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The pro-Tehran lobby and its anti-Israeli crusade

Hassan Dai, 25 August 2011

Parsi’s book and statements depict Israel as the main hurdle preventing any possible rapprochement between Iran and the US. Parsi presents himself as the champion of anti-AIPAC crusade, a David versus Goliath.  His campaign to blame Israel is a key part of his lobby for a friendlier US policy toward Tehran and removal of sanctions

Summary: :  Blame Israel and Acquit the Iranian regime

The catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the weakening position of the US in the region revived the public debate over the Israeli influence on US policy in the Middle East. The anti-war groups and American left were among those who blamed Israel and its American neo-conservative allies for the war that was reportedly launched to protect Israel, even perhaps conceived in Israel.

In 2006, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their famous book, “The Israeli Lobby and US Foreign Policy,” which had a great impact in shaping the debate. The authors argued that the pro-Israeli lobby (AIPAC) had a quasi-total influence on all American branches of power to direct the US policy in the Middle East.

With the growing resentment against Israel and AIPAC, the pro-Tehran advocates in Washington, including NIAC and its president Trita Parsi, launched a large-scale campaign to highjack the debate and morph it into a crusade that blamed Israel for the US-Iran impasse and depict AIPAC as the bullying organization that forced the US administration to follow Israeli demands and ignore Iranian readiness for compromise, therefore maintaining a hostile attitude toward Iran. 

The campaign was designed to influence public opinion and shape US policy towards Iran by presenting the Iranian regime as a victim rather than a party responsible for the turmoil in the Middle East turmoil and the hostility towards the United States.

Since 1997 and the start of the pro-Tehran lobby in Washington, Parsi has positioned himself as the champion of this anti-Israel and anti-AIPAC crusade. In 2007, Parsi published his first book titled “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States,” in which he depicted Israel as the main hurdle preventing any possible rapprochement between Iran and the US. Parsi claimed that “from the Israeli perspective, every step Washington takes toward Tehran is a step away from Tel Aviv,” that Israeli is “the sole force behind the lobby efforts to impose and extend the sanctions” against Iran, and isforcing Congress to pursue a policy that contradicts US interest.”

Accordingly, Parsi has always tried to frame his lobby as a heroic and historic battle against AIPAC, “David versus Goliath: a smaller grassroots Iranian-American movement (NIAC) on one side and the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) mega-lobby on the other.”

Parsi’s book and statements about Israel go beyond scholarly works because they theorize and legitimize a large-scale lobbying campaign to “remove sanctions against Iran” and “pressure US lawmakers to pose a more Iran-friendly position.” This campaign has influenced US policy with Iran and has helped the Iranian regime advance its strategic goals in the Middle East. (See Parsi's description of his first lobby group IC)

Trita Parsi’s Book and Statements: Morphing a Genuine Debate Into a Misinformation Campaign

In 2007, Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), published a book titled “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States.” The book has had an important impact in shaping the debate about the Israeli influence on US policy with Iran. It received the Council on Foreign Relations' 2008 Arthur Ross Silver Medallion and the 2010 Grawemeyer Award, worth $200,000, for Ideas Improving World Order.

Parsi’s book is a story with three personages: a guilty party, an accomplice and a victim, who are respectively Israel, the US, and Iran.

Israel is the guilty character because, for its own illegitimate and self-served interests, it has been preventing a US-Iran reconciliation and therefore caused a series of harmful consequences in the region that gravely damaged US strategic interests and deteriorated the regional peace and security.

The second player is the United States, a passive character that bows to Israeli pressure and adopts the policy dictated by Israel at the expense of American national interests. The US ignores the Iranian overtures for dialogue because of Israeli bullying.

The third personage is Iran, which continues the pre-Revolution pragmatism and nationalistic foreign policy of the Shah and despite its harsh rhetoric, remained neutral to Israel until 1991 when the Jewish state started its policy of isolating Iran. Iran does not pose a threat neither to Israel nor to the US. It is seeking its legitimate place in the Middle East, a place it has been prevented to attain because of Israeli actions.

Below we go briefly through this book and some of the statements made.

