Lobbying law, Middle East, New in Lobbying, Transparency

US charges Iranian author with failing to register as foreign agent of Tehran

US prosecutors have charged a prolific advocate of dovish US policies with regard to Iran of secretly serving as a foreign agent of Tehran for more than a decade.

Federal agents arrested Iranian-born Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi on Monday at his home in Massachusetts, the Justice Department said in a press release today. He is accused of failing to disclose his ties to the Iranian governments while lobbying US officials and advancing Tehran’s interests in the media. Afrasiabi faces up to 10 years in prison.

“For over a decade, Kaveh Afrasiabi pitched himself to Congress, journalists, and the American public as a neutral and objective expert on Iran,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said in a press release. “However, all the while, Afrasiabi was actually a secret employee of the Government of Iran and the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations (IMUN) who was being paid to spread their propaganda.”

According to the affidavit for Afrasiabi’s arrest unsealed today, Afrasiabi has received around $265,000 from the Iranian mission to the UN since 2007, making $3,000 a month at the time of his arrest. He has also been on the mission’s health insurance plan since at least 2011.

Afrasiabi is a citizen of Iran and a lawful permanent resident of the US, according to federal prosecutors. He previously taught at universities in both the US and Iran and has publicly expressed support for the Barack Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

He is also accused of lobbying Congress without disclosing his work for Iran. In late 2009, for example, he allegedly helped a US congressman — identified only as Congressman-1 — write a letter to Obama with a proposal for US-Iran nuclear negotiations centered around a nuclear fuel swap agreement that had been proposed by Tehran. In 2012, Afrasiabi worked with the same lawmaker to set up a panel of experts on US-Iran relations, which did not end up taking place.

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The affidavit shows that US officials were able to obtain Afrasiabi’s personal email communications with Iranian authorities. Emails notably show him seeking Iranian officials’ guidance on certain articles published in US media and counseling Iranian diplomats on a range of matters, including urging them to suspend compliance with the nuclear deal following the Donald Trump administration’s assassination of Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani last year.

“I advise the government [to] end all inspections and end all information on Iran’s nuclear activities pending a UNSC 8 condemnation of US’ illegal crime,” he allegedly wrote. “The advantages are as follows: It will strike fear in the heart of enemy; it will weaken Trump and strengthen his opponents; it shows Iran’s rule abiding behavior and puts pressure on UN and Europe to act; it is an important retaliation and will be well received by people.”

The Iranian opposition umbrella group National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) applauded Afrasiabi’s arrest, calling him “one of many of Tehran’s propagandists in the US” who they accuse of spreading lies about the NCRI and its main member, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

Afrasiabi “was getting his marching orders from the Iranian regime’s intelligence service since the 1990s, and in addition to his pro-regime articles and commentaries, he regurgitated Tehran’s patently false and absurd allegations against the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK),” said Ali Safavi, an official with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Paris-based NCRI. “As a matter of principle, the NCRI/MEK have always been transparent about their activities, whether in Europe and the US and abided by the laws of the land. They have nothing to hide.”

Afrasiabi’s first court appearance was Tuesday morning in Boston federal court.

Julian Pecquet contributed to this report.