Michael Goldfarb at The Weekly Standard:
I made my way over to the J Street conference today to see for myself just how “pro-peace, pro-Israel” the organization really is, and there can be no doubt, J Street is pro-peace. But while the leadership of J Street may be pro-Israel, the conference they’ve organized was at times openly anti-Zionist and anti-Israel.
I had the chance to speak with the director of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, as well as his director of policy and strategy, Hadar Susskind. On the issues, the best that can be said about these two is that they are squishes — at all costs they avoid taking a strong position on any major issue other than settlements. Take the issue of Iran sanctions, for example. J Street has been at the center of the anti-sanctions coalition. Ben-Ami coauthored an op-ed on the Huffington Post with Trita Parsi, the head of the National Iranian-American Council who serves as the Iranian regime’s man in Washington, urging against sanctions legislation in Congress. As that position became increasingly untenable for J Street — support for sanctions on Iran is near universal in the Jewish community and in Congress — the group has shifted. In the House, sanctions legislation is being shepherded by the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Howard Berman. J Street has tried to square the circle by supporting Berman’s mark-up of the legislation while opposing final passage of the legislation. I asked Susskind, “you do not support sanctions but you support Berman?” He answered: “Correct.”
The most problematic thing I’ve heard so far is the make-up of the panel meant to discuss Iran. In the program, Iran was described as “Israel’s self-described greatest concern and strategic threat,” which is a bit too distancing a description for me, but never mind that. The panel featured Hillary Mann Leverett, who, with her husband, Flynt Leverett, is an apologist for the Iranian regime. Goldblog Iran-Panel-Reporter-At-Large Tali Yahalom told me that the consensus on the panel, which also included Trita Parsi, who also does a lot of leg-work for the Iranian regime, was that Iran doesn’t think about Israel, doesn’t care about Israel, and certainly doesn’t want to obliterate Israel.
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.
Nick Baumann at Mother Jones:
Goldfarb wasn’t alone in criticizing Parsi. Last Wednesday, the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that Parsi “does a lot of leg-work for the Iranian regime.” Like Goldfarb, Goldberg did not cite any evidence. But when I emailed him about his comment, he backed away from implying Parsi was in league with Tehran:
No, I’m not saying he literally works for the Iranian regime. I think you’re right, the term “leg-work” definitely could imply something I wasn’t meaning to imply. If that’s the way fair-minded people are reading it, then it’s my mistake. What I meant to suggest is that his organization functions as Iran’s AIPAC in Washington (though it’s not as effective, of course). AIPAC, obviously, does a great amount of leg-work—meaning, in my understanding, a great deal of lobbying and advocacy—to advance its primary cause, a militarily and politically powerful Israel closely allied with the United States. But it doesn’t take Israeli money, or, as best as I can tell, Israeli instruction. I assume, though I don’t know, that Parsi doesn’t take Iranian government money or Iranian government instruction, either. I think he does argue quite vociferously against sanctions, and he does tend to present, at least in my reading, a fairly benevolent understanding of Iran’s rulers and their motivations, and a fairly harsh reading of the Israeli government’s motivations.
Goldfarb and Goldberg’s remarks could potentially have legal consequences.
After another writer made similar allegations on a website, iranianlobby.com, in 2007, Parsi and NIAC sued for defamation. (The case is ongoing.) Parsi notes that his organization has not yet decided whether to pursue legal action against Goldfarb and Goldberg.
There’s no credible, publicly available evidence that Parsi is paid by or takes instructions from the Iranian government. If Goldfarb is charging that Parsi really is an operative for the ayatollahs, he ought to back up the claim—lawsuit or not.
Goldfarb’s version of the smear is, it seems to me, wronger. But Goldberg’s is, in its way, more contemptible for being so vague, shifty, and ultimately impossible to disprove. What can be seen, right out in the open and on the record, is that NIAC has consistently criticized human rights abuses by the Iranian government and agitated for liberalization, fair elections, and decent treatment of the population of Iran. To be fair, in criticizing Iranian human rights violations NIAC has been known to cite the work of international recognized human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and for all I know G&G are sufficiently through the rabbit hole that they see Amnesty, HRW, and NIAC as all part of a vast anti-Israel Islamist plot that only attacks the Iranian regime as part of a vast smokescreen. It’s worth noting, however, that there’s an important underlying dispute here. Some people, also known as people who know what they’re talking about, think an unprovoked US or Israeli preventive military strike on Iran would be a huge gift to the Iranian government and a crushing blow to the opposition. Others, who I hope are liars rather than fools, claim to believe that this is wrong. Parsi is, I know, in the former camp.
Any American reporter who paid any attention to the U.S. debate over the Iranian election quoted Parsi and NIAC, constantly, denouncing Ahmadinejad. We used NIAC’s blog for pro-dissident updates. Here. Don’t take my word for it. Read the June entries. In a piece he co-wrote with Resa Aslan, Parsi cheered the uprising, intoning, “What we have witnessed taking place in Iran is a mass movement attracting supporters from all walks of life, all demographics, all classes, and even all political backgrounds. Even supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have expressed discomfort with the developments in Iran, arguing that they voted for Ahmadinejad because they thought he would be a better president, and not because he would be a better dictator.” Does that sound like a “fairly benevolent understanding” of the regime? Nor did Parsi stop when U.S. attention drifted elsewhere. One of the top posts at NIAC’s blog right now is titled “Khamanei Criticized At Public Meeting.” You really can go on and on with this.
Parsi isn’t so hot on Netanyahu. Wow. That means he’s a progressive, not some sort of regime plant. Parsi isn’t so hot on sanctioning Iran. Wow! You know who also isn’t? Dissident leaders Mehdi Kerroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi. I suppose the opposition movement is controlled by the regime after all. Diabolical!
One more thing. Goldberg has a fairly low bar for people who write that, say, AIPAC does anything untoward or is an organization that represents anything nefariously deviant from the norm in ethnic American lobbies. He insists on, shall we say, a certain precision in discourse. Yet he has absolutely no problem saying that a guy who stood out in front in the U.S. in cheering on the anti-regime protesters is soft on the regime! “I assume, though I don’t know, that Parsi doesn’t take Iranian government money or Iranian government instruction, either.” Let’s employ a thought experiment. Say, I don’t know, Steven Walt or John Mearshimer wrote that about AIPAC. Would Goldberg consider that a judicious statement or a weasel-worded slander?
UPDATE: Goldfarb responds to Yglesias:
Yglesias surely knows that I’m opposed to a military strike on Iran by either the U.S. or Israel for a whole range of reasons. I’ve been publicly and vocally opposed to a strike for some time. My opposition to military action against Iran can be learned by reading this and this and this, just for starters. I’ve spoken to Jewish groups inclined to support such an attack and told them why it’s a bad idea. I’ve argued with Israeli cabinet officials about a strike. I suppose that next I could take an ad out on Yglesias’s blog trumpeting my opposition to a strike. I’m going to e-mail Yglesias to ask him to acknowledge in his post that I am, in fact, in the Parsi camp(!) when it comes to attacking Iran. It’s fine to attack me for things I believe, but this particular bit of criticism by Yglesias is ridiculous.
UPDATE: More Goldberg
UPDATE #2: More Sullivan
UPDATE #3: Reihan Salam
UPDATE #4: Larison responds to Salam
UPDATE #5: Eli Lake at The Washington Times
Michael Goldfarb at The Weekly Standard
UPDATE #6: Joe Klein at Swampland at Time
UPDATE #7: David Frum at FrumForum