The Shady Family Behind America’s Iran Lobby
One enterprising Iranian expat family and its allies successfully pushed for U.S.-Iran rapprochement—and now stands to make a fortune from sanctions relief.
When the world’s major powers struck a deal over Iran’s nuclear program in Vienna in July, it represented a victory not just for the Islamic Republic, which has now been granted international legitimacy as a nuclear threshold state, but also for a small but increasingly influential lobby in America, one which has long sought rapprochement between Washington and Tehran and now seeks to leverage a successfully concluded nuclear deal as a means to that end.
This Iran lobby, publicly represented by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), has become a staunch institutional ally of the White House selling the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear deal is known. But while NIAC has done the heavy-lifting—the ad-buying, the leafleting, and congressional meet-and-greets, all designed to sell lawmakers on the Iran deal—its political efforts also underwrite the economic interests of one very well connected but low-profile Iranian family, the Namazis, who played a key role as intellectual architects of NIAC.
Little known to the American press, the Namazis have rarely acted as spokespersons for their own cause. In fact, attempts to reach various members of the family for comment on this story were met with increasing levels of hostility and threats of legal action. Yet in many ways, the Namazi clan is the perfect embodiment of Iranian power politics, at least as it has played out among the Iranian diaspora. Those close to the Namazis say that they are savvy financial operators rather than ideologues, eager to do business with the West and enjoy all of its political freedoms and perquisites, and yet ever mindful that they’re straddling the delicate fault-line between cashing in with a theocratic dictatorship and being frozen out entirely. They have stayed on the right side of international law if not always on the right side of prevailing political interests in the Islamic Republic.
Nor did they begin their rise to prominence as supporters of the Islamic Revolution. Mohammad Bagher Namazi, also known as Baquer Namazi, is the patriarch of the family and formerly the governor under the Shah of the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan. Despite his relationship with the ancien régime, Baquer Namazi was not persecuted by the Khomeinists after they seized power in 1979, and he and his family were allowed to emigrate in 1983 to the United States. There he raised two well-educated and Americanized sons, Babak and Siamak, while his niece, Pari Namazi, married Bijan Khajehpour, another Iranian expatriate.
The 1980s were the years of the fiery-eyed Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s ferocious war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Iranian-backed terrorism in Lebanon included the bombing of the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks there, while Iranian “hit teams” hunted down and murdered opponents of the regime in exile. Iran’s Hezbollah clients kidnapped Europeans and Americans, and in the Irangate scandal the Reagan administration was exposed trading weapons systems for hostages. Afterward it effectively went to war against Iran on the waters of the Gulf, and in the process blew an Iranian civilian airliner out of the sky. There seemed no possibility of improved relations between Washington and the theocracy in Tehran. But after the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988 and Khomeini died in 1989, new possibilities for rapprochement—and huge deals for international companies—started to emerge.
Doing serious business in Iran has always required some measure of political protection. The Islamic Republic is a web of rival economic interests. Broadly speaking, the three largest are those tied through various semi-clandestine fronts to Khomeini’s successor as “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; those linked to the regime’s praetorian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); and those associated with Iran’s president, who may hold the most conspicuous position in the country’s political life, but whose official powers are limited. Typically, to get things moving in the mire of Iran’s notorious bureaucracy, businesses have to have connections in one or more of these groups.
From 1989 to 1997, the president of Iran was Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, known as “the Shark,” an Iranian reference to a beardless man. He was also famous for getting rid of his rivals and political competitors one by one, like a great white shark. In addition, Rafsanjani had a reputation for corruption and taking advantage of power.
In this environment of increased willingness to do business with the West, the stage was set for a return of the Namazis. In 1993, Pari Namazi and her husband, Bijan Khajehpour, founded a company in Tehran called Atieh Bahar Consulting (AB). It offered a range of legal and industrial services to foreign enterprises, most importantly the access it provided to the regime, and the advice it dispensed on how best to navigate the vagaries of the regime’s entrenched factions and competitive interests.
