Iran’s Washington lobby walks a thin line

Friday 25/03/2016
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council

Washington - Safeguarding the Iran nu­clear deal and reversing new US visa waiver regula­tions top the agenda for the nascent lobbying efforts by Iranian-Americans in Washington. Meanwhile, geopolitical issues, such as the crisis in Syria and relations with Sunni Arab states, remain on the horizon, according to the head of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

“We’re clear-eyed about the fact that, just because there’s a deal, that doesn’t mean it’s going to stay. Many want to sabotage it,” NIAC President Trita Parsi said, referring to congres­sional efforts and promises by Re­publican presidential candidates to reverse the nuclear agreement.

“Just being where we are right now is not enough. This opening that has been created needs to be widened or things could slide back towards a military confrontation.”

NIAC was founded in Washing­ton after the September 11th, 2001, attacks to represent Iranian-Ameri­cans to US lawmakers and the Amer­ican public. It mostly shied away from publicly engaging in the debate on Iran-US relations, which has until recently been a bête noire in Wash­ington circles.

The nuclear deal appears to have changed the political tide in what critics describe as “getting on the bandwagon” to normalise US rela­tions with the Islamic Republic de­spite its role in regional mayhem and its poor human rights record.

NIAC officials say they often must tread a narrow line as opponents on both sides accuse the council of her­esy. The organisation is condemned by hardliners in Iran because, to them, it represents the voice of Ira­nian dissidents in exile. It is also scrutinised by a highly motivated, anti-Iran political coalition in Wash­ington, which is quick to recoil at any semblance of Iranian lobbying and accuses the group of peddling Iran’s interests, even calling it “the ayatollah’s lobby”.

Parsi, son of a Zoroastrian aca­demic who was jailed by the shah and later by an ayatollah before flee­ing to Sweden, dismissed the ques­tion about NIAC acting as an apolo­gist for the Iranian regime. He said the organisation has always pushed for scrutiny of Iran. Such efforts in­clude lobbying to send a rapporteur from the UN Commission on Human Rights to Iran in 2010 to produce an­nual reports.

“We played a critical role in that but human rights is not just about a young Iranian thrown in jail for writing a blog, which, of course, is totally unacceptable and shouldn’t happen,” he said. “Human rights is also about preventing war, which is the worst human rights violation. If you’re rightfully upset about some­one being thrown in jail for writing a blog, you should be very worried about a war.”

For this reason, he explained, NIAC started full-fledged lobbying of the US Congress to cultivate allies who would support the nuclear deal in a volatile political climate.

Also high on the organisation’s agenda are the regulations passed by Congress to deny Iranian dual citizens the visa waiver courtesy afforded their compatriots. This came amid anti-Islamic State hyste­ria when Congress, with the backing of the White House, passed a law in January that forbids Europeans and other “visa waiver” citizens from entering the United States without a visa if they have in the past five years visited Syria, Iraq, Sudan or Iran or if they hold a dual citizenship from any of those countries.

The law sparked outrage among civil liberties groups, which accused legislators of creating “second-class citizens” and jeopardising the rights of Americans with dual citizenship from those countries.

As for Iran’s role in the war in Syria and other regional dynamics, Parsi said this was not on the NIAC’s im­mediate agenda, though he offered a perspective on the Iranian-Saudi rivalry.

“Rivalries will never go away, so it’s about taming them, creating ways of how Iran and Saudi Arabia can compete in positive ways in the future. Like in the EU, there’s a codi­fied way that France, UK or Germa­ny compete… [without which] we wouldn’t have had 70 years of peace there,” he said.

An ambitious vision, Parsi admits, given the situation in the region. Sunni-Shia bloodshed is the deadly manifestation of the geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Ara­bia. He said while Iran must “own up to the fact” that it started this rivalry with the Islamic revolution and its subsequent bid to own the narra­tive on Islam and destroy the Saudi monarchy, the kingdom should also change its worldview and accept that Iran is part of the region and will inevitably play a significant role.

“Dividing the region between Ar­abs and non-Arabs, it cements di­vision,” he said, referring to Saudi Arabia’s constant demands for Iran to “stop meddling in Arab affairs”.

“And I don’t think that on the Saudi side there’s even an aware­ness of this because what it’s saying is that… Iran can change its policy but cannot change its ethnicity. So it dooms Iran to illegitimacy in the re­gion and that line of thinking is sow­ing the seeds of perpetual conflict,” he said.