"Iran Lobby" conspiracy theories turn into defamation lawsuits
U.S. courts are about to hear clashing ideas about who the "Islamic Republic of Iran's tentacles" in America are.
UPDATE: On March 22, 2023, a judge dismissed the lawsuit that Iranian-Americans for Liberty brought against Ebrahimzadeh under the “anti-SLAPP law,” a law designed to protect legitimate critics from “vexatious” defamation lawsuits.
During the anti-SLAPP proceedings, Ebrahimzadeh declared that he genuinely believes Iranian-Americans for Liberty “was acting in the interests of the current government of Iran and to further the free speech rights of that repressive government.”
A pair of Iranian-American opposition influencers were hit by defamation lawsuits around New Years after they accused their opponents of working for the Iranian government. One of the lawsuits also seeks to unmask anonymous Twitter critics.
Everyone involved in the lawsuits seems to agree that Iran has “lobbyists” or “tentacles” on American soil. They mainly disagree on whom those infiltrators are.
Iranian-Americans for Liberty (IAL) and Bita Daryabari would seem to be unlikely allies. IAL is a right-wing lobby group run by a one-time Republican candidate. Daryabari is a Democratic donor who runs the Pars Equality Center, a California nonprofit that sued the Trump administration over its immigration policy.
But both were targeted in a “name and shame campaign” by martial artist Sam Rajabi and social media activist Ali Ebrahimzadeh, who claim to be fighting the “Islamic Republic’s massive propaganda machine in United States.”
The campaign has even included protests against a children’s cancer charity in California. The International Society for Children with Cancer is “considering action as well,” the society’s lawyer Houman Fakhimi told me.
I reached out to lawyers for IAL, Daryabari, and Ebrahimzadeh by email. I also reached out to IAL and the Pars Equality Center directly by email, and Ebrahimzadeh and Rajabi by Twitter direct message. None of them have responded.
Rumors about “regime lobbyists” abroad, many of them baseless, have long been floating around Iranian social media. Such rhetoric has gotten more heated as unrest and government repression inside Iran have escalated.
The stakes on streets of Tehran and in California courtrooms couldn’t be more different, but the nature of social media and U.S.-Iranian relations have caused the same debates to be aired in both venues.
IAL ran its own extensive name-and-shame campaigns against opponents it considers “Islamic Republic lobbyists,” before being targeted by Ebrahimzadeh and his supporters with the same accusations.
After facing these allegations, “IAL’s ability to disseminate its pro-democracy message has been weakened, and correspondingly, its ability to raise funds,” IAL’s legal complaint states.
IAL is demanding that Ebrahimzadeh pay an “amount to be proved at trial” for the damage caused by their “false assertions of fact.” The complaint also points the finger at ten anonymous Twitter users who backed Ebrahimzadeh’s claims, promising to add their “true names…once they have been discovered.”
Daryabari’s legal complaint claims that Ebrahimzadeh and Rajabi have incited their followers to harass her and her husband, the musician Shahkar Bineshpajoo, through a “reckless” and “malicious” campaign of lies.
Daryabari and Bineshpajoo are demanding tens of thousands of dollars for emotional distress and professional setbacks, including reduced ticket sales to Bineshpajoo’s concerts.
Rajabi and Ebrahimzadeh have raised over $160,000 for their legal defense fund from over three thousand donors on GoFundMe. French senator Nathalie Goulet tweeted at Rajabi that she was “ready to help.”
It is unclear whether Daryabari and IAL coordinated their lawsuits. Daryabari and Bineshpajoo filed their complaint in California’s state superior court, while IAL sued in U.S. federal court.
Ebrahimzadeh is founding member of a group called the Normal Life Council. Almost all the projects on the website are directed against those whom Rajabi and Ebrahimzadeh consider to be part of the “lobby of the Islamic Republic in America.”
The name-and-shame campaigns often invoke the name of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).
NIAC, a pro-diplomacy organization, has come under fire from parts of the Iranian opposition for advocating against external pressure on Iran, such as an economic embargo. The group denies backing the Iranian government’s interests.
“NIAC supported Iranians when they called for reform, when they pushed for diplomacy, and now today, when they demand the end of the Islamic Republic,” the group recently posted on Twitter. “We do not support the U.S. government or any outside influences pushing their own agenda or imposing regime change from the outside.”
