The main Iranian opposition group has tapped one of Washington’s top lobbying and public relations firms as it pulls out all the stops to prevent the Joe Biden administration from negotiating a new nuclear deal with Tehran.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) has hired BGR Government Affairs to promote the group’s annual summit next month. The $40,000 contract lasts from June 24 through the end of July but can be extended.
The firm’s work “may include relevant outreach to US government officials, non-government organizations, members of the media and other individuals within the US,” according to the firm’s registration with the US Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The BGR Group was the Number 3 lobbying firm by revenue in 2020, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, bringing in more than $31.6 million.
The three-day summit from July 10 through 12 will be held virtually for a second year in a row because of the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. It is expected to draw more than 1,000 political figures from around the world, including 25 members of Congress of both parties, 30 senior former US officials and 12 former prime ministers and presidents, according to press materials distributed by BGR this week.
According to a press statement from the NCRI, the July summit “will show how Iranian activists and the international community can push the Iranian regime closer to the brink of overthrow.” And BGR’s press materials indicate that a key focus of the event will be “calls to prosecute the regime’s next president, Ebrahim Raisi, as well as its Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei” rather than work with them to revive the 2015 nuclear deal that President Donald Trump exited in 2018.
“The event will showcase the organized opposition to the Iran regime from within Iran and around the world,” BGR wrote in an email to media outlets.
The NCRI is an umbrella group of several opposition groups dominated by the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran, or Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), which the US previously labeled a terrorist group linked to the deaths of six Americans in the 1970s. The group participated in the revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979 but later fought alongside Iraqi President Saddam Hussein‘s forces against the theocratic regime that took the shah’s place.
The group is led by President-elect Maryam Rajavi, the wife of MEK leader Massoud Rajavi, who disappeared after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The NCRI says it supports a “democratic, secular, and non-nuclear republic in Iran,” but critics call it a cult bent on overthrowing the regime in Tehran and installing itself in its place.
In recent years, the NCRI has revealed several alleged instances of illicit nuclear activity by Iran and had close ties with the Trump administration. The former president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giulani, and national securiy adviser John Bolton have both addressed the group’s annual rally in the past to call for regime change in Iran, just two of the dozens of former US and international officials across the political spectrum who have been been paid thousands of dollars to address the rallies over the years.
With a new US administration in place, the NCRI has focused its efforts on questioning the legitimacy of the authorities in Tehran. The group led a months-long boycott campaign of this month’s presidential election, which saw Raisi, a hardline cleric and head of the Iranian judiciary, elected president in an election that saw record low turnout of less than 50 %. He replaces the more moderate Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal.
Raisi is under US sanctions over accusations that he played a role in the deaths of thousands of political prisoners and antigovernment protestors over the past three decades, complicating the Biden administration’s nuclear diplomacy. BGR has been highlighting Raisi’s past in its media outreach and inviting reporters to interview the deputy director of the NCRI’s Washington office, Alireza Jafarzadeh.
“The regime is spiraling downward because Iran’s economy is reeling, corruption is rampant and its people are disillusioned — as demonstrated by the historic low voter turnout,” the firm wrote in an email to media outlets this week. “Jafarzadeh makes a compelling case that the regime is unstable.”
Jafarzadeh signed the contract alongside BGR Public Relations President Jeffrey Birnbaum. A former Wall Street Journal reporter and Washington Post columnist, Birnbaum is registered as a foreign agent on the account along with senior associate Alex Ellis.
They join several other foreign agents registered to lobby for the NCRI.
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Former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) has been lobbying for the group since 2013 via his New Jersey-based firm Rosemont Associates. Rosemont disclosed $45,000 in payments from the NCRI in the first quarter of 2021 as it presses for continued US support for the more than 3,000 MEK refugees who were resettled from Iraq to Albania under the Barack Obama administration.
Robert Joseph, a former undersecretary of State for arms control and international security under President George W. Bush, has lobbied for the NCRI on the refugee issue since January 2019 and is paid $10,000 per month.
Finally, former Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey registered to lobby for the Iranian oppposition group in September 2019. He disclosed $20,000 in speaking fees last year after urging sanctions on Iranian officials and denouncing Tehran’s alleged nuclear deal violations.
The NCRI’s Washington office itself has been registered under FARA since 2013. Jafarzadeh is registered on the account along with the group’s US representative Soona Samsami and Foreign Affairs Committee member Ali Safavi.
The NCRI isn’t the only opposition group registered to lobby Washington.
The self-declared Iran Transition Council, a group of exiles led by the co-founder of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the son of a late ayatollah, hired Ayal Frank and his firm AF International in June 2002 “arrange for meetings and activities with government and media toward Iran and the current and future governments of Iran.” The firm has disclosed $24,000 in payments from the group through February 2021 and repeated outreach last year to State Department Office of Iranian Affairs political desk officer Nathan Crook.
And in March the Los Angeles-based Iranian Resurgent Party, which shares its name with a political party founded by the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1975, registered to lobby against Tehran. The group says its goal is to “unite and create solidarity amongst Iranian dissidents with the goal of regime change and creation of a secular democrat government in Iran.”