Iranian-American Dual Loyalty?

By Daniel Luban

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 (Right Web profile here), 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 (who has in the past written for IPS) 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 The Faster Times.]

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. “Neocon Martin Kramer says that Iranian-Americans can’t be trusted on issues related to Iran at an AIPAC conference. That’s the kind of disgusting racism typical of the neocons and AIPAC.”

    Sorry, it’s not racism to suspect someone’s affiliations where there are ties. It’s not racist to test these ties for hints of bias and take that under advisement when balancing their commentary. You wouldn’t be racist to consider the Jews here pro-Israel, you’d be stupid and ignorant.

    There might well be Iranians who simply long for the days of the Shah. I don’t really want to take their commentaries without putting it in its context either.

    Finally, would those here at LobeLog offer a summary of the sanctions against Iran? Specifically, are these sanctions related to the fact that Iran can’t refine its own oil?

  2. I applaud this piece and I agree with your points 100%. If the Israeli lobby wants to paint a picture in such broad strokes about the Iranian-American community, then they have no right to scream of anti-Semitism when one questions to whom their loyalty belongs.

  3. Here’s the view of an Iranian-American Jew. What most of the world does not understand, is that the Iranian government does not equal the Iranian people. In USA equivalence, it would be as if the KKK was in charge of the government, ruled with a bloody iron fist, and made damn sure that they remained in power by decimating any opposition and by controlling who gets to even run for office (as well as who actually gets elected). Somewhere between 7 to 10 percent of the people of Iran are of the same mindset as the government. The rest, the 90 percent or more of Iranian people, are trapped and controlled and embarrassed by their government. They protested and shared videos of the protests knowing full well that they would be beaten, stabbed, shot, arrested and tortured. They did it anyway, in the spirit of “Give me liberty or give me death.” They did so, without any hope of actual liberty, but with mere hope to show their government that they were not fooled and to show the world that their government does not represent them.

    Do Iranian-Americans like me have loyalty to the Iranian people? You bet. Do we have loyalty to the Iranian government? Not an ounce. Do we wish for regime change in Iran? Absolutely. Do we agree with each other what we would want the current regime replaced with? Not at all.

    Do we want “access” to Iran? Some wish they could go back, but most of us merely wish we could visit there without fearing our life, fearing jail time, or fearing that we would not be allowed to leave again. I have lived here since I was a kid. My English is better than my Farsi ever was. I am married and have kids. Iran is my birth place, but America is my home country. And my kids? They were born here. They have American first names. Would their loyalties and intentions and objectivity also be questioned because of their last name?

  4. Very good written information. It will be supportive to anybody who utilizes it, as well as yours truly :). Keep doing what you are doing – can’r wait to read more posts.

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