A decade ago, NIAC sued blogger Hassan Dai for defamation after he called the group an unregistered Iranian lobby. A lawyer for the Middle East Forum, a right-wing pro-Israel organization, helped organize Dai’s legal defense.
A judge threw out the lawsuit in 2012, ruling that NIAC’s actions were “not inconsistent” with advocating for the Iranian government’s interests, but also that “[n]othing in this opinion should be construed” as proof of Dai’s accusations.
In other words, whether or not NIAC really was an “Iran Lobby,” it couldn’t prove that Dai was maliciously lying.
As part of the litigation, the court ordered NIAC to open up its internal records. The documents included emails between NIAC founder Trita Parsi and Iranian diplomat Javad Zarif. The emails did not show Parsi taking orders or payment from Zarif.
Most notably, Zarif leaked information about an Iranian diplomatic offer to Parsi, who shared it with American media, clearly stating that he had obtained it from “Iranian sources.” (Former U.S. officials went on the record confirming the story.) Parsi also told Zarif that many members of Congress are “interested in a meeting,” but there is no evidence that he actually set up any meetings.
Both sides claimed victory. NIAC wrote in a statement that Dai had failed to back up his “outrageous claims” despite “unfettered access” to NIAC’s files, while Dai said that the files showed “NIAC’s links to the regime.”
As one pro-Israel journalist saw it, “accusing NIAC of stealth lobbying for Tehran was henceforth a nonlibelous point of analysis.” The accusation against NIAC stuck in Iranian opposition circles — and became the basis for wide-ranging theories about pro-government infiltrators.
According to Daryabari’s legal complaint, accusing someone in the “Persian community” of being a NIAC member “means that the person supports the tyrannical government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
“While the goal of most advocates of a free Iran is to expose the IRI’s brutality inside Iran, others seek to reveal the IRI’s tentacles outside Iran and shine light on the IRI’s financial and political supporters and beneficiaries in the US, Canada, and Europe,” the complaint states. “NIAC is alleged to have ties with the IRI and is accused by many to be an advocate of the IRI’s policies.”
The accusations have also gone the other way around, as hawks in the Iranian establishment have labelled Parsi an American agent undermining the Islamic Republic through his influence on figures like Zarif.
The lawsuits against Rajabi and Ebrahimzadeh represent a public split within the pro-opposition side of the anti-NIAC camp.
IAL was founded in 2020, and many of its early activities were aimed at pushing U.S. politicians to investigate or otherwise scrutinize NIAC.
The group’s executive director is Bryan Leib, a longtime pro-Israel activist and one-time Republican candidate for Congress. Its board members include Shervan Fashandi and Daniel Jafari, prominent advocates for restoring the Iranian monarchy.
Parsi eventually became vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a foreign policy think tank where I worked as a research assistant for a few months in 2020 and 2021.
In 2021, the Quincy Institute’s magazine ran a report on IAL’s ties to the Republican Party and pro-Israel lobbyists. (I had no role in the IAL report.) Parsi then joked on Twitter about “Iranian-Americans for Liberty” having a non-Iranian leader.
Leib responded by calling Parsi antisemitic in a Newsmax opinion piece.
Parsi declined to comment for this article.
IAL also began to attack an Iranian-American figure closer to its views, Voice of America (VOA) presenter Masih Alinejad.
Alinejad had said on a December 2021 panel that Iranian agents were supporting Donald Trump’s campaign on social media, according to a statement on the IAL website. IAL claimed that Alinejad was attempting to “censor Americans who disagree with her on political matters.”
IAL then published an escalating series of statements about Alinejad.1 The latest, issued in March 2022, accuses her of illegal electioneering and “echoing not just Iranian Regime talking points but also those of the Obama-Biden Administration.”
The statement complained that Alinejad’s “attack dogs” are frequently invited to speak on VOA, while “our Executive Director Bryan E. Leib, has never been invited to appear on any VOA programs or be interviewed for any online stories despite numerous requests sent to VOA regarding Mr. Leib's availability and willingness to speak on a variety of issues.”
