What is the pro-Iran lobby in the US?

Since the beginning of the Islamic Republic in Iran 36 years ago, there have always been political forces in Washington that preach coexistence and friendship with the Iranian regime and ask the administration to follow the example of Nixon's initiative toward China in the 1970s, that means to accept Iranian influence and hegemony in the region and treat the Iranian Mullahs as genuine partners.

On top of Iran's unconditional allies in the US that demand removal of economic sanctions is the trade lobby, notably the oil l companies. Iran has the fourth largest oil reserves and second natural gas reserves of the world. The US oil corporations want to have access to Iranian oil and gas sector and believe that better relation with Tehran could bring stability to the region and oil supply from the Middle East and will facilitate access energy resources in Central Asia.

The Iranian regime considers these business and political forces that favor more Tehran friendly policies as the pro-Iran lobby in the US. The Iranian regime has maintained a practical relationship with these groups. (Read the detailed report: “The trade lobby and US policy with Iran”)

Start of lobby

In 1991, Iran signed a pre-agreement with US oil company Conoco to develop gas and oil fields in Iran, a move designed to push US oil giants to lobby the US administration to change its policy with Iran and lift the sanctions.

Consequently, the US oil giants started a modest campaign to soften public opinion about Iran and give the green light to the US administration to conduct business with Iran. This campaign was also supported by the regime and as a result, Hooshang Amirahmadi, a University of Rutgers professor who had previously worked with the Iranian government, launched a series of "Iran-US conferences" to promote friendship between the two countries. (See pictures here and here)

Amirahmadi told an Iranian newspaper that he coordinated this initiative with the Iranian ambassador to the UN. Amirahmadi's main partner in this campaign was Gary Sick, a former White House staffer who launched his "Gulf 2000" project in 1993 to improve US-Iran relations.

Sick's project was funded by US oil corporations, and Amirahmadi also reported in his CV that from 1993 to 1996, he had received $350.000 from Oil companies to organize these conferences.

In 1997, the so-called reformist Mohammad Khatami became president and launched a charm campaign to soften Western attitude toward Iran and ease economic sanctions. The American business interests grasped the opportunity and National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) representing large US corporations, launched its own lobby arm called USA*Engage joining forces with oil giants.

Under these favorable conditions, Hooshang Amirahmadi the veteran anti-sanction lobbyist, was supported by business lobbies to establish the American Iranian Council (AIC) in 1997. AIC is a revealing example of the tacit collaboration between US oil corporations and the Iranian regime unified in their goal to lift economic sanctions and influence US foreign policy toward Iran.

AIC's board has included former US diplomats and senior executives from the oil sector including Halliburton, Chevron, Exxon Mobile, and other corporations. At the same time, AIC's president Amirahmadi received political and financial support from Tehran and publicly called AIC a lobby organization on behalf of Iran. (Amirahmadi's interviews with government controlled newspapers in Iran (here and here)

This campaign by US corporations created a favorable environment in which various groups that for different reasons seek friendlier policy with Iran became vocal and more active. A formidable political force was created in Washington in favor of friendship and coexistence with Iran.

Khatami's presidency was in fact the real start of pro-Iran lobby in Washington that has continued to grow in power and influence since 1997.

The US corporations and “pro-Iran lobby”

Since 2013, Hassan Rouhan’s government tries to enhance the relation with Western oil corporations and strengthen the pro-Iran lobby in the West. (Read the report: “Rouhani government’s Energy Diplomacy and Oil Lobby”). In this regard, the Iranian officials have made numerous declarations and reminded the past experience of Western oil corporations’ lobby on behalf of Iran.

