US President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd Annual UN General Assembly in New York on September 19, 2017.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Lobbying 2017: Trump rhetoric divides Iranian-Americans


Former US President Barack Obama in his inaugural address famously offered to “extend a hand” to Iran “if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Eight years later, his successor bluntly told the world that he thinks that approach has failed.

Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever,” Donald Trump told the UN General Assembly meeting in September, “and the day will come when the Iranian people will face a choice.”

A month later, the president followed through on his rhetoric and declared that the 2015 nuclear deal wasn't meeting congressional requirements. He has demanded that lawmakers tighten the deal, while laying out a more confrontational stance against Iran's ballistic missile program and support for proxies across the region. And last month, a key congressional panel voted to make it much more difficult for Iran to purchase commercial aircraft from US-linked, in violation of the nuclear agreement. 

Democrats are wary of tinkering with the deal, rendering any congressional attempt to impose tighter requirements on Iran's nuclear program unlikely. They've signed on to a flurry of new efforts to sanction Iran for its missile testing and support for Hezbollah, however, all of which sailed through the House in late October. 

The abrupt change in tone is being felt with particular intensity by the 1 million or so Iranian-Americans living in the United States, many of whom remain deeply divided over the US government’s on-again, off-again attempts to engage with Iran. While some embraced Obama’s nuclear deal and efforts to reduce tensions between the two countries, others insist that anything short of regime change is a fool’s errand.

“There’s a sense of shock,” National Iranian American Council (NIAC) President Trita Parsi told Al-Monitor. “His rhetoric on Iran, his first trip to Saudi Arabia, have all pointed in the direction that confrontation is much more likely.”

With Iran banned from lobbying in the United States following the 1979 Iranian Revolution that bounced US-backed Mohammad Reza Shah from power, the nonprofit NIAC was launched in 2002 to promote peace between the two countries. NIAC has since taken a lead role in championing the nuclear deal, while denouncing human rights violations in Iran.

On the other end of the political spectrum, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) bills itself as the only legitimate, democratic and pro-Western alternative to the mullahs in Tehran. The NCRI and related groups spent $570,000 trying to influence US policy in 2016, according to lobbying disclosure filings. That includes $184,000 in expenses for the NCRI's Washington office, just a stone's throw from the White House, and $296,000 in fees paid to former Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., and his Rosemont Associates lobbying firm. Separately, the NCRI-linked nonprofit Organization of Iranian American Communities (OIAC), located right next door to the NCRI office on Pennsylvania Avenue, paid the Akin Gump law firm $90,000 last year.

In a statement welcoming the “first testimony by a US president underscoring the need for change in Iran,” Paris-based NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi urged Trump to follow through and help install her and her followers in Tehran.

“The recognition of the National Council of Resistance of Iran as the only democratic alternative to the terrorist, religious dictatorship in Iran,” she said, “is indispensable to ending and rectifying the United States’ disastrous past policy towards the people of Iran.”

With regime change a long ways off at best, however, the NCRI and the OIAC have also adopted more pragmatic priorities. While the NCRI’s Washington office periodically holds press briefings raising doubts about Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, the OIAC is actively pressing Congress to recognize the 1988 execution of thousands of alleged members of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a former US-designated leftist terrorist group that forms the backbone of the NCRI.

“For decades, the regime in Iran has refused to acknowledge this massacre,” Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said in a statement when he first introduced his resolution last year. “Furthermore, many involved in this massacre in 1988 still hold high-level positions within the government of Iran, including the current justice minister. We must hold those responsible for these atrocities accountable and reinvigorate our opposition to the gross abuses of human rights in Iran that still go on today.”

McCaul reintroduced the bill this March with the support of Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chairman and top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“This is an important legislation which needs to be followed up with policy steps by the U.S. Administration in standing with the victims of repression and with those who want to establish democracy in Iran,” Soona Samsami, the NCRI’s US representative, said in a statement.

MEK-affiliated groups have been less successful with another piece of legislation that would urge the government in Baghdad to compensate exiled Iranian dissidents for the assets they lost when they evacuated Iraq’s Camp Liberty and Camp Ashraf. Thousands of MEK dissidents were safely relocated to Albania last year with US support, but the compensation resolution from Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, hasn’t picked up a single co-sponsor since its introduction in July.


National Iranian American Council (NIAC)

President: Trita Parsi

Founded: 2012

National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)

US representative: Soona Samsami

Founded: 1981


Congressional travel

Sponsor: Organization of Iranian American Communities

U.S. Assistance

U.S. Arms Sales


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