Trita Parsi has some explaining to do. The Iranian-born and Swedish-raised president of the National Iranian American Council is perhaps the most outspoken advocate for engagement with the Islamist regime in Tehran. If that posture has won him praise in certain foreign policy circles, this may be an uncomfortable moment for some of Parsi’s fans. Last Friday, a U.S. district court ruling lent some credence to the charge that Parsi is an agent of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In his two books, numerous articles and through his work as NIAC president, Parsi calls on Western policy makers to accommodate the mullahs rather than confront them over the IRI’s sponsorship of terrorism, illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons, and abhorrent human-rights record. Such views have perversely won Parsi friends and media attention from some who applaud what they perceive as a judicious pro-engagement perspective. And yet in other circles his recommendations have raised suspicion that Parsi and his group aren’t just pushing a dovish foreign-policy agenda, but rather are advocating for the Islamic Republic.
Hassan Daioleslam, a U.S.-based Iranian journalist, described NIAC and Trita Parsi as “key players in the lobby enterprise of Tehran’s ayatollahs in the United States” in a 2008 article. NIAC, he wrote, “is one of the Iranian regime’s Lobby arms in the US.” In response, Parsi filed suit in federal district court in 2009, alleging Diaoleslam had defamed him and his organization. The ensuing three-year-long legal and public relations battle concluded last week with United States District Judge John D. Bates’s ruling against Parsi’s claim.
The court didn’t weigh directly on the veracity of Daioleslam’s claims. The ruling turned primarily on whether Daioleslam’s statements regarding Parsi were motivated by “actual malice”—that is, whether the defendant “either knew what he was saying was false or had entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication.” If Daioleslam was sometimes sloppy in his interpretations of Parsi’s writing, the court found, the defendant’s interpretations didn’t distort the underlying meaning of Parsi’s writings.
The court dismissed Parsi’s argument that his rare criticisms of the Iranian regime rendered Daioleslam’s claims malicious and, therefore, defamatory. “Many of the statements listed in Parsi’s affidavit are not strongly anti-regime,” the court said. “That Parsi occasionally made statements reflecting a balanced, shared blame approach is not inconsistent with the idea that he was first and foremost an advocate for the regime.”
Likewise, the court was unimpressed by Parsi’s supposed championing of human rights in Iran. “While Parsi does criticize Iran’s human rights record,” the court found, “his criticisms are tepid.” “Given the other evidence defendant amassed to support [Daioleslam’s] views, the Court sees no ‘actual malice’ in defendant’s decision to disregard occasional contrary statements and assume that they were made largely to burnish Parsi and NIAC’s image in the United States. After all, any moderately intelligent agent for the Iranian regime would not want to be seen as unremittingly pro-regime, given the regime’s reputation in the United States.”
One can only hope that Judge Bates’s words will resonate with Capitol Hill staffers, journalists, TV news producers and think tank experts. Over the years, it is they who have provided Parsi with access to audiences that have been led to believe he was merely an expert on regional affairs with a unique and unbiased perspective on Iran that Americans needed to hear. As it turns out, he’s something else.
Sohrab Ahmari is an assistant books editor at the Wall Street Journal.