As anti-regime demonstrations and subsequent crackdowns prompted by the death of Mahsa Amini in September turn into a full-blown rebellion in Iran, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a well-known think tank in Washington, D.C., is trying to rebrand itself as a critic of the Islamist regime for which it has served as an unofficial mouthpiece for the past two decades.
The rebranding effort is motivated by fear over having promoted narratives that distorted American foreign policy in the Middle East said Hassan Dai, a well-known Iranian dissident and expert on Tehran's lobby in the United States. The policies NIAC supported, Dai said, emboldened Iranian abuses against its own citizens and acts of aggression in Syria, which in turn served to destabilize the Middle East.
"A large number of Iranian political activists and human rights advocates believe that NIAC's main goal has been the promotion of U.S. policies that helped the regime and harmed the Iranian people's interests," said Dai, who successfully defended himself against a defamation lawsuit filed by NIAC over his claims that the organization was closely tied to the regime.
"They know that NIAC worked and collaborated closely with the regime officials and they are demanding accountability," he added. "NIAC is done."
NIAC's rebranding process began soon after the news of Amini's death broke in September, prompting staffers to express support for the Iranian people as they demonstrated against the regime. NIAC even launched a "Solidarity Center" to demonstrate its support for the protesters. To establish NIAC's anti-regime bon fides its staffers appropriated the anti-regime slogan "Women, Life, Freedom," as part of the Solidarity Center's brand identity.
Iranian dissident Abdee Kalantari responded with disdain, declaring that NIAC had remained silent about the plight of women suffering under "sexual apartheid" in Iran for decades.
Such criticism prompted NIAC to respond by accusing its critics of spreading misinformation in the process. "We are not a lobby of any government – nor are we disputing the Iranian people's righteous demands, we support them," the group declared.
The notion that NIAC was not a lobbying wing of the Islamic Republic of Iran is laughable, said Dai. "Visitor logs at the White House show that Trita Parsi [NIAC's co-founder] met with Obama officials 33 times between 2013 and 2015," Dai said.
The story Parsi and NIAC told about Iran while meeting with Obama officials, Dai said, was that friendly relations with the United States would increase the power of moderates within Iran's governing regime and would in turn improve human rights practices in the country. NIAC also declared that reduced tensions between the U.S. and Iran as a result of the Obama Administration's support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would prompt Tehran to reduce its aggressive behavior in the Middle East, making the region more stable.
None of these things happened and as a result, U.S. policy makers, and the American people in general, will have to deal with prospect of increased conflict in the Middle East and higher fuel prices that might result, Dai said.
The public disavowal of NIAC was not just limited to a niche few experts and journalists. Soon after NIAC began its rebranding campaign, a group calling itself "Iranian Americans United" launched a petition calling on the Biden Administration and Congress to renounce NIAC and cut all ties with the organization. To date, the petition has garnered over 50,000 signatures.
Later that month, in yet another major blow to NIAC's credibility, the prominent Iranian-American professor and NIAC advisory board member, Reza Aslan, announced in a now-unavailable Tweet — Aslan has deleted his Twitter account — that he would be stepping down from his position with the organization. His departure was necessary, Aslan declared, because even the word "NIAC" had "so many negative connotations" that his involvement with the organization hindered his ability to "listen and to be heard at this moment."
"I've decided to step away from my advisory role with the organization so that that barrier can come down," he wrote.
Aslan also included a clear condemnation and denunciation of the Iranian regime, declaring, "I believe the Iranian regime is an illegitimate, murderous regime that must be fought with all our might."
NIAC, which hasn't responded to requests for comment, subsequently changed its tone, and in an emailed newsletter, declared as a matter of official policy that it no longer recognizes the regime in Iran as legitimate. Echoing Aslan's sentiments, NIAC also added the stipulation that it would only support a revolution in Iran that was led by the people of Iran, and not a foreign country or outside actor like the United States.
Iranian-Americans across the country weren't convinced. Among those expressing their skepticism is Navid Mohebbi, the advocacy director for NUFDI, a dissident organization opposed to the Iranian regime.
"I don't think that their new position is genuine, and is only a temporary stance," Mohebbi told FWI, adding that the organization will "eventually revert back to their original stance with a new, expanded audience that doesn't realize they are reading [Iranian] talking points."
Lawdan Bazargan, a well-known human rights activist and regime opponent, says Americans should not be fooled by NIAC's efforts to portray itself as an advocate for the Iranian people. The organization has well-documented ties to Tehran and hides behind the rhetoric of peacemaking to disguise their advocacy for the regime, she said.
"They keep saying 'War is bad' and 'We want dialogue,'" she said, adding that this was exactly the type of rhetoric used by Professor Mohammad Jafar Mahallati used while shilling for Iran at Oberlin College in Ohio. "People shouldn't buy it."
Ahnaf Kalam is a writer for Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.