Israeli motivations to prevent a US-Iran rapprochement

During the Cold War, Israel played a key strategic role as a pro-Western outpost in a Middle East. But with the Soviet Union gone, and U.S.-Arab r/elations at a peak, the Israeli alliance risked becoming obsolete to Washington. (P. 148)

The old order no longer existed, and Israel would have no future in the new order unless it could find a rationale for Washington to continue the strategic relationship. (158)

Israel was convinced that Iran, which emerged as one of the winners of the Persian Gulf War, would seek to impose its own order on the Middle East—particularly if it came to terms with America (159)

The US-Iran negotiations could damage Israel's strategic standing, since common interests shared by Iran and the US would overshadow Israel's concerns with Tehran and leave Israel alone in facing its Iranian rival....Israel is playing hardball to prevent Washington from cutting a deal with Tehran that could benefit America, but deprive Israel of its military and strategic supremacy." ( "A challenge to Israel's strategic primacy"

Israel painted Iran as fanatical, suicidal and a threat to the world

Fearing that Israel’s strategic weight would suffer if Iran emerged as the undisputed power in the Middle East, Israeli politicians began painting the regime in Tehran as fanatical and irrational.

But for Israel, rallying Western states to its side was best achieved by bringing attention to the alleged suicidal tendencies of the clergy and to Iran’s apparent infatuation with the idea of destroying Israel. If the Iranian leadership was viewed as irrational, conventional tactics such as deterrence would be impossible, leaving the international community with no option but to have zero tolerance for Iranian military capabilities.  (Introduction 2)

The Israeli strategy was to convince the world—particularly Washington—that the Israeli-Iranian conflict wasn’t one between two rivals for military preeminence in a fundamentally disordered region that lacked a clear pecking order. Rather, Israel framed the clash as one between the sole democracy in the Middle East and a totalitarian theocracy that hated everything the West stood for. (Introduction 3)

Swiftly, a campaign was organized to convince the United States and the EU that Iran was a global threat. (161)

The US bowed to Israel and adopted the policy to isolate Iran

Israel wanted the United States to put Iran under economic and political siege. Shimon Peres’s New Middle East and the American policy of Dual Containment that went into effect in 1993 after more than a year of Israeli pressure would all but write Iran’s isolation into law. (181)

By October 1994, Washington started to adopt the Israeli line on Iran. In response to Israeli pressure—and not to Iranian actions—Washington’s rhetoric on Iran began to mirror Israel’s talking points. (85)

Washington started to adopt the Israeli line on Iran. In response to Israeli pressure—and not to Iranian actions—Washington’s rhetoric on Iran began to mirror Israel’s talking points… Washington’s recycling of Israel’s argument back to Tel Aviv reflected the success of Rabin and Peres’s campaign against Iran. Washington’s turnaround was a direct result of Israel’s pressure. (p. 185)

Israel was now a spoiler of the US-Iran dialogue that both Presidents Clinton and Khatami sought. A thaw in US-Iran ties could have significantly advanced US national interests at this time, but the Israeli-Iranian rivalry effectively sabotaged the opportunity. The powerful pro-Israeli lobby, headed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, made a US-Iran rapprochement politically impossible

 

Israel is the sole force behind the sanctions against Iran

The main purpose of the sanctions are not to halt Iran’s alleged attempt to acquire WMD or halt its alleged support to terrorist groups.  The main purpose is to constitute a political obstacle to a US-Iran dialogue and improved US-Iran relations. Conference call 2001

But neither America’s adoption of the Israeli line on Iran nor Dual Containment was sufficient. Having achieved these goals, Israel raised the bar and requested additional pressure on Iran. (185)

Pressured by Congress, AIPAC, and the Israelis, President Clinton prohibited all trade with Iran. But the initial sanctions weren’t enough.  AIPAC launched a formidable lobbying campaign and managed to win extensive support for the bill—the Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA)— on Capitol Hill. The Clinton administration balked. But Clinton was no match for AIPAC’s influence in Congress. The bill passed the House of Representatives 415 votes to 0 and was reluctantly signed into law by the president in August 1996. (187-188)

The success of ILSA lay in the almost irremovable political obstacle it created to any effort at improving U.S.-Iran relations— a critical objective of Israel as a result of its fear that a dialogue between Washington and Tehran would come at the expense of Israel’s strategic role. (189)

AIPAC checkmated George Bush: Immediately, fears spread in Israel that Washington would soften its stand on Iran, ease Clinton’s economic sanctions, and narrow its efforts to block Tehran’s nuclear program. Instead of waiting for Bush and Powell to make their move, AIPAC took advantage of the disorganization in the White House that followed the election conflict. The pro- Israel lobby began laying the groundwork for ILSA’s renewal on Capitol Hill, and by mid-March—before Bush had even formulated a position on ILSA—AIPAC had gathered more than three hundred cosponsors in the House, The Bush administration was quickly outmaneuvered; through its preemptive work on Capitol Hill, AIPAC checkmated Bush and saw the sanctions bill pass with overwhelming numbers in both chambers.

