On Trita Parsi and ‘Iran’s AIPAC’

by Reihan Salam

Daniel Larison, one of the most astute observers of the American political scene, has returned from a too-long hiatus. Citing a post by Andrew Sullivan, he attacks Jeffrey Goldberg for characterizing Trita Parsi, an expert on Iranian affairs who champions an engagement policy while condemning the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses, as an objective ally of the regime.

The attack to which he is responding is fundamentally dishonest. Parsi has argued against additional sanctions on Iran on the reasonable grounds that additional sanctions would not force Tehran to make any concessions, would not undermine the regime and would not advance the cause of reformers. I don’t believe Parsi has argued for an end to all sanctions currently imposed on Iran, but even if he were to make that argument he would have legitimate reasons for thinking that sanctions have helped to weaken Iranian opposition forces and consolidate the regime’s hold on the country. If Goldberg had any interest in being fair to Parsi, he would have to acknowledge that Parsi has also argued for a pause in pursuing any engagement with Tehran in the wake of the June crackdown. That means that Parsi has changed his position on engaging Tehran to take a somewhat harder line than he once held. Whether or not this is the right move, this put him among those opposed to engaging the Iranian government under its current leadership at the present time. As far as I know, this remains Parsi’s position today. Obviously, he is nothing like “the AIPAC of Iran,” and referring to him as a lobbyist for Tehran is false and reprehensible.

Reprehensible strikes me as a wildly inappropriate characterization. In fairness to Goldberg, who has thought deeply and carefully about these issues, serving as “the AIPAC of Iran” is more complex than AIPAC critics think. I’m sorry to see that Goldberg retreated from this characterization.

Obviously, as I told Mother Jones, I wasn’t meaning to imply that Trita Parsi is a paid agent of the Iranian regime, or somesuch. I was implying that he has made himself the AIPAC of Iran in Washington. My bad. On the larger question of whether Trita Parsi functions as a lobbyist for the Iranian regime, based on what I know, I’d have to say yes: He has argued consistently against any sanctions against Iran, and an end to sanctions is obviously what the Iranian regime wants. So he is working on behalf of a stated interest of the Iranian government. Yes, he also criticizes Iran’s human rights abuses, but it’s been suggested recently that it is possible to lobby for a country while criticizing it at the same time.

Goldberg’s last link is to J Street, an avowedly pro-Israel group that has been strongly critical of settlement-building in the West Bank and Israel’s controversial efforts to contain the violence in Gaza. But he could just as easily have cited AIPAC itself, which aggressively lobbied the Israeli government in the 1980s to change its policies towards apartheid-era South Africa. At the time, the Israeli defense establishment maintained ties with the South Africans, a relationship criticized by elements within the Israeli foreign ministry as well as pro-Israel activists in Jewish communities throughout the West. This questioning of Israeli policy didn’t mean that AIPAC ceased to be a pro-Israel lobby.

And while Parsi is undoubtedly a believer in democratic liberalism who wants to see Iran radically reform its institutions, he objectively serves Iranian interests insofar as he discourages Western efforts to exert pressure on the regime. This doesn’t make Parsi a bad person. Plenty of Iranian dissidents believe that a democratic Iran should have a nuclear deterrent. Plenty want a denuclearized Iran, yet believe that Western pressure amounts to a kind of imperialism that should be actively resisted. This isn’t that complicated.

Iran doesn’t have an actual AIPAC. Instead, there is a loose network of policy scholars, activists, think tanks, civil servants, etc., who strongly oppose a forward-leaning U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf for a wide, sometimes overlapping variety of reasons. Some of these people have a real financial interest in a better relationship between Washington and Qom, but most don’t. On some issues, members of this loose network get important things right. A lot of realists have raised important questions about the efficacy of sanctions, and they are right to do so. But it’s also true that these voices help today’s Iran. The Iranians among them have added credibility. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.