At the time, it looked like Iran might even be opening up to big American-based oil companies, then unencumbered by any sanctions regime on the Islamic Republic. But after an announcement in 1995 that Iran had given Conoco a contract to develop an offshore gas field, and an uproar in the U.S. Congress, the Clinton administration imposed unilateral sanctions and barred U.S. companies from doing business there.
Eventually Siamak Namazi, who had worked from 1994 to 1996 at Iran’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning, also joined AB. So did his brother Babak, a lawyer. And the AB client list just kept growing. Plenty of companies based outside the U.S. were more than happy to do business in Iran once they had the right connections. As Siamak eventually told Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper, “If oil companies want to operate in the Iranian market they need to link up with a local partner, and this is where we step in and help them to find the right partner.”
With the surprise election of the “reformist” presidential candidate Mohammad Khatami in 1997, political and economic enthusiasm for better Iranian relations with the West grew dramatically. Meanwhile the “pragmatist” Rafsanjani took other powerful positions in the regime. In those optimistic times, AB’s non-American clients—free from any sanctions regime—included the German engineering giant Siemens; major oil companies BP, Statoil, and Shell; car companies Toyota, BMW, Daimler, Chrysler, and Honda; telecom giants MTN, Nokia, Alcatel; and international banks such as HSBC.
But the political winds were shifting. A nuclear cloud darkened the horizon, and the United States, slowly but surely, found ways to broaden the sanctions against Iran, forcing many international companies to dial back on their investments there or pull out altogether.
The Namazis, of course, had every reason to want to bring them back.
Atieh Bahar Consultancy had aligned itself with Rafsanjani’s faction early on by forging an especially close relationship with Rafsanjani’s influential son, Mehdi.
From 1993 to 2005, Mehdi Hashemi was employed at the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), the state-owned entity that controls almost all oil and gas production in a country that has the world’s largest gas reserves and third-largest oil reserves.
But Mehdi Hashemi brought serious problems to the relationship. In 2004, Norway’s Statoil was caught paying bribes to a prominent Iranian official using the company Horton Investment, an entity run by a Mehdi Hashemi confidant, as intermediary. Hashemi would later be imprisoned for his complicity in the bribery, along with two other charges, and ordered to pay a total of $10.4 million; $5.2 million of the bribe money, plus an additional $5.2 million in fines. Abbas Yazdanpanah Yazdi, a confidant of Hashemi, meanwhile, was allegedly kidnapped in the UAE in 2013 and has since “disappeared.”
The scandal came just as the elder Rafsanjani was plotting a presidential comeback in the 2005 elections, and it gave substance to the rumors of corruption that always swirled around him and his son. (Mehdi Hashemi denied the Statoil bribery allegation and said it was designed to hurt his father’s reputation.) He managed to make it into the second and final round, but finally lost to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who staked out a position as a “clean” populist who would give money to the poor and who didn’t give a damn about foreign business interests.
After Ahmadinejad came into office, the nuclear cloud grew much darker.
In 2003, the United States had led the invasion and occupation of neighboring Iraq, eliminating Iran’s old enemy Saddam Hussein to be sure that he had no weapons of mass destruction. And, as it turned out, by then he did not. A few months earlier in 2002, however, Israeli intelligence turned up evidence that Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, had developed a secret uranium enrichment operation at a site called Natanz. (The first public airing of this intelligence came from a militant Iranian dissident group that had been nurtured by Saddam Hussein.)
This did not distract from the march to war with Iraq, but a few months later Iran was declared in material breach of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and, under threat of heightened sanctions, a process of negotiations began between Iran and the European Union to limit the nascent enrichment program. At the time Iran had only 160 of the centrifuges needed to enrich uranium, and thousands would be required to get it to the point where it could produce fissile material for a bomb. U.S. intelligence estimates eventually concluded “with high confidence” that the Iranians also had a secret nuclear weapons program, in addition to enrichment, but shut it down in the fall of 2003.
