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NIAC And J Street, Progressive Foreign Policy Groups, Become Political Targets

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In the usually wonky world of non-profit issue-advocacy organizations, a decidedly political campaign has been waged against foreign policy institutions that promote diplomacy over militarism.

Two relatively new organizations -- each covering distinctly opposite ends on the spectrum of Middle Eastern affairs -- have been the target of withering public relations attacks in recent weeks and months.

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), an organization that promotes diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Iran, sprung to prominence recently for its active media presence in the aftermath of Iran's disputed elections though its influence in the nation's capital had been felt long before then. But as NIAC's voice grew louder in foreign policy circles, so too did the vehemence of its critics.

Starting in 2007, NIAC was accused of, among other things, being an arm of the Iranian government, receiving funds from Iranian nationals, breaking lobbying regulations and acting to subvert U.S. foreign policy. The charges were dishonest at best and defamatory at worst. NIAC provided evidence to the Huffington Post of many instances in which it was critical of the Iranian regime. Its president Trita Parsi noted that the families of several board members have been tortured in their home country. Moreover, the good-government group Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington could not immediately recall ever looking into NIAC's lobbying activities for evidence of illegality.

"I think the charges are absolutely baseless," said Steve Clemons, a bipartisan highly-respected foreign policy voice in the D.C. community and fellow at the New America Foundation. "I know Trita and I know many of the people involved in the organization... They are transparent and upfront. They take on their critics in public forums. That is what you are supposed to do in the think tank business... They have a perspective but it is done above board. I've also seen him say things that in no way would thrill the Iranian government."

But the campaign against NIAC persisted in the past few months and years. In particular, one of the group's sharpest critics, Hassan Daioleslam, an Arizona-based freelance writer with an audience in Persian media, has been given plenty of column inches by neo-conservative outlets to whack both NIAC and Parsi. Writing in Front Page Magazine, Daioleslam accused the organization of being "part of an extensive U.S. lobbying web that objectively furthers the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran." He published another piece, in the same magazine, accusing Parsi of being "The Mullahs' Voice" in America. And in January 2009, he wrote in a more obscure publication that: "Parsi is also suspected of lobbying for the Iranian regime."

Finally, when Iran was in the early throes of its post-election chaos, Daioleslam all but accused Parsi of rooting for Ayatollah Khamenei and the Ahmadinejad regime to retain power.

"In the Iranian American community, unfortunately, these accusations are always flying around," Parsi told the Hufington Post. "The difference this time is that this one individual was able to use the help he was provided by neo conservative circles in town to spread so many lies and spread them as extensively as he has."

What may be most remarkable about Daioleslam's latter writings, however, is not simply the boldness of the accusations. But rather that he authored such material despite having already been sued for defamation. In April 2008, Parsi and NIAC brought a case to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia alleging that Daioleslam had "published numerous false and defamatory statements that characterize [them] as agents of the Iranian government." Less than eight months later the judge issued a response that (while requesting supplemental information) was not favorable to the defense.

"The "defendant parses his statements too finely," the judgment read, when looking at Daoileslam's broad definition of what constitutes a "lobbyist." "The 'sting of the charge' is not, as defendant would have it, that plaintiffs are lobbyists. Nor does the assertion that plaintiff's goals align with the Iranian government's goals carry real bite."

The "defendant's defense of truth, at this stage of the proceedings, must fail," the judgment concluded at another point. "The Court concludes that defendant's statements are capable of conveying a defamatory meaning... the Court cannot find that defendant's statements are incapable of conveying a defamatory meaning as a matter of law."

But even the informal victory proved taxing. Parsi says he's worried that the process of discovery, in which his organization has forked over additional information to the defense, could very well provide fodder for critics to continue launching misleading attacks. He added that several publications have called his group with questions that leapfrog off of Daoileslam's charges.

"I'm not so much concerned about how this will play in Washington," Parsi said. "I just know most people when they look at the facts, will think that this is complete nonsense. I'm more concerned about our own community... If they see something printed in a newspaper they might think that it has credibility. A lot of people in town will know this is not real journalism but outside the beltway they won't make that distinction."

While NIAC finds itself in the throes of litigation in an effort to defend its reputation, a far more public campaign has been waged against what some consider its counterpoint on the Jewish side of the Arab-Israel equation.

J Street, a one-and-half year old non-profit that promotes ending the Arab-Israeli conflict through diplomatic means, recently saw a host of prominent speakers back out of its first annual conference over concerns about the message their attendance would send to the broader political community. In private, officials not associated with J Street say, the group was damaged by a concerted political effort by more conservative groups and individuals to marginalize its message and sully its agenda.

"I think it was virtually inevitable given the dissensions that exist, certainly within the Jewish community," said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center who has served as a Middle East negotiator under Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State. "You get all kinds of push-back when you begin to challenge long-held perspectives, particularly if you are successful at it. And J Street has managed to put itself on the Washington political map in a short period of time."

Like NIAC, much of the attacks on J Street have been through guilt by association. Before its conference, it was accused of hosting a speaker who considered the attacks on 9/11 to be Israel's fault -- an accusation that, while technically true, ignored the fact that the person in question, Salaam Al-Mariyati, unequivocally apologized almost immediately thereafter. Several months ago, meanwhile, The Jerusalem Post published an article noting that the group had received "tens of thousands of dollars in donations from dozens of Arab and Muslim Americans."

"There have been people pushing that story for a long time before the Jerusalem Post decided to run it and other publications passed on it before," said one tuned-in Jewish policy strategist. "They do stuff like that: the guilt by association track."

J Street defenders acknowledge that its opponents have had some success in damaging the group's standing. But the byproduct, they stress, has been to elevate the organization further into the mainstream foreign policy discussion. And much like NIAC, they regard the early bumps as part of the more fulfilling process of gaining a largely iconoclastic status.

"I do think that groups like J Street and NIAC -- which are in what I call 'earnest advocacy' -- don't realize that they are going to go through this baptism by fire," said Clemons. "They are going to draw the resources of their competitors because these people want to try and intimidate or at least pull the foundation from underneath them."

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