In October 2013, after Rouhani's return from New York, the Center for Strategic Studies, affiliated with the office of the President, convened a consulting session with a group of prominent foreign policy analysts who presented an advisory report in which they evaluated his trip and detailed their recommendations. The group led by Rouhani's Chief of Staff, Nahavandian recommended that the Iranian lobby should be strengthened in Washington and emphasized the importance of Western oil companies in this lobby campaign: “Iran should strengthen the hand of American groups that accept a nuclear Iran and believe that the US policy of pressure against Iran has failed and urge a new attitude toward Iran. An essential pillar of the Iran lobby in the US are the oil companies and we should push them to be more active,”

Mehdi Hosseini Chairman of Oil Contracts Restructuring Committee" in the Oil Ministry has explained how Iran attempts to use these companies in its overall strategy to loosen economic sanctions. In an interview with Asre-Iran on December 11, 2013 Hosseini declared:

I believe that the Western oil companies which are interested in working in Iran, are good lobbies for us in our negotiations with the West. In addition to oil companies, the banks, service sector and legal businesses will also profit from energy deals with Iran. All these companies are negatively affected by sanctions against Iran and they are upset about it and urge the lifting of sanctions. We (Iran) can use their anti-sanction efforts to our advantage.

Question: Do you mean these companies will pressure their own government on our behalf?

Hosseini: Yes. They have done this in the past. I believe that the pressure by these companies on their own governments can help us in our (nuclear) negotiation. Whatever pressure is exerted on Western governments by these companies will help us and we should exploit these opportunities.

In another interview with the Financial Times, Mehdi Hosseini at the oil ministry explained the Iranian strategy and declared: “I agree that sanctions may not be lifted formally, quickly, simultaneously and immediately,” Mr. Hosseini said. But he said there were ways that companies and governments could circumvent them, such as being granted waivers. In 1997, Total defied US sanctions when it signed a contract worth $2bn to develop part of South Pars – the world’s biggest gas field. Other international companies, such as Shell, Italy’s Eni and Norway’s Statoil, followed suit.”

The “Iranian lobby” or small Iranian-American groups

The pro-Iran lobby needs Iranian organizations to support this campaign and legitimize friendlier policy with the Iranian regime. The need to have an "Iranian voice" in Washington to promote a friendlier policy with Iran and oppose sanctions is also shared by the Iranian regime. This common cause between Americans business interests and Iranian regime helped the creation of several Iranian-American organizations that received simultaneous support from Tehran and trade lobby in Washington.

American Iranian Council (AIC) led by Amirahmadi is a prime example of this tacit alliance between Iranian regime and US trade lobby. Later in 2002, Trita Prasi founded the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) a Washington-based lobbying organization that was founded by its president Trita Parsi in 2002. NIAC lobbies for a friendlier policy with Iran and opposes economic sanctions. NIAC maintains an active presence in Washington D.C., particularly working to influence members of Congress and the White House on their views on Iran. The government press in Tehran calls NIAC the "Iran lobby in US." Many within the Iranian-American community consider NIAC to be a de-facto lobby for the Iranian regime.

In 2008, NIAC and its president, Trita Parsi brought a defamation lawsuit against one of its critics to break him under financial burdens of the lawsuit and as a result, silence all other critics. The lawsuit obliged NIAC to release parts of its internal documents that revealed the organization’s ties to Tehran and some of its illicit activities.

Some of these documents are posted here and reveal NIAC’s relation and collaboration with Iranian officials and business interests inside Iran. They show that NIAC coordinated its lobby with the Iranian ambassador to the UN to influence the US policy with Iran. Some of NIAC’s internal documents released during the lawsuit have been used to prepare this report.

The US anti-war and left organizations join the Iran lobby

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the anti-war movement and opposition to George Bush's policy in the Middle East gained support in the US. In 2005, after Ahmadinejad became president, Iran resumed its nuclear activities and the hostilities between Iran and the West increased. As a result, the US anti-war movement feared a new war in the region and voiced its concern criticizing US animosity toward Iran. As the anti-war movement's opposition to US policy toward Iran became more vocal, the Iranian regime launched an ambitious plan to connect with American anti-war groups, recruit amongst them and use their social networks in a grassroots lobby to influence public opinion and prevent tougher policies against Iran.

NIAC and its president Trita Parsi played a pivotal role to bridge the anti-war activists with the Iranian regime to use them in their pro-Tehran lobby in the US. (Read the detailed report: Relation and cooperation between Iranian regime and American anti-war groups