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The Iran Lobby's War on Voice of America

4:05 PM, Nov 19, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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A series of internal emails and documents from the National Iranian American Council, headed by Iranian national Trita Parsi, released as part of the discovery process in a lawsuit initiated by NIAC, reveal a major effort by the group to "clean house" at VOA's Persian-language service of Voice of America. Emails show NIAC using its muscle on Capitol Hill, aggressively lobbying individual members of Congress, to impose greater oversight over the radio station including "an independent review of the organization" to address what NIAC considered "poor journalism" and declining credibility.

But the group's emails show that NIAC was far less concerned about VOA's impact on Iran than about its impact on NIAC. The leadership at NIAC perceived VOA's reporting as a threat to its own credibility, and they were determined to prevent their critics from having a voice on the station. NIAC officials used two strategies. First, they sent cease and desist letters to VOA threatening legal action if the network continued "airing the views of a fabulist with malicious intent." The alleged fabulist was Hassan Daeoleslam, the man whom NIAC has since sued for defamation (the case is still pending) leading to the release of these internal documents.

On February 3, 2009, Siamak Namazi, a close confidant of Parsi, wrote to Jeffrey Trimble, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors that oversees the operations of VOA and Radio Farda:

Dear Mr. Trimble,

Once again VOA has chosen to bring Mr. Hassan Daeoleslam at its guest and once again he makes a slanderous claim that my father and my business associate - Mssrs Baquer Namazi and Bijan Khajehpour - are fronts for the Iranian government.

I have brought the matter to your attention in the past, stressing that such comments not only hard [sic] the reputation of respectable democrats, but also put them in direct danger in Iran. I told you in detail how after Daeoleslam's fictitious claims against me I was subjected to problems in Iran and also how it harmed my reputation in the Iranian community. We spoke at length about this issue when we met in August 2007 and you promised to look into it.

I am once again asking the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to make it known to VOA, which falls under your umbrella of responsibility, that it cannot just air slanderous garbage at will. You have been served several notices about the harm that such acts have brought in the past and is likely to bring in the future. BBG and VOA will be held responsible if any harm comes to my family and I due to such irresponsible behavior. I once again urge you to pay greater attention to the programming at VOA and to cease and desist from airing the views of a fabulist with malicious intent.

Here is a link to the VOA program in question: http://www.voanews.com/wm/voa/nenaf/pers/pers1730vSAT.asx

I expect immediate action to rectify this situation, specifically by barring VOA from bringing Mr. Daeoleslam on air. Consider this a formal complaint which can be used as evidence of serving notice of harm in a court of law. While my family and I do not desire to make a legal issue out of this matter, we reserve all right if you fail to take adequate measures and continue to allow Mr. Daeoleslam to air his malicious commentary.

Sincerely,

Siamak Namazi

So NIAC wanted one of its critics barred from ever appearing on the government funded network. The left often gripes about imagined efforts by the "Israel Lobby" to silence its critics. Here we have the Iran Lobby literally threatening media outlets with legal action if they continue to give voice to a NIAC critic.

Likewise, NIAC sent two cease and desist letters to the Washington Times threatening legal action if the paper published Eli Lake's story that first reported these internal emails and which raised serious questions about the legality of NIAC's activities, specifically its claims that it is not engaged in lobbying and therefore does not need to register as a 501(c)4 rather than its current tax-exempt 501(c)3 status.

Of course, 501(c)3 groups are supposed to engage in education. Was it education or lobbying when NIAC engaged in efforts to bring the hammer down on VOA with the help of members of Congress who were well disposed to their cause?

On September 11, 2007, Emily Blout, NIAC's legislative director, sent an email to Celes Hughes, an aide to Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski. Blout writes that "Per our conversation this afternoon, I am sending some background information regarding the Iran democracy funding included in HR 2764." Blout's email makes a series of allegations against VOA, asserting that "VOA has struggled to find experienced staff and has instead hired political activists with loyalty to their agenda rather than to the VOA mandate." Further, Blout says that "According to insiders at VOA, this has led to its loss of credibility among the Iranian public."

However, Blout wants to be clear: "This is not to say the US should not promote democracy in Iran, rather it should employ other means towards this end." There are two such "other means" suggested by Blout: "Lift US sanctions on NGO activities" and "Reinvigorate VOA Persian's credibility by cleaning house."

Further emails reveal that NIAC's war against VOA was a top agenda item for the group -- right alongside its fight against new sanctions on Iran -- in its contacts with numerous members of Congress. After lunch with Markus Rose, an aide to Rep. Barney Frank, Blout follows up with an email that starts off with some flattery about Rose's knowledge of Iran and then proceeds,

Two things:

1) I'll be sending you information on NGO to NGO exchanges, Voice of America Persian (VOA), and sanctions on humanitarian aid (it is illegal for US citizens to give more than $100 to an orphanage in Tehran for example) shortly. Let me know if you think of anything else you'd like information on.

