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Pro-Iran Group Wants Iran Diplomacy

Tuesday, 08 Apr 2008 08:54 AM

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An Iranian-American lobbying organization that has been funded by grants from the congressionally-mandated National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and by left-wing groups is holding an invitation-only conference in a U.S. Senate office building on Tuesday, calling for “reassessing” U.S. strategy toward Iran.

The lobbying group, the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC), boasts on its Web site of the grant money received “in the past” from NED, which by statute is not allowed to fund groups whose purpose is to lobby Congress. The group also says it has received funding from the Open Society Institute of left-wing billionaire, George Soros.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is listed as a keynote speaker for Tuesday’s event. Her appearance as the congressional host of the conference has angered many Iranian-Americans. Some 700,000 Iranian-Americans live in California, many of whom fled Iran after the fall of the Shah in 1979.

Dr. Mohammad Parvin, a human rights activist in the San Francisco bay area, called NIAC “a group that lobbies for unconditional relations with the religious dictatorship in Iran.”

Parvin has posted an online petition at www.mehr.org asking Feinstein to withdraw her patronage of the conference.

“Having known you as an advocate and defender of the human rights, it was a shock to hear the news of your participation as a keynote speaker in a conference held by National Iranian American Council (NIAC) on April 8, 2008,” the petition says.

The pro-government Tehran daily Aftab has referred to the NIAC as the “Iranian lobby” in the United States and said the group was pursuing “unofficial diplomacy” to get U.S. economic sanctions lifted.

NIAC denies that it is a lobbying group, but acknowledges that it does “advocate the interests of the Iranian-American community . . . on Capitol Hill.”

In a 1999 presentation at a conference held in Cyprus, NIAC founders Trita Parsi and Siamak Namazi, a U.S.-trained lawyer, called for the creation of an Iranian-American lobby “to create a balance between the competing Middle Eastern lobbies. Without it, Iran-bashing may become popular in the Congress again.”

Parsi and Namazi made clear in their written presentation that the “competing lobby” was the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC.

According to Hassan Dailoleslam, an Iranian-American political activist who has researched the Tehran ties of NIAC’s founders, Namazi controls the “Atieh Bahar” company in Tehran, “the leading consulting firm for foreign oil companies dealing with Tehran,” and has close, ongoing contacts “with the top leaders in Iran.”

Dailoeslam calls Namazi a member of “Iran’s oil mafia,” because of his company’s role as an intermediary for companies such as Norway’s Statoil and France’s Total.

“The most recent debacle of Atieh enterprise was in March of 2007, when the CEO of the French oil company Total SA was charged for bribery of Iranian high officials to secure contracts,” Dailoeslam says,

During several previous events on Capitol Hill, NIAC has attempted to build support in Congress for direct U.S.-Iran negotiations, and an end to U.S. sanctions on Iran.

The U.S. sanctions, which date from a 1995 executive order signed by President Clinton, make it illegal for U.S. companies to do business in Iran. But some U.S. companies continue to sell products in Iran through foreign subsidiaries and offshore companies.

NIAC received a $50,000 grant last year from the PARSA Community Foundation, a non-profit grant-making association to which many wealthy Iranians in exile have contributed.

Vahid Alaghband, a partner in the London-based Balli Group plc, has been an “ambassador” and major donor of the PARSA Community Foundation.

The U.S. Department of Commerce issued a Temporary Denial Order against Balli and several of its subsidiaries on March 21, suspending the group’s ability to export licensed U.S. high technology products.

The Commerce Department acted after obtaining evidence showing that Balli and others cited in the Order “knowingly reexported three U.S. origin aircraft to Iran in violation of the Export Administration Regulations [EAR], and are preparing to reexport three additional U.S. origin aircraft to Iran in further violation of the EAR.”

Balli purchased three of the Boeing 747s from United Airlines and leased them to Blue Airways in Armenia, which reportedly is operating the aircraft on flights in and out of Iran on behalf of an Iranian company, Mahan Airways, controlled by the family of former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani.

The other three aircraft are being overhauled in South Korea, Alaghband told Newsmax on Monday.

“These aircraft definitely have not been subleased to Mahan,” Alaghband told Newsmax. “We would have had to approve that, and we haven’t,” he added.

However, Alaghband said he and his partners took “very seriously” the U.S. Commerce Department Denial Order, which also placed him on the list of Denied Persons, a black list that is widely distributed within the exporting community.

He did not exclude the possibility that the planes were being used to carry passengers and cargo in and out of Iran. “We’ve told our leasee to satisfy the Americans, or we will cancel the lease,” he said. “We have served them notice.”

Alaghband’s company controls the aircraft through subsidiaries based in London, which are wholly owned by two companies registered in the Cayman Islands, according to the British corporate registry.

Information on who owns the Cayman Island companies — Crypton, Ltd, and Global Securities Ltd. — is not publicly available.

Balli also represents Caterpillar and Xerox through its subsidiaries in Iran.

During a conference in Tehran last June organized by NIAC co-founder Siamak Namazi, Vahid Alaghband’s brother and business partner, Hassan Alaghband, made a PowerPoint presentation on doing business with Iran that used the group’s Caterpillar franchise as a case in point.

Namazi was one of a “generation of Westernized Iranians who went back to Iran” after the 1979 Revolution, Vahid Alaghband told Newsmax. “He set up a legal practice to counsel Western companies” on how to do business in Iran, he added.

The June 2007 conference was not aimed at violating U.S. sanctions, but at training a new generation of business leaders who would have a “more normal way of dealing with the world.”

“These are people the government of Iran hates,” he said. “This is not a government organization.”

Nevertheless, among the speakers at the conference was Abbas Maleki, a former deputy foreign minister and advisor to the Supreme Leader, who has frequently been used in the past when the regime wants to “make nice to foreigners,” says Washington Institute for Near East Policy scholar, Dr. Patrick Clawson.

Alaghband said he did not know Trita Parsi. PARSA has described the grant to Parsi’s organization as intended for purposes of voter registration, not lobbying.

NIAC has invited former Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering and former U.N. weapons inspectors Hans Blix and David Albright to lead a panel on “finding the nuclear fix” to end the stand-off between Iran and the international community.

Writing to protest the NIAC event on behalf of the National Union for Democracy in Iran, Dr. Saeed Ganji said that NIAC poses as a group seeking to advance the interests of Iranian-Americans. “It has spent the great majority of its energy and time, however, on promoting the interests of the Islamic Republic. For this reason, only a small number of Iranians support NIAC or participate in its activities.”

NIAC refused Ganji’s request to attend the conference as a simple observer on the grounds that it was only open to media and congressional staff.

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