Celebrated Iran expert and political scientist Kaveh Afrasiabi was arrested at his home in Watertown, Massachusetts, on January 18, 2021. Law enforcement seized computers, a USB flash drive, CDs, DVDs, videotapes, physical documents in both Farsi and English, and financial and identification documents during the raid on Afrasiabi’s home. One day later, the Department of Justice (DOJ) unsealed a shocking 37-page complaint detailing how Afrasiabi had covertly operated since the George W. Bush administration as an unregistered foreign agent for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Allegedly acting under instructions from high-ranking Iranian officials based at Iran’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations (IMUN), Afrasiabi parroted the regime’s views in outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and The Guardian. What’s more, he allegedly advised an unnamed United States congressman on Iran policy and even contributed to that congressman’s letter lobbying then-President Barack Obama urging the president to accept a nuclear fuel swap agreement proposed by Iran.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals, including foreign governments, in a political or quasi-political capacity to periodically disclose details of their relationship to the DOJ. These disclosures are publicly available so that the U.S. government and members of the public know when someone is acting at the behest of a foreign principal and can evaluate their statements and behavior accordingly. FARA broadly defines an agent of a foreign principal as someone “who acts…at the order, request, or under the direction or control, of a foreign principal.”
For someone alleged to be violating FARA, Afrasiabi was remarkably unsubtle. IMUN, the only Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs-linked body officially representing Iran’s national interest within the U.S., has allegedly paid Afrasiabi about $265,000 in checks from its bank accounts since 2007. Afrasiabi has allegedly been on IMUN’s health insurance plan for full-time employees since 2011, even as IMUN switched insurance providers multiple times. In September 2015, he openly boasted to an American citizen in writing that he had “previewed one of [the President of Iran’s] speeches” and “added a few punch lines.”
Emails between Afrasiabi and IMUN officials show that Iranian government employees gave Afrasiabi talking points, asked him for advice on Iranian foreign policy, edited his written work, instructed him to edit speeches and op-eds directed at American audiences, and looked to him for insights on the American government. For example, in February 2013, Afrasiabi sent a draft version of one of his upcoming articles in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to an Iranian official. The official responded a few days later and directed Afrasiabi to remove four points that were “dangerous and [were] contrary to [Iran’s] national positions and actions.” Afrasiabi made the changes, sent a new version of the article to the Bulletin, and wrote back to the Iranian official stating that he had “got[ten] rid of all those points.” In June 2010, Afrasiabi emailed an IMUN official discussing his instructions to lobby for a nuclear fuel swap agreement proposed by Iran, stating, “I am clear about lobbying for [the] swap deal.” Four years later, in June 2014, Afrasiabi emailed an IMUN official with a link to a New York Times article on the Iranian nuclear program; the official responded the same day with a list of points for Afrasiabi to include in a response to the article. An IMUN official also gave Afrasiabi talking points for an Al Jazeera TV interview in March 2014. In that exchange, Afrasiabi was instructed to present Iran’s talking points, which involved deflecting blame from Iran for the Pan Am 103 bombing, as his own independent views. In March 2014, an IMUN press secretary provided Afrasiabi with talking points in advance of an interview with Press TV, an outlet controlled by the government of Iran. The press secretary instructed Afrasiabi to call for security cooperation between Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan; Afrasiabi did so. An Iranian official also gave Afrasiabi talking points for a June 2016 interview with Russian outlet RT about Iran’s January 2016 capture of 10 members of the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf. Afrasiabi repeated the talking points, including that the hostages had “left with big smiles on their faces” during his interview. In 2015, Afrasiabi edited both a 2015 New York Times op-ed published under the Iranian Foreign Minister’s byline and a draft speech from the President of Iran.
Even while leaving a paper trail indicating his continuous employment by the Iranian government, Afrasiabi presented himself as an independent Iran expert as he allegedly lobbied a congressman and the Department of State on Iran issues. The congressman’s 2009 letter to President Obama identified Afrasiabi only as a “former professor at Tehran University” and “former advisor to the Iranian nuclear negotiation team.” Afrasiabi continued to lobby the congressman’s staff after the letter was published. For example, in August 2012, he sent the congressman’s Legislative Director one of his articles repeating a conspiracy theory that a July 2012 bus bombing in Bulgaria (in which Israeli citizens were killed) was an Israeli false flag operation. Afrasiabi asked the Legislative Director to show the congressman the article. In a June 2010 email to a high-up State Department official, Afrasiabi boasted of his status as an “expert on the subject…who has repeatedly in oped articles…urged the White House to consent to the nuclear swap deal” and asked for the “[Obama] administration’s latest thinking” on the “Iran nuclear issue.”
In his op-eds and media appearances, Afrasiabi exhibited dovish views on American foreign policy towards Iran. In a 2018 op-ed, he drew an equivalence between the “hawkish members of the Trump administration” and “hard-line factions in Iran” that both opposed a meeting between American and Iranian then-Presidents Trump and Rouhani. He speculated that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameinei might “give a green light” to a summit “[g]iven the enormous pressure Iran feels under increasing sanctions.” As a public relations employee for the Iranian government, Afrasiabi was fully aware that he represented the Iranian government’s views and that he was exaggerating the degree of internal Iranian opposition to a Trump-Rouhani summit. Times readers were not; the paper identified him only as “a former advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team” (emphasis added). Likewise, his 2012 Times op-ed bio refers to him as a “former political science professor at Tehran University and former adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team.”
