a coalition of progressive groups that staged nearly 70 marches across the United States to protest President Trump’s “push to wage war on Iran.” The same four organizations that had taken part in the January 8th “strategy call,” were among those who marched in these protests.
Jamal Abdi, who first came to NIAC as its policy director in November 2009, has been the organization’s president since August 2018. Prior to joining NIAC, Abdi worked for the U.S. Congress as an advisor on foreign policy, national security, and immigration issues. In September 2015 he stated that the Iran Nuclear Deal “may be the most consequential, comprehensive, and politically fraught diplomatic agreemen[t] in modern history,” asserting that it would help to “prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and avert another Middle East war.” If Congress were to do “the unthinkable” and block the deal, Abdi added, “the consequences would be severe.” By this, he meant that “Iran would be freed from its nuclear constraints,” “U.S. credibility among its closest partners would be put in jeopardy,” and “military action could quickly become an inevitability.”
Ryan Costello, who came to NIAC as a policy fellow in April 2013, is currently the organization’s policy director. Prior to joining NIAC, Costello served as a program associate for nuclear non-proliferation policy at the Connect U.S. Fund, an organization that was founded in 2004 by an alliance of leftist philanthropies: the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Institute, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The Ford Foundation joined the collaborative in 2005. The Connect U.S. Fund is managed and administered by the Tides Foundation.
Rise of the Iran Lobby
By Clare M. Lopez
Center for Security Policy
February 25, 2009
Iran’s Oil Mafia
By Hassan Dai
April 16, 2007
Iranian Regime’s Lobby Group NIAC Under Scrutiny
By The National Council of Resistance of Iran
January 17, 2020
How Trita Parsi and NIAC Advance Iran’s Agenda
By Hassan Dai
July 1, 2017