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Iran: Have the West Been Naïve in Dealing With Iranian Influence Activities?

It was recently revealed that the US government was pursuing charges against a political scientist and self-styled foreign relations expert named Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, under the Foreign Assets Registration Act. Charging documents indicate that he received upwards of 265,000 dollars in payments through Iran’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, for work that promoted the Iranian regime’s talking points to American policymakers and media outlets.

The work in question reportedly took place over the course of about 13 years, which naturally raises questions about why Afrasiabi’s undisclosed affiliations with the Iranian regime had not been uncovered earlier. But for those who are familiar with the operation of Iran’s covert influence networks in the West, the long delay in his arrest should come as little surprise. The targets of that influence have been notoriously naïve in their dealings with persons who advance pro-Iran talking points, often taking it for granted that they are operating independently even when there is ample evidence of FARA violations.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), itself a frequent target of the Iranian propaganda that is spread through Western outlets, was quick to highlight this situation after it was reported that Afrasiabi had made his first appearance in a US federal court. “Unfortunately, for the past three decades, the Iranian regime has been running an extensive network of agents and operatives, many of them U.S. persons, in clear violation of American law,” explained Alireza Jafarzadeh, the deputy director of the NCRI’s Washington office.

Naturally, the NCRI has issued numerous warnings about that network over the years, while also making efforts to counter its propaganda especially in matters concerning the Iranian regime’s supposed political stability and freedom from domestic challenges to its rule.

That narrative began to be seriously undermined in late 2017 with the outbreak of a nationwide uprising against the theocratic dictatorship, which spawned two subsequent uprisings and a wide range of smaller protests prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. But despite all this, Western discourse about the Iranian regime has remained heavily skewed toward the notion that policymakers have no real choice other than to negotiate with the existing Iranian government on the understanding that there is no viable alternative.

It is easy to see how much that narrative benefits the clerical regime, so it should be easy to conclude that the purveyors of that narrative ought to be thoroughly vetted for potential regime affiliations and conflicts of interest. If this had been standard practice, American law enforcement and publishers of Afrasiabi’s work might have subjected him to effective scrutiny at some point during the 13 years he was working as a clandestine lobbyist for Tehran’s preferred policy positions.

On the other hand, it is arguably understandable that suspicions didn’t arise in those who’d had prior interactions with Afrasiabi, a 35-year resident of the United States who earned his PhD at an American institution. Still, any prospective investigation into Afrasiabi’s activities was presumably impaired in advance by the overall trend of disregarding clear signs of Iranian government influence among people who operate within the borders of Western nations.

The beneficiaries of this trend include individuals with longstanding personal relationships with Iranian officials, as well as people who actually held positions within the regime’s institutions before relocating to the US and starting to portray themselves as independent political analysts. The NCRI has raised alarms about persons who fit both of these descriptions, and so have certain congressional lawmakers. Yet those very same persons continue to operate freely and find publication in mainstream news outlets even today.

There’s no immediate sign that Afrasiabi’s arrest has done much to disrupt the existing trends. But that only goes to show that it is more important than ever for the policymakers, and anyone else who is concerned about accuracy in reporting on Iran to continue urging Western politicians and journalists to adopt relevant countermeasures.

Toward that end, concerned parties could start by telling their lawmakers to specifically pursue investigations and potential FARA charges for Trita Parsi and Seyed Hossein Mousavian. The former was the subject of a letter sent to the Department of Justice last year by Senators Mike Braun, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton, arguing that the organization Parsi founded, the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC), “masks troubling behavior” behind a false public profile while spreading talking points on behalf of the Iranian regime.

Mousavian, meanwhile, promotes many of the same talking points with much the same support from Western publishers, despite having an inherently more suspicious personal background. He relocated to the US from Iran only in 2009, not long after Afrasiabi apparently joined the regime’s payroll. Two years earlier, Mousavian concluded an eight-year stint on Iran’s National Security Council, and prior to that, he served as ambassador to Germany during a time when that diplomatic mission was understood to be the heart of an Iranian terrorist network that was responsible for numerous assassinations of dissidents.

The operation of that network ultimately led to Mousavian and more than a dozen other individuals being expelled from Germany toward the end of the 90s. But this did not stop him from being welcomed, more or less with open arms, in the United States after he experienced a falling out with fellow Iranian government officials and sought a position at Princeton. He has held that position ever since and has used it to secure publication in numerous outlets. His supposed split with the regime, however, did not change his philosophy, and he has consistently advanced positions that are indistinguishable from those promoted by Parsi, Afrasiabi, and Tehran.

The Mousavian case suggests that Western publishers, policymakers, and law enforcement agencies are strangely willing to overlook evidence of connections between supposed academics and Iranian terrorist operatives. That is a particularly alarming prospect in light of the fact that there may presently be a resurgence in the sort of Iranian terrorism that was carried out on Western soil in the 1990s. Right now in Belgium, a trial is concluding for Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat not unlike Mousavian who was caught providing explosives to Iranian operatives for use in attacking a major dissident gathering near Paris, as recently as June 2018.

Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi faces terrorism trial in Belgium court

It should go without saying that Western powers cannot afford to downplay the threat posed by this sort of terrorism. What is perhaps less obvious is that Western powers also can’t afford to turn a blind eye to the sorts of pro-regime propaganda that justify that terrorist activity or imply that it is not a genuine feature of Iran’s theocratic regime.

Mousavian’s background and current activities underscore that these two phenomena often go hand-in-hand. Meanwhile, the recent activity undertaken by Trita Parsi and especially Kaveh Afrasiabi indicate that Iranian propaganda comes in many different forms, through many different conduits. To combat that propaganda, lawmakers and journalists must start by taking aim at persons with blatantly obvious connections to the Iranian regime. But from there they must proceed to close scrutiny of those whose connections are more tenuous, as well as those whose potential affiliation with the regime are visible only in broadly overlapping philosophies or policy preferences.