State Department senior official to attend conference of org accused of being advocate for Iranian theocracy

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The State Department is sending a senior official to attend a March 15 meeting hosted by the National Iranian-American Council, which has been derided by critics as a thinly-veiled advocate for Iran’s Islamic theocracy.

Suzanne Nossel, the deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations is slated to speak at the event, titled “Answering the Iranian People’s Call for Human Rights,” which will be held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

The conference’s theme matches NIAC’s strategy of promoting modest democracy measures in Iran as an alternative to policies intended to remove the theocratic government. “The case for war [against the Iranian theocracy] is already being pushed by the ‘pro-war’ elements on the Hill…. We can either remain quiet and let them work their magic OR we can promote the alternative to war by emphasizing the importance of and need for human rights,” reads a March 7 e-mail sent by Nobar Elmi, who joined NIAC in October 2010 as the director of community outreach and programming.

In practice, she wrote, “we’re taking steps to ensure human rights is on the table, by doing things such as working to ensure there is an independent U.N. human rights monitor and encouraging the dialogue.” Elmi’s e-mail was written to Peter Khan Zendran, a Rhode Island blogger who argued that NIAC’s focus on democracy might spur stronger action against the Iranian government.

Other speakers at the event include Minnesota Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, the co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus. He is an original sponsor of NIAC-backed “Stand with Iranian People Act,” which would impose modest sanctions on companies that sell domestic-security gear to Iran, but also ease work by U.S.-based non-profits in Iran.

NIAC’s founder and head, Trita Parsi, declined to comment after he was alerted about The Daily Caller’s inquiries by an agency official.

The State Department official, Nossel, will attend the conference “to describe our effort to appoint a special rapporteur on Iran,” said an agency official. If approved, the rapporteur would investigate the condition of human-rights in Iran and send a report back to the U.N., the official said.

To get the rapporteur appointed, the U.S. will have to win a vote on the 47-member Human Rights Council. The council’s members now include China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, all of which are likely to oppose any such appointment. Libya was previously accepted as a member, but its membership is now suspended.

When asked if Nossel’s attendance at the NIAC event would signal a willingness to cooperate with the Iranian government, the agency official professed ignorance about NIAC. “I’m not at all familiar with the council … [and] I’m not in a position to declare whether this is or is not a front-group for the Iranian government,” he said, adding that a  group fronting for Iran’s government would not likely host a meeting that is critical of that government.

The administration is trying to spotlight human-rights questions in Iran, not to suggest acceptance of the government’s policies, he said. “We’re going there to tell [NIAC] how we are looking at Iran’s human-rights record as unacceptable.”

NIAC’s critics say the group has advocated against stringent economic sanctions on the Iranian government and the country, and has only partway relaxed its opposition after Western audiences saw footage of the Iranian government’s security forces shooting at pro-democracy protesters in June 2009. The critics also point to a large quantity of NIAC’s e-mails which were released during a lawsuit with a NIAC critic. The e-mails show NIAC officials in close contact with Iran’s then-current ambassador, the critics say.

NIAC’s supporters say the organization is not a front-group. “From what I’ve seen, [NIAC’s Parsi] has got his own views about what the U.S. and Iranian governments should be involved in, but I’ve seen no evidence that he’s a front for the Iranian regime,” said Matt Duss, a national-security editor for the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “If he’s a front for the Iranian regime, holding events about human-rights abuses seems to be a strange way to do it,” said Duss, who was asked by a NIAC official to talk with TheDC about the developing article.