Iranian-American Dual Loyalty?

The campaign against J Street has contained a fair amount of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry, epitomized by former AIPAC staffer Lenny Ben-David’s attack on any J Street donors unfortunate enough to have Arab names. Now comes a new and equally unseemly line of attack, centering on an Iran panel at the recent J Street conference that featured National Iranian American Council (NIAC) president Trita Parsi. Parsi, Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard claims, is “the Iranian regime’s man in Washington.” Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic similarly accuses Parsi of “doing a lot of leg-work for the Iranian regime.”

To begin with, it’s worth noting the inaccuracy of the charge. NIAC was harshly critical of the Iranian government’s crackdown on protesters following the disputed elections in June, issuing a June 20 statement “strongly condemn[ing] the government of Iran’s escalating violence against demonstrators” and calling for new elections. A later statement urged the Obama administration not to neglect human rights issues in the course of its diplomacy with Iran. Anyone who followed the post-election crisis closely — no matter where they came from on the ideological spectrum — soon came to rely on NIAC’s blog as an indispensabe source of news and analysis about the protests. And Parsi became the most prominent proponent of engagement to change his stance in the wake of the elections, calling for a “tactical pause” in U.S. diplomacy while the political situation within Iran developed.

Why, then, is he being attacked as a stooge for the Iranian regime? The answer is simple: while Parsi has harshly criticized the regime’s actions, he has joined Iran’s leading opposition figures in opposing the use of sanctions or military force against Iran, on the grounds that they would be likely simply to kill innocent Iranian civilians while strengthening the regime’s hold on power. For the Iran hawks, this is a mortal sin. They will settle for nothing less than an Iranian Ahmed Chalabi — someone willing to tell them precisely what they want to hear, to claim that the Iranian people want to be bombed.

But I am less concerned with the substance of Goldfarb’s and Goldberg’s allegations and more with the insinuation they contain of dual loyalty. They accuse Parsi not merely of holding substantively wrong political beliefs but of actively working for Iranian and against American interests (hence Goldfarb: “the Iranian regime’s man in Washington”).

Similarly, neoconservative Middle East scholar Martin Kramer insinuated several months ago that Iranian-Americans are not to be trusted on issues related to Iran. At a panel at this spring’s AIPAC conference with fellow Iran hawk Michael Rubin, Kramer noted that many Iranian-Americans still have family in Iran, and suggested that they could therefore be easily intimidated into backing the regime. Describing the arrest (and subsequent release) of scholar Haleh Esfandiari while visiting family in Iran, Kramer argued as follows:

The entire episode suggests the ways in which Iran can have behind the scenes leverage over Iranian Americans, many of whom occupy key positions in the think tanks and are even being brought now into the administration…What this means is that we have to be extremely cautious about what we take away from Iranian diaspora communities when it comes to understanding Iran. Many of these communities desperately want access to their own country. And it dramatically tilts their analysis toward accommodation.

The convenient conclusion is that we can ignore anything that Iranian-Americans have to say about Iran. (I am not sure if there is a video of the panel, but I attended and taped it, and would be happy to share the recording.)

It need hardly be said that these are the same commentators who would scream anti-Semitism if anyone were to level similar allegations against Jewish-American political figures. Yet it is undeniable that Goldfarb, Goldberg, and Kramer hold positions that are far closer to the Israeli government’s than Parsi’s position is to the Iranian government’s. Would it therefore be fair to label Goldfarb as “the Israeli government’s man in Washington,” or Goldberg as someone who “does a lot of leg-work for the Israeli government?”

To be clear, I do not support these allegations in either case. I have alway found the dual loyalty argument to be highly suspect; there is no reason that Americans should be forbidden from having affinities and loyalties for any country or group that they please, and these affinities only become problematic in special cases (Jonathan Pollard comes to mind). But if Goldfarb and Goldberg want to fling these allegations around, it strikes me that they should be willing to answer them in turn.

[Cross-posted at LobeLog.]

Daniel Luban lives in Chicago. He is a graduate student in political science at the University of Chicago, and also serves as a correspondent for the global news agency Inter Press Service, where his more


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