When Ahmadinejad took over in 2005, he ditched all pretense of willingness to compromise over Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear program, an intransigence that led Western countries to tighten sanctions, making foreign investment ever more difficult. And what was worse for AB and the Namazis, Ahmadinejad went after his political rivals, particularly the Rafsanjani faction, with a vengeance. Mehdi Hashemi, naturally, was a prominent target. Ahmadinejad barred him from conducting any business in relation to Iran’s oil and gas sector. Ten years later, the courts actually sentenced him to a collective 25 years—and 50 lashes—in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for all three charges against him including the Statoil corruption case. In reality, he will only serve 10 years.
AB needed to shore up new alliances and bide its time. Co-founder Bijan Khajehpour worked for a leading Iranian politician named Hassan Rouhani who had served under the Khatami government as Iran’s nuclear negotiator. Rouhani also was the president of a think tank called the Center for Strategic Research (CSR). But relations with Iran in the middle of the last decade were almost as bleak as they had been after the 1979 hostage crisis and the grim terror and counter-terror campaigns of the 1980s.
By 2006, Iran, was in effect at war with the U.S. in Iraq. The Revolutionary Guards’s expeditionary Quds Force led by Qasem Soleimani had been training, financing, and arming Shia militias killing U.S. soldiers.
Moreover, the West was growing more alarmed about Iran’s nuclear program, which it seemed powerless to stop. Ahmadinejad had declared the resumption of uranium enrichment “irreversible” just as the country’s nuclear scientists had mastered the fuel cycle. He’d appointed conservative Ali Larijani as chief negotiator with the European Union (before Iran withdrew from talks altogether), and he said he’d “wipe [his] nose” on international sanctions.
A war with Iran, most likely started by Israel with the United States drawn in, began to seem possible, then probable, and almost inevitable. The International Atomic Energy Agency referred Iran to the UN Security Council for action, forcing it to curtail its nuclear activities.
Out of this dark morass, the Namazis struggled to keep alive hopes of rapprochement and trade while avoiding a war at all costs. And by then they had in place the architecture for convincing a war-weary U.S. policy establishment that not only was avoiding a military confrontation with Iran possible, but the Islamic Republic was really just a friend America had yet to make.
In November 1999, when Khatami was still president, Siamak Namazi got together with a Swedish-Iranian expat named Trita Parsi at a conference in Cyprus. The conference, titled, “Dialogue and Action Between the People of Iran and America,” was convened jointly by the Centre for World Dialogue, a Cypriot non-governmental organization, and by Hamyaran, an Iranian non-governmental resource center for other NGOs, which was chaired by Mohammad Bagher Namazi, the family patriarch. Namazi fils and Parsi there presented an influential white paper (PDF), “Iran-Americans: The bridge between two nations,” which called for three steps to ameliorate U.S.-Iranian relations in advance of reconciliation:
1. Hold “seminars in lobbying for Iranian-American youth and intern opportunities in Washington DC.”
2. Increase “awareness amongst Iranian-Americans and Americans about the effects of sanctions, both at home and in Iran.”
3. End “the taboo of working for a new approach on Iran”—i.e., end the then-two-decade-old U.S. policy of containment.
Namazi and Parsi wrote that “the fear of coming across as a lackey of the Iranian regime is still prohibiting many Iranian Americans from fully engaging in the debate on the future of Iran-U.S. relations.” The way around this, they submitted, was to mobilize the Iranian-American community and enlist “Americans of non-Iranian background” to lessen the adversarial posture of both nations.
The white paper led to the creation two years later, in 2001, of NIAC, a Washington, D.C.-based organization which Parsi founded and currently heads. During the formative period preceding NIAC’s launch, Parsi had sought advice and guidance from numerous sources, including and especially Mohammad Bagher, as was disclosed in documents (PDF) obtained during a defamation law suit brought by NIAC and Parsi against one of their most outspoken critics.