 

Israel has forced the US and the UN to oppose Iranian nuclear program

•For more than 14 years, Israel has been the primary force countering Iran's nuclear advances. Though Israel presents the prospect of a nuclear Iran as a global rather than an Israeli problem, it has compelled Washington to adopt its own red lines and not those of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) "A challenge to Israel's strategic primacy" )

•"With the issue of Iran's nuclear program being taken up by the U.N. Security Council, Israel's hawkish policy and AIPAC's support for Bush administration hard-liners would appear to be paying dividends. (A Modus Vivendi Between Jerusalem and Tehran”, Forward, March 17, 2006)

 

Presenting the Iranian Regime as a Victim

The large-scale campaign to blame Israel has other aspects: acquitting Iran from major responsibility in regional problems, hostility with Israel, the spread of fundamentalist terrorism in the Islamic world, and destabilizing the entire Middle East. Parsi’s book defends the Iranian regime with respect to a whole range of issues, specially its actions against Israel.

He claims that the Iranian regime seeks its legitimate place in the region, could live peacefully with the US, and does not pose a threat to any nation or country. Furthermore, he asserts that Iran has been making goodwill gestures towards the US but was never compensated for its friendly acts. Whenever Iran committed an action against Israel, it was simply in reaction to Israeli bellicose attitudes. Prior to 1991 and the start of the Israeli campaign to isolate Iran, the clerical regime limited itself to mere harsh rhetoric against the Israeli government, in addition to vocal support in favor of the Palestinian movement.  The following excerpts from Parsi’s writings blame the hostility between Iran and Israel on the Jewish state:

Israel started the rivalry: But it wasn’t Iran that turned the Israeli-Iranian cold war warm – it was Israel. In October 1992, prior to Iran’s material support for Palestinian rejectionists, the Shimon Peres/Yitzhak Rabin government undertook a major campaign to depict Iran and Shi’a Islamic fundamentalism as a global threat. (The Israeli reversal)

Iran’s goodwill gesture remained unnoticed: Though the United States had failed to reciprocate Iran’s goodwill measures in Lebanon, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait provided Iran with another opportunity to show that the United States could benefit from improved relations with Tehran. (141)

US did not appreciate Iran’s pragmatism: In many ways, Washington failed to appreciate Iran’s pragmatism. The signals from Rafsanjani tended to be dismissed.  (152)

US non-response to Iran’s pragmatism strengthened the hardliners: Washington’s failure to reciprocate Iranian gestures—even though Tehran’s expectations may have been exaggerated—strengthened the hands of Iranian rejectionists, who argued that Washington would never come to terms with Iran voluntarily.

Convinced that Washington wouldn’t grant Iran its legitimate role in the region, Tehran concluded that it was left with no choice but to make America’s non-recognition as costly as possible by sabotaging its policies. (155)

US did not invite Iran to the Madrid peace conference: The non-invitation to Madrid was in many ways the last straw for Rafsanjani’s policy of détente with Washington. (154)

Iran reacted negatively to not being included in the regional process: Tehran reacted bitterly to Washington’s snub. Madrid was, after all, not seen as just a conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but as the defining moment in forming the new Middle East order—one in which Tehran hoped to play a role commensurate with its geopolitical weight. (153)

Iran decision to lead the anti-peace camp was in reaction to not being invited to Madrid: As soon as it became clear that an invitation to the conference wasn’t forthcoming, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, gave a green light to Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour to organize a conference in opposition to Madrid. This was a watershed moment, as Iran for the first time started to seriously reach out to rejectionist Palestinian groups. Iran took the political lead against the Madrid conference, a position it wouldn’t have taken had Washington invited it to participate (155)

Iran intensified its efforts to overcome differences with radical Palestinian groups. Oslo helped create a marriage of convenience between Iran and Islamic Jihad, but it would still take a few more years before relations with Hamas began to thaw. (177)

