Iranian groups lack lobbying power, cohesion

While street protests in Tehran have garnered support and international attention, Iranian-Americans have found themselves with not much of a megaphone on K Street.  
 
A review of lobbying disclosure records by The Hill show several Iranian-American advocacy groups and resistance organizations have no lobbying representation here in Washington. Some terminated their contracts with blue-chip firms by the end of last year, others are now seemingly defunct and even one group has been tied to a terrorist organization by federal authorities.
 

ADVERTISEMENT
Further, advocacy groups disagree on how to best approach the upheaval in Iran, including how aggressive the U.S. government should be in defending the protesters and decrying the regime’s violent crackdown.
 
The dearth of ready lobbying talent and a fractured Washington voice among Iranian-Americans comes at an ill-opportune time for the fledging uprising as not only the Obama administration but members of Congress debate on what the United States should do in regard to the Iranian protests.
 
“There are about as many groups as there are Iranians,” said Keith Weissman, a former policy analyst for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “They are very divided and talk bad about each other.”
 
Some seem to be out of operation. The Council for a Democratic Iran, which lobbied to expose human rights abuses by the Iranian regime, spent $660,000 on lobbying fees in less than four months last year, according to disclosure records. It has since terminated its contract with the Livingston Group, which also used MD Ryan Associates as a subcontractor on the group's behalf last year.
 
The group now appears defunct. A receptionist, answering to the phone number listed on the Council’s website, said the group moved out in February and did not leave a forwarding address.
 
Another organization, the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, is operational but terminated its lobbying contract late last year with Levick Strategic Communications. The Alliance spent $30,000 overall, though it has tended to avoid the debate stemming from the election and is concentrating on domestic issues.
 
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) was last registered as a foreign agent with the Justice Department in 2002. But the group has been labeled by U.S. authorities as a terrorist organization, due to its ties to the People's Mujahedin of Iran. NCRI has fought that designation but has lost in court.
 
“Due to the change of political climate and the financial crisis frankly, many have closed up shop,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).
 
Parsi’s organization has been one of the more vocal groups since the election protests began to take shape in Iran. They have decried the human rights abuses and have relayed reports from Iranians on the violent crackdown by the regime to Western media, including to many of the blogs that are leading the coverage.
 
But despite the media attention, Parsi said there has been no discussion about hiring lobbyists by his group. Instead, NIAC is concentrating in growing its membership in support of a grassroots campaign to keep Iranian-Americans’ issues on Capitol Hill’s agenda.
 
NIAC has advocated for restraint in the U.S. government's approach to the protests in Iran.
 
The group is working on a thank-you letter to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for his Thursday New York Times op-ed saying America needs to stay out of Iran’s protests. NIAC believes that any overt U.S. support of the demonstrators could be seen as meddling by a foreign power, which the regime could use to discredit the protesters.
 
But others have advocated for more forceful action by the U.S. government and believe it has let the protesters down by its neutral stance so far.
 
“I thought what Obama said was as thoughtless and as mixed-messaged as it can get,” said Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi, an Iranian human rights activist. “If the United States government wants to do this the right way, they would stand by the people and use the factionalism of the mullahs against them.”
 
Zand-Bonazzi, whose father is a political prisoner in Iran, said lobbying in Washington by Iranian-Americans will not help the protesters. Instead, activists need to keep the international media focused on their plight.
 
“Everyone wants to push their own group. Everyone wants to push their own agenda,” said Zand-Bonazzi. “It will be difficult to have one lobby per say or even two or three lobbies to speak on the behalf of the majority of Iranians. They have tried to coalesce many times and they have failed.”
 
That factionalism among the groups has led to allegations that one or the other is a tool of the Iranian regime or a front for neoconservatives that held power during the Bush administration.
 
Parsi and his group have been the center of that infighting. NIAC has faced allegations that it is too closely tied to the regime in Iran, which they have denied outright, enough so to file defamation lawsuits against some of their accusers.
 
Parsi said those allegations stem from their support for diplomacy, not confrontation, between the United States and Iran.
 
Meanwhile, Congress has already begun to move forward on legislation regarding Iran. On Friday, the House passed a resolution in support of the protesters with a 405-1 vote in its favor.
 
With Capitol Hill certain to take up more legislation, the division between the various Iranian-American groups could end up nullifying their potential influence with lawmakers, Weissman said.

“They will probably not have an impact. Some of the groups are pro-resolution, others are anti-resolution. They may cancel each other out,” said the former AIPAC policy analyst.