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Iranian Activists Take On Children's Cancer Charity
The conspiracy theory about the “Iran Lobby” has gone in extremely bizarre directions.
Exile politics are always a bit messy. Losing one’s homeland is a very traumatic event, and the prospect of getting it back provokes heated emotions, for good reason. In the United States, that dynamic led to Cuban-American terrorist attacks and a nasty series of murders within the Vietnamese-American community.
Iranian diaspora infighting is thankfully not as violent. But it has gotten really weird. Really, really weird. A conspiracy theory has caught on that the International Society for Children with Cancer is secretly a front for laundering dirty Iranian money to the New York Times, in order to lobby reporters to soften their coverage of the Islamic Republic. No, really. I’m not making this up.
Normally, online drama is not worth spending much energy on, especially since Iranians inside Iran are being killed in defense of their rights. However, “Iran Lobby” rhetoric has become a fairly mainstream idea in Persian-language media. Prominent figures have entertained the more conspiratorial version of it, including the theory about the children’s cancer charity. This phenomenon warrants some discussion if outsiders want to understand important currents within the Iranian opposition.
In the most modest form, the “Iran Lobby” theory states that certain Iranian-American (and Iranian-British and Iranian-Canadian) figures have been too sympathetic in their coverage of Iran, which has discouraged the U.S. government from pursuing regime change. In its full-fledged conspiracy theory form, it holds that large parts of the American liberal establishment have been directly captured by Iranian agents, and serve as a key part of the Islamic Republic’s power structure.
Much of the English-language coverage has missed the point, calling this rhetoric a problem of incivility or intolerance. But if there were really Iranian agents corrupting American politics to assist in violent repression, then the answer would be severe legal measures, not a polite discussion. The problem is that the “Iran Lobby” rhetoric is false, and it has taken on the classic form of a conspiracy theory, a collective descent into delusional thinking and paranoid circular logic.
The theory began during the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran, for which the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) had helped lay the political groundwork.1 As a recent analysis by Ali Terrenoire explains, NIAC represented a section of the Iranian-American bourgeoisie that maintained a foot in both worlds. While they were opposed to Iran’s Islamist rulers, they also stood to benefit economically from engagement and reform.
Neoconservatives soon identified NIAC as the “Iran Lobby.” It was a useful rebuttal to the accusations that neoconservative groups were lobbying for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In a dark turn of events, The Daily Beast accused Iranian-American business executive Siamak Namazi of leading the lobby for U.S.-Iranian engagement, and Iranian authorities arrested Namazi as an agent of American influence shortly afterwards. He is still in prison.
The “Iran Lobby” theory took on a life of its own in Iranian politics. Because of NIAC’s stance that foreign pressure on Iran is counterproductive, rival factions of the Iranian opposition accused it of running interference for the regime. As the Reformist movement in Iran aligned with NIAC fell apart, the organization seemed increasingly out-of-touch with Iranian audiences.
“Nudged along by Saudi and Israeli media, a consensus emerged that such individuals [in NIAC] could only be lobbyists for the Islamic Republic,” Terrenoire writes.
The issue also got mixed up with the phenomenon of the corrupt aghazadeh, the child of a well-connected Islamist family who uses their wealth to live an un-Islamic playboy lifestyle in foreign capitals.2 This class of oligarch is the direct economic competitor to NIAC’s constituency, and benefits from sanctions that keep people like Siamak Namazi out of business in Iran. But for people not steeped in Iranian elite politics, the “Iran Lobby” theory seems like a compelling explanation for how the aghazadehs are able to move their money across borders.
To be clear, this is a serious legal allegation. First of all, the Foreign Agents Registration Act strictly regulates American lobbyists who take foreign clients. Second of all, Iran is under heavy U.S. economic sanctions, which restrict Americans’ ability to take payments from or move money for Iranian entities.
In 2008, NIAC sued Iranian-American blogger Hassan Dai for defamation over the “Iran Lobby” accusations. A judge threw out the case in 2012, arguing that NIAC’s public actions were “not inconsistent” with advocating for the Islamic Republic’s interests, so Dai was not lying out of sheer malice. The judge took care to note that “[n]othing in this opinion should be construed” as evidence that NIAC really was working for the Iranian government.