The attempts to isolate Iran prompted it to oppose the peace in the Middle East Peace between the Arabs and the Israelis. (175)

For the first time, Iran started to act against Israel: For the first time, Iran began to translate its anti-Israel rhetoric into operational policy. (176)

Prior to 1991, Iran had done nothing for Palestinians except lip services

In the 1980s, Iran made itself the most vocal regional supporter of the Palestinian cause. Yet its rhetoric was seldom followed up with action, since Tehran’s strategic interest—reducing tensions with Israel and using the Jewish State to reestablish relations with the United States—contradicted Iran’s ideological imperatives. After 1991 and the efforts by the United States and Israel to create a new Middle East order based on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and on Iran’s prolonged isolation, however, Iran’s ideological and strategic interests overlapped, and Tehran decided for the first time to become a front-line opponent of the Jewish State. (Preface - XI)

The Labor Party’s campaign to isolate Iran took Tehran by surprise. The Iranians thought Israel would continue to dismiss Iran’s usual tirades against the Jewish State, just as it had in the 1980s. The unspoken understanding between the two was still valid as far as the Iranians were concerned: Iran would remain nothing more than an armchair critic; it would continue to issue colorful diatribes against Israel while paying lip service to the Palestinian cause. Israel, in turn, would turn a deaf ear to Iran’s rhetoric and remember that Tehran’s slogans did not reflect Iran’s real policy. (181)

Hezbollah terrorist bombing in Argentine was a reaction to Israeli provocation

On March 17, 1992, a bomb had destroyed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people. Though other groups had claimed responsibility for this bombing, Israel still suspected a Hezbollah link. According to Israeli accounts, these terror attacks were retaliations for Israeli operations in South Lebanon. Israeli forces had assassinated the leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Abbas Mussawi, and his family a month before the embassy bombing. Three months before the AMIA attack, (1994) Israel had bombed a Hezbollah camp deep inside Lebanon and kidnapped Lebanese Shia leader Mustafa Dirani in an attempt to extract information on a missing Israeli soldier.“There is no doubt that the [embassy] bombing was connected to the Mussawi operation and that the government at the time was unaware of possible consequences for Jews abroad,” said Avinoam Bar- Yosef, the director general of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a Jerusalem think tank affiliated with the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government.  Itamar Rabinovich, former adviser to Rabin and Israeli ambassador to the United States, concurred. “One was a response to the killing of Abbas Mussawi in Lebanon, one was a response to an attack on a Hezbollah camp deep in Lebanon.” (p. 178)

Downplaying the Iranian Regime’s Anti-Semitism

Ahmadinejad’s Mistranslated Declaration: On October 26, 2005, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a speech to the "World Without Zionism" Conference in Tehran and according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), he declared that "Israel must be wiped off the map."  The story was picked up by western news agencies and quickly made headlines around the world. On October 30, The New York Times  published a full transcript of the speech in which Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying: "Our dear Imam said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map."

Immediately, pro-Tehran advocates who presented Iran as a victim of Israel launched a campaign to claim that Ahmadinejad's declaration was intentionally mistranslated by hawkish groups in the US to demonize Iran and pave the way for a military invasion of the country. Parsi wrote in his book: “Ahmadinejad’s statement has generally been mistranslated to read, ‘Wipe Israel off the map.’ Ahmadinejad never used the word ‘Israel’ but rather the ‘occupying regime of Jerusalem,’ which is a reference to the Israeli regime and not necessarily to the country.” (Introduction, p 285)

 

Presenting Ahmadinejad as a Unique and Irrelevant Case of Anti-Semitism in the Iranian regime

Parsi and NIAC used another tactic to diminish the importance of Ahmadinejad’s declaration by presenting him as a powerless politician. He wroteFor a few days, the (US) media spoke of Ahmadinejad as if he actually determined Iran’s nuclear policy, as if he was in charge of the Iranian army and as if it was up to him whether Tehran would seek Israel’s destruction or not.”

 

NIAC's Internal Email

NIAC's effort to minimize the Iranian regime's systematic anti-Semitism is well illustrated in one of their internal emails released during a defamation lawsuit in Washington that NIAC ultimately lost. This email is an exchange among NIAC's west coast board members discussing the negative impact of Ahmadinejad's anti-Israeli declarations. Babak Talebi, Director of Community Relations, explains that they should not solely insist on the mistranslation argument because Ahmadinejad continually showed his hatred of Israel on multiple occasions, making it near impossible for US politicians to accept the "mistranslation" argument.