Afrasiabi used a less dovish tone in internal emails with IMUN officials. Responding to an airstrike on Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in January 2020, Afrasiabi advised Iran’s Foreign Minister and Permanent Representative to the U.N. on how to “strike fear in the heart of [the] enemy,” referring to the U.S. In a 2012 email to an IMUN official, Afrasiabi complained that the “[U.S.] government [was] in the palms of zionists.”
The many media outlets that published Afrasiabi’s work, as well as his book publisher, seem to have uncritically accepted his biography. Shockingly, The New York Times has not added a disclaimer about his pending FARA prosecution to either of the op-eds he published there, nor does it appear to have published a story covering Afrasiabi’s prosecution under FARA. Neither has The Guardian, even though emails between Afrasiabi and an IMUN official show that Afrasiabi had the Iranian government’s point-by-point approval on the 2011 Guardian op-ed (In April 2011, an Iranian press secretary emailed Afrasiabi asking if they could discuss Afrasiabi publishing an article about Bahrain. Afrasiabi responded with proposed talking points, including support for sanctions imposition and freezing Bahraini assets and a condemnation of Saudi intervention. About two weeks later, the Guardian published an op-ed co-written by Afrasiabi in support of the points the IMUN press secretary had approved for publication.) Even now, The Guardian’s author page for Afrasiabi describes him only as a “former political science professor at Tehran University.” Afrasiabi’s book page says only that he was an advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team between 2004 and 2005. The Middle East Eye, where Afrasiabi was a regular contributor, does not disclose Afrasiabi’s ongoing legal woes on either his author page or on his articles.
Other media outlets that published Afrasiabi are more transparent. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists added a disclosure to the Afrasiabi-penned article edited by an Iranian official and discussed above. However, the disclosure does not mention that Afrasiabi emailed The Bulletin and successfully asked the outlet to scrub a reference to his advisory role to the Iranian government’s nuclear negotiation team. The Washington Post is also more transparent; it published an article about Afrasiabi’s prosecution under FARA and admitted to publishing a Q&A with him and multiple of his letters to the editor. The Huffington Post, too, added a disclosure.
Media outlets can do, and have done, better in responding to transparency concerns. National Public Radio (NPR) showed accountability after a 2016 Associated Press piece disclosed that the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation supporting the elimination of nuclear weapons, had given at least $700,000 to NPR since 2005. Since 2010, every Ploughshares grant to NPR was specifically targeted to fund reporting on “Iran’s nuclear program.” NPR failed to mention Ploughshares’ support of its reporting in a 2016 broadcast on negotiations with Iran, in which President of the Ploughshares Fund Joe Cirincione stated, “President Obama’s political opponents try to block everything he does. But…the American security establishment is solidly behind this deal.” In a detailed review of the editorial failure, NPR’s then-ombudswoman acknowledged that “NPR’s money came from one side of a very partisan debate on a specific issue to fund reporting on a specific topic.”
More recently, The New York Times itself published a 2017 opinion piece by Marwan Barghouti, a terrorist currently serving five life sentences for murder, and identified him only as a “Palestinian leader and parliamentarian.” Readers criticized this editorial decision, and the Times’ then-public editor Liz Spayd addressed the controversy in a critical column that called on the Opinion section to “fully identify the biography and credentials of authors” so that readers could make informed judgments when evaluating authors’ credibility. Sadly for transparency advocates, the Times announced it would eliminate its public editor position just one month later, and Spayd quit in protest.
So what effect, if any, has Afrasiabi had on American foreign policy towards Iran? It is too early to determine. But it is plain that the media has not devoted enough time to critical analysis of Iran’s covert efforts to influence foreign policy discourse in the U.S. In a much-discussed New York Times piece about the passage of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the “Iran Deal,” then-Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes bragged that the administration had created an “echo chamber” of friendly media sources, “often-clueless reporters,” and think tanks that “validated what [the Obama administration] had given them to say.” Conservative media cited this article to show that the Obama administration had purposely created a misleading narrative around the Iran deal. But while the Rhodes profile remains contentious years later, the media has not spent as much time exploring Iran’s efforts to covertly influence the American federal government.
Moreover, the DOJ should vigorously prosecute FARA violations. There are encouraging signs in this direction. In March of this year, nine members of Congress sent a letter to the Department of Justice requesting that it investigate whether other U.S.-based persons are secretly being paid by the Iranian government. The DOJ now requires media outlets whose editorial content is controlled by foreign governments to register as foreign agents under FARA. Afrasiabi got away with blatant FARA violations for decades; hopefully, this enforcement failure will not be repeated.
Author Biography: Katherine Dolgenos is a 2L at the George Washington University Law School and is pursuing a double concentration in Business and Finance Law and International Law. She has an adorable mini poodle puppy.