Another IAL statement, published in December 2021, had called it “unprofessional” that Alinejad “has accused her detractors of being the agents” of the Islamic Republic.
Alinejad herself has called NIAC and others lobbyists for the Iranian government. She broadcast these allegations to a wide audience during the Halifax International Security Forum in November. Alinejad is not a party to either lawsuit.
Ebrahimzadeh jumped to Alinejad’s defense in December 2021. He tweeted that IAL was run by Iranian intelligence operatives, and did “what NIAC did not have the courage to do” by “supporting the freedom of speech” of Iranian government officials, according to IAL’s legal complaint.
Rajabi and Ebrahimzadeh’s campaign against Daryabari has been much more personal, legal documents show.
In a series of Instagram stories posted in November 2022 and still accessible on Rajabi’s page, Rajabi accused Daryabari of supporting NIAC and asked her to atone for her deeds.
His main evidence was a collection of alleged “transactions” between Daryabari and NIAC’s “representatives.” Rajabi included a screenshot of public records showing that Daryabari donated to 2018 congressional candidate Kia Hamadanchy and several other Democratic causes.
He called Hamadanchy “NIAC’s representative in Congress.” Hamadanchy was endorsed by NIAC’s political action committee but has never worked for the group. Nor is he in Congress, as he lost the election.
The posts also showed a different Pars Equality Center member supporting NIAC, and alleged that Daryabari’s brother was a shareholder in a hospital in Iran, which Daryabari’s legal complaint calls a “laughable statement.”
This style is common in Iranian social media: a rapid-fire series of vague associations between alleged “Iran Lobby” members. This type of post often does not explain the meaning of the connections, but leaves them up to the reader’s imagination.
Near the end of the story, Rajabi included a screenshot of NIAC’s Facebook page thanking Daryabari for her support.
Rajabi later posted videos of his followers heckling Bineshpajoo outside one of his concerts, and a photo of Daryabari “hiding behind an arena security guard fearing for her safety,” according to the legal complaint.
The complaint alleges that the campaign has caused Daryabari and Bineshpajoo “anxiety, depression, weighs loss, [sic] trouble eating, and sleeping, sweating, and panic attacks.”
The name and shame campaigns may result in yet another lawsuit.
Over the past few years, Rajabi and Ebrahimzadeh have waged a campaign against New York Times journalist Farnaz Fassihi — whom they believe is whitewashing life in Iran — and against a children’s cancer charity founded by Fassihi’s mother.
The Normal Life Council website boasts that the group rented a billboard opposite the Times headquarters, denouncing the newspaper as the “mullahs’ apologists in the U.S. media.” Mullah is a title for an Islamic cleric, often used as shorthand for Iran’s theocratic system of government.
The Times has publicly stood by Fassihi’s reporting and condemned the “harassment” against her.
Around the same time the campaign against Fassihi started, some commenters presented conspiracy theories that Fassihi’s mother was laundering money for the Iranian government through the healthcare charity she runs.
The International Society for Children with Cancer and its Iranian branch Mahak are internationally recognized for their pediatric oncology work. The president of Switzerland visited the Mahak hospital in 2016 and praised the organization. VOA covered Mahak’s difficulty importing medicines due to the U.S. embargo.
Rajabi and Ebrahimzadeh demonstrated outside the society’s California office in late 2021. Their signs did not explicitly endorse the money-laundering theory, but framed their protest as “just asking a simple question” about Mahak’s relationship with NIAC.
Ebrahimzadeh was a bit more forward in an interview with Koocheh, an Iranian-Canadian monarchist channel that showed up to cover the demonstration.
“We have come to understand that there is a relationship between Mahak and NIAC,” he said, adding that he was protesting the children’s cancer charity “in order to be the voice of you, the people inside Iran.”
“We won’t let it go. Apparently, the agents of the Islamic Republic have been shamed very little. We carry out our activities to inflict a cost,” Ebrahimzadeh continued. “This crowd has not been shamed. Those whose livelihood comes from the blood of Iranians have not been shamed.”
Fassihi understood it as an intimidation tactic directed at herself.
“At least in my case, [online threats] have manifested physically…in the form of harassment of my elderly mother, showing up outside of her work, harassing her,” she said during a 2022 panel discussion. “There was a night when we had to call the police because these thugs were outside of her building.”