Parsi was extremely well-placed to front the Iran lobby. He had obtained a doctorate at Johns Hopkins on a subject intimately tied to the lobby’s central thesis—the relationship between Israel and Iran and how the former hindered the latter’s acceptance in the U.S. He even studied under Francis Fukuyama, a onetime neoconservative policy intellectual who abandoned his ideological comrades when the Iraq war went south. Finally, Parsi had gained valuable political experience on the Hill by working for Republican Congressman Bob Ney, a connection he has not included in his curriculum vitae and official website. (Ney went to jail in 2007 for accepting bribes from mega-lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s Native American casino clients.)
While serving as president of NIAC, Parsi also wrote intelligence briefings as an “affiliate analyst in Washington, D.C.” for AB, focusing on such topics as whether or not the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) would revive its anti-Iran campaigning on the eve of the Iraq war, or on efforts by the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MeK), the militant Iranian opposition group that exposed Natanz in 2002 would get itself de-listed as a terrorist entity by the U.S. State Department. Parsi was paid for his work for the consultancy, as disclosed by an email sent from Bijan Khajehpour to him, dated September 22, 2002, an employment that Parsi did not mention when fulsomely praising Khajehpour in The Huffington Post as an ideal Iranian businessman.
Although it has only 5,000 dues-paying members, a mere 1 percent of the estimated 470,000 Iranian-Americans, NIAC’s network of activists and event attendees is said to extend into the tens of thousands. In June of this year, as the Iran deal looked likely, NIAC inaugurated an official “lobbying” arm called NIAC Action registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)(4) organization, but for years, internally, the group has described its activities (PDF) as lobbying. NIAC Action is explicitly meant to counter the influence of AIPAC, which has spent millions to block the Iran deal’s passage in Congress by securing a veto-proof bipartisan majority of senators opposed to it—an effort that now appears close to failure.
Since its founding, NIAC has also proved a useful finishing school for rapprochement-minded Iranian-Americans, many of whom have either come from positions in U.S. government or graduated into them. Its current research director, for instance, is Reza Marashi, an Iranian-American dual national, who worked for Atieh Bahar until 2006 when he landed a job at the U.S. government’s Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, which acts as a research center for the Pentagon. Marashi then went to work for the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. State Department as a desk officer overseeing Iran democracy and human-rights programs.
Marashi is very outspoken on social media against any critics of NIAC’s agenda. Along with the rest of his organization’s staff, he has accused Jewish opponents of the Iran deal of being dual loyalists. “Shame on Chuck Schumer for putting #Israel’s interests ahead of America’s interests,” he tweeted after the New York senator’s decision to come out as the senior-most Democrat against the deal.
Given the obvious connection between NIAC and the Namazi family, Marashi makes no mention of his job at AB in his biography on NIAC’s official website. Nor did he respond to The Daily Beast’s repeated requests for comment on this story.
Perhaps NIAC’s most accomplished alum is Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, who is now National Security Council director for Iran in the Obama administration and therefore the top U.S. official for Iran policy, bringing together the various departments of government working on U.S. strategy toward the country. She is also, after the White House principals, one of the leading advisers to President Obama on Iran. No doubt owing to the sensitivity (and influence) of her government role, Nowrouzzadeh has maintained a low profile, but her work at NIAC is publicly available. She drafted one of the organization’s annual reports for 2002-2003 (PDF) and was referred to by Dokhi Fassihian, then executive director, as a “staff member” (DOC). The Obama administration insists that Nowrouzzadeh was only ever an intern with NIAC, and Nowrouzzadeh does not seem eager to play up her affiliation with the group. According to her LinkedIn profile, she has worked at the State Department and the Department of Defense. The profile doesn’t mention NIAC at all.
Such inconspicuousness stands in notable contrast to how other Obama administration officials who emerged NIAC’s nemesis—the pro-Israel lobbying establishment—tend to invoke their past credentials as a means of establishing their diplomatic bona fides.