It’s complicated legal writing that attempts to thread a careful needle. The court wanted to protect Dai’s ability to accuse NIAC of nefarious intentions, without endorsing the accusation. (Indeed, the court forced NIAC to turn over reams of internal files, and none of them prompted an FBI investigation into lobbying violations.) For laymen, however, it was easy to portray as an official confirmation that NIAC was an Iranian lobby.
From there, activists drew an ever-expanding web of connections from NIAC to various figures in the American media, academia, and government. Rumors spread on social media, where anonymous accounts posted photomontages of different “lobbyists,” often without explanation. Republican congressional offices were happy to play along, copy-pasting Twitter rumors about U.S. diplomat Ariane Tabatabai directly into a letter to the Biden administration.
The phenomenon became self-reinforcing. Some of the targets lashed out, claiming that they were under a menacing attack from Saudi botnets.3 To many Iranians, the response was insulting and proof of the targets’ bad faith. And when American institutions pushed back on the more ridiculous smears against their members, it seemed to establish further that those institutions were in the pocket of the Lobby.
One of the “Iran Lobby” conspiracy theorists, Mariam Memarsadeghi, used a U.S. State Department-funded media platform to lob accusations at BBC journalists and a Human Rights Watch official. After her government funding was cut due to this behavior — mind you, by the Trump administration — Memarsadeghi doubled down on calling her enemies the “Iranian regime thugs among us.”
Circular logic is a classic attribute of conspiracy theories. Any contrary evidence is actually proof of how sophisticated the conspiracy has gotten.
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Thus we arrive at the case of the New York Times and the cancer charity.
A couple years ago, commenters accused New York Times reporter Farnaz Fassihi of “whitewashing” the situation in Iran, largely because of her feel-good nostalgic posts about daily life in Tehran. (She is Iranian-American, if that wasn’t clear.) Fassihi responded by denouncing the critics as “trolls” and accusing them of dictatorial behavior. It painted a large target on her back.
Activists protested outside the New York Times offices multiple times. A dissident in Iran even penned a thinly-veiled essay against Fassihi’s nostalgiaposting.4 The New York Times eventually stepped in, issuing a statement that the paper stands by its reporting and against the “harassment” of its reporter. Naturally, that fueled more accusations that the “Iran Lobby” controlled the highest levels of American media.
Critics have every right to criticize Fassihi’s coverage and take umbrage with her tone. The specific allegation that the New York Times is controlled by the Islamic Republic is laughable. And what happened next is completely absurd.
Fassihi’s mother is a co-founder of Mahak and its parent organization, the International Society for Children with Cancer. The charity is renowned for its pediatric work in Iran. A French organization audited Mahak and gave it the highest NGO accountability score in the world. Its difficulties importing medicine due to U.S. sanctions have been well documented, even by U.S.-funded media, and Swiss diplomats even visited the Mahak hospital to discuss the issue.
Armed with printouts of the NIAC logo photoshopped to look like an Iranian military emblem, Iranian opposition activists took on the children’s cancer charity. What they were actually accusing Mahak of is unclear. In fact, it was intentionally unclear. The activists who demonstrated outside the society’s California offices framed their protest as “just asking questions.”
Through the years [Fassihi’s mother Fereshteh] Tavakoli/ISCC/MAHAK have been able to collect millions of dollars in donations. Yet, unfortunately, millions of Iranian children continue to suffer. Where is all that money going? Why is there no report of how this money is being put into use? Are we looking at a major money-laundering operation here?
Alavi’s article is remarkable, not because its thought process is out of the ordinary for Iranian social media, but because he actually bothers to translate it and spell it out to an audience that is not already steeped in these conspiracy theories.
For example, Alavi points out that the director-general of Mahak is married to Malekeh Amini, a business consultant who moderated “many events held with NIAC’s direct/indirect financial support.” (The phrase “direct/indirect,” of course, does a lot of work.) And, Amini gave a talk at Stanford University, an alleged “platform” for Iranian influence. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Other commenters filled in the blanks with salacious and contradictory rumors, either that Mahak was collecting U.S. dollars for Iran’s repressive forces, or that it was funneling Iranian blood money to greedy American liberals.