2) I wanted to make a correction. H.R. 2347, which your boss sponsored, does not include a provision that prohibits export of civilian aircraft parts. However, HR 1400, which your boss co-sponsored, does. It is my understanding that the counterpart to HR 1400 in the Senate- S.970- is getting ready to move (mid-spring). This presents a great opportunity for your boss to a) insert language into HR 2347 saying that humanitarian exports, including exports relating to civilian aviation, cannot be prohibited by any new or existing law, or b) for your boss to make sure that the provision barring export of civilian aircraft parts is stripped from HR 1400 during conference. (Sec. 203.1 in the House, Sec 7b.2 in the Senate).

I cannot emphasize enough how important is for the US to make clear that sanctions are not directed or intended to hurt the Iranian people. It is the Iranian government that is to blame. Expressing a "sense of congress" or giving $10 million for exchanges is not enough. It is congress' responsibility, in my view, to do everything in its power to ensure that the Iranian people do not suffer at our hands and are not isolated from the rest of the world. It also the US's responsibility to ensure that Iranian planes, which are US made and aging, do not fall out of the sky for lack of replacement parts.

Smells like lobbying. (What's more, there are reasons for those sanctions on airplane parts, and Parsi's old boss Rep. Bob Ney went to jail for violating them.)

Here is another email from Blout, this one debriefing NIAC leadership on her day of meetings on the Hill:

Thank you for joining us for the meeting on democracy funding yesterday. Your commentary and insight was extremely valuable. The following is a summary of all of yesterday's meetings. Please make any additions/corrections necessary.

The meeting with Ven Neralla from Rep. Barbara Lee's office was positive, although the discussion was not as focused as we would have liked on the democracy funding. When I follow-up with Ven today with the promised information on sanctions (Ivan Eland's report, the report by Dewey Ballantine (commissioned by Jake Colvin's group), NIAC's analysis of HR 1400, and the report by Terror Free Tomorrow), I will reiterate our message on the democracy funding.

I think the meeting with the appropriations staffer from Nita Lowey's office went well. Trita and I were pleased to find Steve Lopes, who works specifically on the democracy program funding, willing to consider our concerns and suggestions. He asked that we get back to him with information about how other countries have approached democracy funding in Iran.

After you departed, Trita and I met with Paul Grove, minority clerk for the Senate state and foreign operations sub-committee (Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH)). Trita and Paul hit it off right away. We were delighted to find Mr. Grove's views in line with our own, as he has had extensive knowledge of the problems posed by explicit "democracy" funding programs enacted by congress in the past and present, most recently in the case of Egypt. He was extremely critical of the state department's administration of middle east democracy initiatives such as MEPI and said such operations/funding would be better left to the National Endowment for Democracy (as that was what it was created for). As for what could be done, he brought up the idea of "burying the money" in the greater context of funding for the Middle East, rather than specifically appropriating it to "democracy programs in Iran". Specifically, he talked about providing NED "not withstanding authority" to appropriate funding for Iran- thus deflating the role of the State department and USAID. He also raised the possibility of including a "blanket waiver" for non-profit NGO exchanges between the US and Iran. He asked me to identify and analyze all of the provisions of law necessary for inclusion in such a waiver. Hopefully, I'll have this analysis to him soon.

Following the meeting with Paul, I attended a meeting with two staffers, Chris Homan, Foreign Policy Legislative Assistant, and Reema Dodin, Legislative Aide, from Senator Dick Durbin's office. Durbin (D-IL) is the assistant majority leader in the Senate and sits on the state and foreign operations sub-committee. He is also the co-sponsor of the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007 (S970).
This meeting was also very productive. Homan used to work for USAID and his wife works for NED. Homan was very responsive to our concerns and pointed out that this had been a problem in regards to other countries in the past. He said it was important to get a meeting with Tim Rieser, the majority clerk on the sub-committee (Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) ) and said we could use his name to get one. He also expressed interested in including a provision in HR1400 that would lift sanctions on NGO-NGO exchanges. He said he would be willing to pitch our argument to reduce or remove the democracy funding appropriation (or to take other positive measures) to the Senator, provided that he felt he had all the necessary information to make his case. He asked me to get back to him with a summary of the cultural exchange programs currently being conducted, including what types of exchanges are being done (not just those conducted by NGOs) and what is and what is not allowed under current law.

I also attended a meeting in the morning with Tim Morrissey and Peter Frosch from Representative Betty McCullum's office. McCullum is on the House sub-committee and voted ‘yes' on Iran sanctions. Other than that, she has not been active on Iran. Frosch worked on the state and foreign opps bill when it was being debated by the House, but was unaware of our concerns and the problems with VOA. He asked me to provide him with a breakdown of the Iran-related funding in the bill as well as some numbers on VOA Persian listenership historically and compared to other broadcasters in Iran (such as BBC). He also said to keep him up to date on who else from the committee is on-board, and said that the congresswomen might be able to make a few calls to members (say,when its in conference).

Keep in mind, this is an organization that claims on its tax forms that it DOES NOT engage in lobbying. Moreover, all of the group's efforts seems focused on preventing additional sanctions, eliminating U.S. democracy funding initiatives, and destroying the Voice of America's Persian service and Radio Farda. The regime couldn't come up with a better set of priorities for NIAC, which may explain why so many people are wondering on behalf of whom NIAC is working.