But then, Israel is a longtime and “sacrosanct” American ally, as Obama has stated. Iran, on the other hand, has been a pariah state where crowds are encouraged to chant “Death to America.”
On NIAC’s website, in its mailings and in media interviews, NIAC rarely criticizes the IRGC or the Quds Force, a U.S.-designated terrorist entity. Parsi characterizes the Iranian regime, of which the Quds Force is the main military enforcer, as a U.S. ally in the war against the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. But neither he nor NIAC has discussed the Quds Force’s military role in Syria, where it plays a key role in targeting U.S.-backed rebels deemed the best bulwark against both Assad and ISIS and, more broadly, organizing the savage defense of the Assad dynasty, for which several of the Quds Force’s personnel have been sanctioned by the U.S. government.
NIAC publicly opposes designating the IRGC as a whole as a terrorist entity because doing so would only conform to part of a pattern of failed sanctions, “further entrenching U.S.-Iran relations in a paradigm of enmity.”
Instead, campaigning against any U.S. sanctions on Iran has been the mainstay of NIAC’s endeavors, and this held even when the Obama administration thought sanctions the most effective way to bring the Iranians back to the negotiating table. NIAC has maintained (PDF) that sanctions have cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of job opportunities.
Parsi’s activism won him praise from the Iranian regime during the very dark days a decade ago. Former ambassador to the United Nations Javad Zarif, who is now the heavily spotlighted foreign minister, wrote to Parsi in 2006, “Your help is always welcome,” and, after catching part of a Parsi interview on the BBC the same year, Zarif called his performance “Great.”
In March 2006 (at the height of the covert Iranian war with the U.S. in Iraq), Parsi told a colleague not to worry about a trip to Tehran, “NIAC has a good name in Iran and your association with it will not harm you.” When the colleague was briefly questioned by the regime, then released, he reported back (PDF) to Parsi that he’d been told the reason he was let go was “that they knew NIAC had never done anything seriously bad against the Islamic Republic.”
In 2009, Sen. Mark Kirk called NIAC Iranian “Regime Sympathizers” (PDF), stating “they came to Capitol Hill urging members of Congress to cut off U.S. funding for democracy programs in Iran.” NIAC had sought to eliminate the Bush administration’s “Democracy Fund” for programs in Iran, which it saw as nothing more than a vehicle for attempted regime change. NIAC responded to Kirk by calling the $75 million fund a “brainchild” of the Bush administration’s “disastrous Middle East policy,” which aimed to finance Iranian NGOs seeking overthrow the government of Iran.
And NIAC does some name-calling of its own, calling organizations it doesn’t like (i.e., those too critical of the Islamic Republic) “neocon puppets,” and warmongers. Indeed, it has also tried to define the parameters of acceptable Iranian civil society groups (i.e., ones that never really undermined the regime) by partnership with Hamyaran, described by NIAC as an “NGO umbrella organization” (PDF). In reality, however, it was conceived as more of a governmental non-governmental organization and launched by those close to Iranian President Mohammad Khatami—its board member was Hossein Malek Afzali, a deputy minister in Khatami’s government). By NIAC’s own admission, the organization (PDF) “operates independently, but with the implicit permission of the Iranian government.” Hamyaran’s board of directors was also once chaired by Namazi paterfamilias Mohammed Bagher.
Hamyaran obtained support from the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy—as did NIAC, which received Endowment funding in 2002, 2005, and 2006 in the collective amount of close to $200,000. NIAC described Hamyaran to the Endowment in 2004 as its “main partner in Iran.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, among those civil society groups selected for NIAC and Hamyaran's “Digital Film Production Workshop Report,” a training program for Iranian activists to learn how to use digital media, were those described as having been “contracted by the Iranian government” or “worked closely with the Iranian government.”
As for NIAC, Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy, told The Daily Beast, “We’re not supporting NIAC now and we have nothing to do with them.”
