Trita Parsi, Lobbyist for Iran?

A couple of weeks ago, I retracted my assertion that Trita Parsi, the head of the National Iranian American Council, did "leg-work" for the Iranian regime. I was trying to suggest, in a not-so artful way, that Parsi is trying to build his organization into an Iranian version of AIPAC, but "leg-work" seemed, in retrospect, like too harsh a description for his activities.

But now I may have to retract my retraction. Eli Lake has come up with some very interesting evidence about Parsi's activities in Washington, including an internal memo from the group's policy director, Patrick Disney, in which he states that NIAC is, in fact, functioning as a lobby:

(I)n a July 2008 memo obtained by The Times, Mr. Disney quoted the Lobbying Disclosure Act - a law that says even the preparation of materials aimed at influencing legislation or policy must be disclosed to the public - and said he and a colleague should register as lobbyists.

"Under this expansive view of 'lobbying,' I find it hard to believe Emily, and I devote less than 20 percent of our time to lobbying activity. I believe we fall under this definition of 'lobbyist,' " he wrote, referring to NIAC's legislative director at the time, Emily Blout.

The tax code allows nonprofits to devote less than 20 percent of their activities to lobbying if they declare the activity in a special section on their taxes. NIAC's latest tax form shows that the group has declared that it spends none of its time lobbying.

When asked about his policy director's memo, Mr. Parsi said that Mr. Disney is not a lawyer and that when he wrote the memo, he was new to the organization.

I'm going through Lake's story now, and will try to post something more detailed later, but there are a couple of other discoveries that suggest strongly that Parsi is operating as a lobbyist, including this:

Law enforcement experts who reviewed some of the documents... 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....

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.

Arranging meetings between foreign officials and members of Congress in order to influence legislation -- the point of meeting with members of Congress, of course -- is an essential aspect of lobbying. Parsi is on record as opposing sanctions on Iran, a position the Iranian regime, and its representatives at the U.N., obviously endorse.

Like I said, I want to spend some time looking at Lake's charges, and I'm also curious to see the reaction to this story around town. One other item in the story struck me as particularly interesting: Parsi, it turns out, isn't an American, but a resident alien. I had assumed he was an Iranian-American, because his group says it represents the interests of Iranian-Americans -- but it turns out he holds Iranian and Swedish passports. I was under the impression that Parsi's group was trying to build itself into an Iranian equivalent of AIPAC, but the analogy is inexact, because AIPAC was founded, and is staffed and funded, by American citizens. In any case, I'm assuming that NIAC will issue a statement about the Lake article, and I'll post it. I'm especially curious to see what Parsi has to say about this last quote from the Lake article:

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an acclaimed Iranian filmmaker and unofficial spokesman for Iran's opposition Green Movement, told The Times, "I think Trita Parsi does not belong to the Green Movement. I feel his lobbying has secretly been more for the Islamic Republic."