Federal prosecutors recently announced that the U.S. is pursuing prosecution of a supposed foreign relations expert who spent more than 12 years operating as an unregistered agent of the Iranian regime.
Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi was paid at least 265,000 dollars through Iran’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations during that time, in exchange for promoting a variety of Iranian talking points via his books and published articles.
Afrasiabi was interviewed and quoted by a number of mainstream news outlets and even went so far as to assist a U.S. congressman in the drafting of a letter to President Barack Obama.
A thorough review of his more than a decade of covert influence will no doubt reveal details about specific objectives that he was tasked with executing. But from the moment his arrest was announced, it was clear that a significant portion of that work was dedicated to countering and delegitimizing the voices of pro-democracy Iranian dissidents who might otherwise have received greater support from Western lawmakers and political analysts.
This has always been a major focus of Iranian influence operations, whether directed at government officials or media outlets. And in both of those arenas, Afrasiabi represents only the tip of the iceberg that is Iran’s covert influence.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, the deputy director of the National Council of Resistance of Iran’s Washington office, responded to Afrasiabi’s first appearance in court on Tuesday by saying, “Unfortunately, for the past three decades, the Iranian regime has been running an extensive network of agents and operatives, many of them U.S. persons, in clear violation of American law.”
Jafarzadeh went on to criticize American and Western lawmakers for either turning a blind eye to these operations or downplaying their significance. “The impunity with which Tehran has run its emissaries in the United States had emboldened them,” he said as part of remarks that once again highlighted the NCRI’s efforts to bring international attention to the smuggling of Iranian propaganda through outlets like the National Iranian-American Council.
This time last year, that organization was the subject of a letter sent to the Justice Department by three U.S. senators in emulation of preexisting warnings from the NCRI. “NIAC’s innocuous public branding masks troubling behavior,” wrote Senators Mike Braun, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton before calling attention to various incidences of the organization or its founder, Trita Parsi, communicating talking points that were conspicuously similar to those advanced by the Iranian regime.
More than eight years earlier, this similarity was acknowledged by U.S. district court judge John Bates in his decision to throw out a defamation case that Parsi had filed against his detractors. Bates went even further by describing the signs of political overlap between Tehran and NIAC as “overwhelming.”
And in response to Parsi’s suggestion that his on-the-record criticisms of Iranian human rights abuses excluded the possibility of him being a mouthpiece for the regime, Bates noted, “Even a moderately competent agent of the Iranian regime would at times take pains to distance themselves from some policies of the regime.”
Indeed, the NCRI has long emphasized that this is a major part of the Iranian regime’s strategy of covert influence, particularly with regard to the longstanding campaign to demonize and undermine the dissident groups that advocate for the regime’s overthrow.
As Iranian influence networks proliferated in the West, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) formalized a strategy known as 80/20, whereby its assets were permitted to criticize the regime and even to do so quite vociferously, provided that this comprised only 20 percent of their public communications. The remaining 80 percent, in that case, would be dedicated to criticizing the opposition with equal or greater ferocity.
This strategy is evident in overviews of Trita Parsi’s work. The NIAC website boasts at least 81 pages with headlines that attack Iran’s leading opposition group and the main constituent of the NCRI coalition, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
Most of this content prominently features key phrases and previously debunked talking points that are central to the Iranian regime’s campaign against the MEK. Those same talking points featured prominently in Afrasiabi’s work, and in time it will surely become clear that they outweigh whatever criticism he voiced against the Iranian regime by a ratio of four to one.
The arrest and public exposure of Kaveh Afrasiabi ought to become a stepping stone for the dismantling of the entire Iranian covert influence network that the NCRI and certain U.S. lawmakers have been warning about for years. And more than that, it ought to serve as the final nail in the coffin for Iranian propaganda that has been clinging to life in some media and policy circles.
Though by no means as prevalent as they once were, articles still appear in Western news outlets that falsely accuse the MEK of terrorism or adherence to non-democratic values. In reality, multiple court cases were concluded before 2012 in both the U.S. and Europe, which failed to reveal any evidence of illegal activity by the Iranian opposition movement.
When false allegations against the MEK or its parent coalition appear in Western media, it is not because there is evidence to support them but rather because they have been tirelessly promoted by figures like Kaveh Afrasiabi and Trita Parsi, in the interest of diminishing support for the only movement that poses a serious existential threat to Iran’s existing theocratic system.
Unless aggressively countered by policymakers and journalists who should have seen ample evidence of its existence by now, the Iranian influence network is sure to further accelerate its activities in the near future, since the MEK’s challenge to Tehran is arguably stronger than ever.
The conflict between the regime and the opposition reached new heights in January 2018 with the advent of a nationwide protest movement that quickly encompassed more than 100 localities and lasted for the better part of a month.
That nationwide uprising sparked a broader movement and this, in turn, led to a national outpouring of public dissent in November 2019, this time spanning nearly 200 cities and towns.
Although Tehran forced the latter uprising underground after only days by killing approximately 1,500 peaceful protesters in the streets, the violent repression still failed to completely silence expressions of support for the MEK’s platform of regime change and democratic governance.
Ever since the start of 2018, Iranian officials have been repeating previously unheard-of warnings about the prospect of further MEK-led unrest. The threat of that unrest has subsided somewhat during the coronavirus pandemic, but Tehran’s badly mismanaged response to the public health crisis will ultimately give the people and the organized Resistance even more reason to rise up against their government again in the long run.
The goal of the Iranian regime’s propaganda in the West is to portray Iran’s organized opposition as a terrorist group lacking popular support inside Iran.
When the next uprising comes, as it inevitably will, Iran’s lobbies in the West should have been finally uprooted. This will set the stage for the U.S. and Europe to provide Iranian activists with the support they need to finally throw off the theocratic dictatorship and take control of their country once and for all.