“Back then there were people arguing, ‘Try to get into Iran’ and we thought this was a way forward,” Gershman said. “We weren’t aware when these grants were made that NIAC were presenting themselves as a lobby. We didn’t know that. Our effort was to work with emerging space in Iran. We were trying something that might be a way to help people on the inside. But that quickly became unworkable; the grant didn’t work. Then NIAC showed itself as a lobby organization, so we have nothing to do with them anymore. Not every grant works out the way you want it to.” Asked if that meant that NED regretted working with NIAC , Gershman answered: “Yes, I think that’s true.”
At the same time it was taking U.S. taxpayer money, NIAC wanted to end U.S. government support for NGOs which categorically opposed the Islamic Republic. In April 2007, NIAC held a strategy meeting with international human-rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW). The HRW representative was himself a former NIAC board member, Hadi Ghaemi, who had (PDF) worked for NIAC in Iran, and then served HRW from 2004 to 2008. During the meeting, according to an email sent by Parsi afterward, Ghaemi “noted that certain groups being funded by the state dept [sic] are covers for regime change and that we need to be careful. Many groups misrepresent themselves as wanting to improve human rights and democracy in Iran.” Ghaemi did not specify which groups. When The Daily Beast contacted Ghaemi via email, he replied that he could not confirm the meeting in question. He was unavailable for further comment after The Daily Beast showed him Parsi’s email asking if that refreshed his memory.
In 2008, NIAC made a strategic mistake, waging a not-so-quiet campaign against the Voice of America’s Persian service, a U.S. government-funded broadcast medium. Both NIAC and the Namazis were aggravated by the frequent appearances of Hassan Dai, an Arizona-based Iranian exile, who lambasted NIAC as a regime mouthpiece.
Siamak Namazi (PDF) called for Dai to be banned from VOA in February 2007. NIAC chief lobbyist Emily Blout petitioned (PDF) Congress in September 2007 for an “independent review” of VOA Persian. After Dai appeared again on VOA in 2009, Parsi (PDF) remarked that its hosting of a NIAC critic “won’t change until the VOA leadership changes.” He was right. Today the editor-in-chief of VOA Persian is Mohammad Manzarpour, a former employee of Atieh Bahar Consultancy.
But serious damage to NIAC’s reputation was done, and much of it was self-inflicted. In 2008, Parsi and NIAC had brought a defamation suit against Hassan Dai, alleging that he had made “numerous false and defamatory statements that characterize plaintiffs as agents of the Iranian government.” Parsi and NIAC lost the case in 2012, with the judge rejecting their self-portrayal as critics of Tehran. “That Parsi occasionally made statements reflecting a balanced, shared blame approach is not inconsistent with the idea that he was first and foremost an advocate for the regime,” U.S. District Court Judge John D. Bates (PDF) wrote in his judgment. “After all, any moderately intelligent agent for the Iranian regime would not want to be seen as unremittingly pro-regime, given the regime’s reputation in the United States.”
Nor did NIAC do itself any favors during the trial and on appeal. Three circuit judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals found its behavior (PDF) “dilatory, dishonest, and intransigent” and accused it of engaging in a “disturbing pattern of delay and intransigence. Seemingly at every turn, NIAC and Parsi deferred producing relevant documents, withheld them, or denied their existence altogether. Even worse, the Appellants also misrepresented to the District Court that they did not possess key documents [Dai] sought. Most troublingly, they flouted multiple court orders… A court without the authority to sanction conduct that so plainly abuses the judicial process cannot function.”
Unsurprisingly, then, NIAC and Parsi lost their appeal and were ordered to pay $183,480.09 in monetary sanctions in February 2015.
“NIAC and Parsi filed the lawsuit to break me under the financial burdens and silence other critics, but they totally failed,” Dai told The Daily Beast. “The lawsuit, which lasted nearly seven years, showed the deceptive character of an organization that lobbies in favor of the mullahs’ theocratic regime but represents itself as a defender of peace.”