Talebi suggests a genuine way to reframe the issue and coax the public: "As we discussed in the Seminar, in order to frame your issue successfully, you have to go fishing with the bait that the fish likes, not the bait that you like." In other words, they must find an argument that the public (fish) could get trapped in.

This email shows how NIAC tries every imaginable tactic and talking point to acquit the Iranian regime and present Tehran rulers as victims.

Mitra is 100% correct that this (AN declaration to wipe Israel off the map) was a mistranslation – whether in the official Iranian press, or intentionally on the part of the US media is a point that can (and is) argued… but what is important for today is to realize that it is now (almost) set-in-stone and the fact is that every time Ahmadinejad speaks he only confirms the mis-translation by repeating similar lines.  The point is that for both the US public AND the US media, the interpretation of this utterance is ‘believable’ and it would require a HUGE political force to change that mindset – and EVEN IF accomplished, it would not challenge or change the perception of Ahmadinejad as anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic. 

So – a far more effective response with an actual chance at success and at stemming the possibility of this type of mentality leading to conflict is to ‘frame’ the issue in a different manner.  Arguing that Ahmadinejad is irrelevant to actual Iranian foreign policy is one such example.  Arguing that EVEN IF Iran had an ‘intent’ to harm Israel it does not have the capacity or political will to do so.  Etc.  

As we discussed in the Seminar, in order to frame your issue successfully, you have to “go fishing with the bait that the fish likes, not the bait that you like”.  Another words, arguments that convince us that Iran will not attack Israel (ie it has not attacked anyone in 150 years, Iranians love Jews, its just empty rhetoric) would not necessarily work with the audience we are trying to convince.

Iranian Regime Versus Israel, NIAC Versus AIPAC

Parsi’s book paints the Middle East as the battlefield between two main rivals, Iran and Israel, which compete for power and hegemony. Similarly, Washington is also a battlefield between two main players, the Israeli lobby and those who resist its dominance. With no surprise, Parsi presents himself as a champion who fights the Israeli influence in the US.

His lobby to remove sanctions against Iran is presented as a heroic battle against AIPAC, the harmful force that undermines US national interests.  When Parsi is successful in his lobby, this is presented as a victory over AIPAC. Inversely, when he is criticized, he portrays himself as a victim of AIPAC and its allies. For example, in June 2008, NIAC and its partners in the Campaign for New American Policy on Iran (CNAPI) successfully defeated the sanction resolution H.R.362 against Iran. NIAC’s chief lobbyist sent an email and defined how this victory should be presented to the public:

Good news! We’re making headway on the blockade resolution. Per your conversation with Babak, it would be great if you could do an op-ed geared to the Iranian American community. It could frame our crusade against H Con Res 362 as a ‘David and Goliath’ type deal with NIAC taking on the big boys (AIPAC) and making warmongers nervous.”

A few days later, NIAC’s article was published, portraying an epic battle in Washington, between the Iran lobby and the Israeli lobby:

NIAC beats AIPAC

It was David versus Goliath: the classic underdog matchup. In the battle over a Congressional resolution calling for war with Iran, the lines were drawn between the smaller grassroots Iranian-American movement (NIAC) on one side and the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) mega-lobby on the other. No one expected the Iranian Americans and their coalition partners to be able to stand up to the belligerent giant intent on amplifying hostility with Iran.

But with the Congressional session expiring this week, our proverbial David in Washington has delivered the knock-out blow to the pro-war forces' Goliath. The Iran war resolution is down for the count. Yes, you read that right - NIAC beat AIPAC.

On the other hand, when NIAC is under criticism, the blame is on Israel, AIPAC and neo-conservative warmongers. For example, when in April 2007 this author published a report about NIAC, several government-related newspapers in Tehran came out to defend Parsi and wrote that AIPAC and neo-conservatives had attacked NIAC.

It is not clear whether Parsi’s campaign to present his lobby as a battle against AIPAC is a mere practical tactic to profit from the anti-AIPAC mood and hence advance his anti-sanction lobby, or if it reflects a more profound resentment against Israel.

Practical tactic or genuine belief, the results are identical. Parsi contributed greatly to the campaign to present AIPAC and Israel as powerful bullies in Washington whose goal is to harm US interests.