Last month, events in Iran breathed new life into the Mahak story. 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. Iranian-American influencer Sam Rajabi took it as evidence that Mahak has a “financial relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”
Figures at Washington-based think tanks even entertained the allegations. AmirFarshad Ebrahimi, a researcher at the Global Institute for Democracy and Strategic Studies, tweeted that “there are many documents about Mahak's money laundering and financial dependence on the IRGC and Intelligence Ministry, go search and read about it.”6 Jason Brodsky, policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran, retweeted a now-deleted accusation that Mahak is “reported to be laundering money” for the Islamic Republic.7
Mahak’s Facebook post defending its work is genuinely one of the saddest pleas I have ever read. The emphasis in the translation is mine.
Lest you think this is a complaint, no, I am just saying this because you yourself asked...
I say this because I think I have the right to ask for enough of your time to read a few lines. But no problem if you don’t read it. These days, whoever yells the loudest wins, but I can't yell, because there are children sleeping in my rooms. They just fell asleep. Their pain has eased a little. Every scream pours pain back into their bodies.
You asked me to say where I stand out loud. I say it out loud: the same place where I've been standing since the beginning, next to the bed of a child whose tender body has been attacked by cancer. I am standing here. Period. I am holding their innocent hands. I will not stand anywhere else. If I take a step to this side or to that side, if I let go of the child's hands, they will cry.
If you are not there to give me the strength to hold this child's hand, then death wins. Are you upset with me because I am standing where I promised from the beginning? Were we supposed to do anything else?
“Normalization”?8 Has Mahak ever had a normal day? It will never be normal for a child to be stuck to a hospital bed instead of running free. Never. This is the truth.
The matter started with you, with your belief. And it's in your hands.
Adults tweet jokingly, children die seriously.
A children’s cancer charity having to defend itself from accusations of foreign influence would be a bizarre and sad story under normal circumstances. With the ongoing uprising in Iran, it has become a sign of a more dangerous phenomenon. Malicious rumors are spreading, morphing in wild directions, and getting entertained by serious people. Some of these people also want to claim some pretty heavy political responsibilities as well.
UPDATE: Someone just reminded me that the Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi made a popular song telling “sellout journalists” and NIAC members to find a “mouse hole” to hide in, because the “agents” of the regime will have their comeuppance. Salehi is currently in jail after encouraging Iranians to protest last month. It’s a clear indication of how widespread the “Iran Lobby” theory has gotten among Iranians inside Iran.
NIAC founder Trita Parsi was my colleague at the Quincy Institute for several months, and coauthored a research paper with me. We started working together in 2020, years after he finished his tenure at NIAC. I did not discuss this essay with him before it was published.
Internet researcher Geoff Goldberg, who is fighting a one-man war against Twitter moderators, has done a good job documenting how the platform is in fact manipulated by Saudi-affiliated bots.
The author, Hossein Ronaghi, was arrested during the latest protests and is reportedly being tortured in prison. We should all call for his freedom and pray for his safetu.
The MEK is another rabbit hole to go down. Murtaza Hussain at The Intercept did a good job uncovering the MEK’s disturbing behavior, including torture and sexual abuse against its own members.
Ebrahimi is a fascinating character in his own right. He used to be a literal Iranian government agent tasked with repressing dissent. During the 1999 student demonstrations, he quit his position in protest, and was jailed and tortured for it. Ebrahimi left Iran in 2003 and worked to expose his former colleagues online during the 2009 Green Movement.
Brodsky has also worked as an editor at Iran International, an Iranian opposition TV station. The outlet is funded by “a secretive offshore entity and a company whose director is a Saudi Arabian businessman with close links to the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman,” The Guardian reported in 2018.
Again, the campaign against Fassihi focused on how her feel-good posts helped “normalize” an intolerable situation in Iran. Presumably, some of the same critics have demanded that Mahak take a political stand against the regime, which would be a risky move for a medical charity, to say the least.