Fakhimi, the charity’s attorney, will be reaching out to Daryabari’s lawyers. His goals are to both “clear the name of my clients” and “put a stop to this degradation of the Iranian political discourse,” Fakhimi says.
Needless to say, he denies that the charity launders money. Fakhimi has also repeatedly and publicly denied that the charity has a relationship with NIAC.
On New Years’ Day, Rajabi and Ebrahimzadeh posted a video to several social media sites asking for help in their legal defense.
“Some of the citizens of the Bay Area asked Mrs. Bita Daryabari whether it is true that she provided moral and financial support to NIAC, the lobby of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Rajabi said in the video.
“Mrs. Bita Daryabari and her husband Shahkar Bineshpajoo, instead of answering the question about which the people are eager to learn the truth, chose to file a lawsuit against Sam Rajabi and I,” Ebrahimzadeh added.
The video did not address IAL’s lawsuit.
The pair had set a goal of raising $100,000 for their legal defense fund. They surpassed it within two days, then raised another $50,000 within a few days.
As the allegations work their way through social media and the American legal system, they have reverberations on the ground inside Iran.
In September 2022, dissident singer Shervin Hajipour was arrested, and after his release from jail, he distanced himself from politics in a video that appeared to be filmed under duress. As an example of an apolitical cause that his followers should support, Hajipour offered up Mahak’s fight against cancer.
Rajabi took it as evidence that Mahak has a “financial relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”
Two months ago, Iranian activist Hossein Ronaghi was released from jail after a horrifying ordeal, in which he was tortured and went on hunger strike. After his release, Ronaghi’s Twitter page2 published a list of figures he considers “the external arms of the Islamic Republic.”
The provenance of the list is unclear. It mentions the expected NIAC members, as well as other opposition activists and some previously obscure figures. Several prominent anti-NIAC activists took umbrage with the list because it included Internet freedom researcher Mahsa Alimardani.
There are signs that pro-government forces have encouraged “Iran Lobby” conspiracy theories in order to divide the Islamic Republic’s opponents and critics.
Two months ago, unknown actors wiretapped and leaked parts of a phone call in which BBC Persian anchor Rana Rahimpour criticized elements of the Iranian opposition.
Activists took the partial recording as evidence that the BBC was on the Iranian government’s side. The opposition channel Iran International produced a documentary attacking Rahimpour and the BBC.
Rahimpour, a frequent critic of the Iranian government, stated at the time that Iranian intelligence services were the only likely culprits.
Some Iranian opposition figures inside Iran have expressed skepticism about the value of diaspora politics and social media activism.
After several Iranian activists and celebrities abroad put out a coordinated Twitter message for New Years, a group of workers at the famously restive Haft Tappeh sugarcane refinery called them a “tyrannical, conspiracy-minded, backroom, un-transparent, one-sided, anti-majoritarian, power-hungry” coalition that is “irrelevant to our struggle.”
“Everyone in that coalition gathered together doesn't measure up to a single union organizer or teacher inside the country, in terms of experience with the struggle,” the workers’ statement reads, according to the Sweden-based station Radio Solidarity.
“Our representatives come from the working-class, laboring, wage-earning majority, not the courtiers and freelancers of capitalist states,” it states. “We will pass over the government of the Islamic Republic and build a new system...long live the revolution.”
UPDATE: I added another quote from Ebrahimadeh’s interview with Koocheh. I also clarified that the cancer charity denies having a relationship with NIAC, and added an additional element from Rajabi’s posts about Daryabari.
The final paragraphs of the story originally cited the Haft Tappeh Workers’ Union for the statement. However, as a reader pointed out, the statement came from an independent workers’ group.
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Some of the later statements made a point of calling Alinejad by her birth name rather than her chosen name Masih, which means “messiah” in Persian.
Twitter often suspends the account of political activists and journalists who have been arrested in Iran, apparently for their protection. Police may try to read a prisoner’s private messages or force the prisoner to post a false statement, for example.
It is unclear why Ronaghi’s page remained online, but it suggests that supporters outside the Iranian authorities’ grasp are running Ronaghi’s social media on his behalf.
The views expressed here do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.