The Corner

Of Iran Advocacy, NIAC, and Strawmen

While the headlines have been about New Jersey and Virginia, there’s a mini-controversy swirling around progressive websites about the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). I’m more interested in what’s going on in Iran, than in Iranian American politics here in the United States, so I’ve got no bone to pick on that issue which seems to me a tempest in a teapot. I do note that NIAC is in the midst of a fundraising campaign. To position themselves as a victim in an elaborate conspiracy theory is an interesting fundraising strategy. I wish them the best.

NIAC has released a piece, however, entitled “Who’s Behind the Smears” in which they misrepresent my views. To be honest, I had never heard of NIAC until I left the Pentagon when they started misrepresenting my positions, and lumping me in conspiracies with people I had never met, people with whom I did not work, people with whom I’m not on speaking terms, and people whose analysis I strongly disagree with. (Note to NIAC — “neocons” — however you want to define them, are not Borg. To suggest they share identical positions shows immaturity and laziness of analysis. Likewise, think tankers do not all agree with each other. At places like AEI or Brookings, we operate as independent scholars. Your projection does you a disservice). It’s probably safe to say that Spencer Ackerman has a more positive relationship with Jeffrey Goldberg than do I.

I’ve never met Trita Parsi, although we have debated in dueling opeds the merits of providing aid to civil society and democracy advocates. I’ve only clashed with NIAC when they misrepresented my position. For example, I called out a NIAC blogger — Artin Afkhami — when he missummarized an AEI event and when he misrepresented my position on military action and fabricated a quote in support of it. As I wrote last May:

So, now I challenge you to source your work and show that the strategy of the National Iranian American Council is not simply to imagine conversations and make things up. Where did you find the quote? Or, does NIAC simply make things up?

Neither Artin Afkhami nor Trita Parsi were classy enough to issue a correction since I have never, in a decade of writing on Islamic Republic, advocated “bombing Iran” (although I do not advocate trusting the Islamic Republic, either, and I have been a proponent of supporting the formation of independent trade unions in Iran to force the government to be accountable to its far more moderate citizenry). I did, however, advocate military action against Saddam, continue to believe it was the correct position, and do not apologize for it. Iraq and Iran are not the same, however.

For the record, I also called out NIAC advisor Farideh Farhi for hiding an affiliation with the Islamic Republic’s foreign ministry and for cherrypicking the Iranian press in a rebuttal to this Wall Street Journal oped (which has survived the test of time). And, as I was near Farhi’s University of Hawaii campus for lectures in April and June, I offered to debate her on the issue of my Wall Street Journal oped. She refused. It’s easier for NIAC people to slander than to defend their own positions, it seems. It certainly shows intellectual cowardice.

But, back to “Behind the Smears:” If NIAC wants to be taken seriously, it’s time to stop slandering people whom they have never met and whose writings they have never read. It is ironic that they feel their views are misrepresented, and yet they do not hesitate to name-call and slander around town in order to delegitimize policy opponents. And if, like Artin Afkhami, they  make up quotes, they shouldn’t whine when they get called out on it. Nor when NIAC attacks analysts whose analysis does not conform to their advocacy, should they whine when those people defend themselves. The one lesson I learned when I worked by seeing the Bush administration implode was not to turn the other cheek but instead to respond to falsehood immediately to prevent false conventional wisdom to set in. It is one thing to attack arguments. That’s debate. But that’s not what Trita Parsi and NIAC have been doing, at least in my case.

An afterward, here, involves the New York Times. In a November 2, 2009 story, the New York Times calls NIAC an “advocacy group.” Since July, according to his “Linked In” page, Artin Afkhami has simultaneously worked at the New York Times as an “Iran analyst” and at NIAC for a blogger. It does not reflect well on the New York Times that the Grey Lady conflates news analysis and advocacy and that it trusts with analysis a blogger who not only fabricates quotes but does not have the ethical grounding to make corrections when wrong.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.