The fortunes of the entire Namazi clan waned after 2009, when a popular uprising against Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent re-election was met with murder, mass arrests, and torture.
Bijan Khajehpour was imprisoned because of the struggle raging in the regime between the Supreme Leader and the IRGC on one side, and the Rafsanjani camp on the other. And while praising the Obama administration for not speaking up on behalf of those who resisted the stealing of the 2009 election, the so-called Green Movement, on the grounds that doing so would have only given the regime an excuse to murder and torture more people, Parsi rushed to the defense of his friend and former employer Khajehpour, “who neither participated in the protests nor had any involvement with the opposition” but was instead a “self-made man” and “top-notch consultant drawing the attention of multinational and local firms to investment opportunities in the country.”
Khajehpour subsequently was released from prison and he and his wife, Pari Namazi, moved to Vienna.
Siamak Namazi also faced harassment after the 2009 election and the subsequent unrest. He left Iran for the United Arab Emirates and is currently the head of Strategic Planning at the UAE-based Crescent Petroleum, an oil and gas company based in Abu Dhabi.
Business in Iran was drying up. Ahmadinejad may have held onto power after he broke the Green Movement, but his drive toward nuclear “self-sufficiency” raised so many alarms that the Obama administration was able to persuade the four other members of the UN Security Council to impose draconian sanctions on the regime. Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of assets were frozen, and international commerce ground toward a halt.
Then, in 2013, Khajehpour’s former employer Hassan Rouhani, the former nuclear negotiator, the Rafsanjani-style “pragmatist,” was elected Iran’s new president. The ever affable-seeming former UN ambassador, Javad Zarif, was appointed foreign minister. Suddenly the door looked like it was open wide to a new relationship with the West of just the sort the Iran Lobby had worked for so hard and for so long. Rouhani was avuncular, good-humored, and had made it his goal to open Iran for business, if only the nuclear issue could be dealt with.
By the time serious talks with Washington were opened, Ahmadinejad’s nuclear program had built almost 14,000 centrifuges, and Iran was within a year, by some estimates within months, of producing enough fissile material to build a bomb, at least in theory.
Although there was talk in Washington about compelling Iran to dismantle the whole program, there was never really any question of that, and the deal as finally signed merely buys time—pushing Iran’s possibility of producing a potential nuclear weapon back from months to as many as 15 years.
As these pieces fell into place in the age of Obama, Parsi and NIAC found themselves in the unlikely position of power brokers. One prominent faction of the Iranian regime—Rafsanjani’s—sees them as convenient conduits for disseminating a pro-Iranian line in U.S. politics, while the “hardline” Iranian security services have classified their activities as benign to the interests of the Islamic Republic.
The U.S. government, meanwhile, has adopted many of NIAC’s talking points. Both Parsi and Atieh International, one of the companies in the Atieh Group, were fixtures on the sidelines of the Geneva and Vienna negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran. In fact, Atieh International held a joint briefing with NIAC at the Marriott in Vienna on June 29 to discuss a most pressing topic—renewed economic possibilities for the West once a deal was inked. The speakers were Bijan Khajehpour and Trita Parsi.
The Namazis’s alignment with Rafsanjani and Rouhani can now pay off. Because they were attacked so often and sometimes so viciously by “hard liners”—the very Iranian officials the Obama White House claims constitutes the only Iranian opposition to the nuclear deal—the Namazis and NIAC, the think tank and lobby they helped create, have gained great renewed credibility in the West, even promoting the idea that they can liberalize what remains by and large a fanatical theocracy and a fiercely competitive kleptocracy. At the same time, they can present themselves in today’s Iran as the best go-betweens with, well, with the not-so-Great Satan, who loves to listen to their advice.
— Alex Shirazi is a pseudonym for a well-known Iranian dissident who requested that The Daily Beast keep his identity concealed for fear of what might happen to his family in Iran in retaliation for this article.