Iranian-Americans set up lobbying arm to counter pro-Israel groups – Nahal Toosi/POLITICO

by Newsstand

An Iranian-American group that has actively backed the U.S.-Iran nuclear talks — and battled allegations it works for the Iranian government — will launch a lobbying arm next week, a move it casts as part of a growing push against neoconservative and right-leaning pro-Israel advocacy groups.

The National Iranian American Council’s new 501(c)4 will be called NIAC Action, organizers said ahead of the official unveiling Monday. NIAC Action aims to direct money from the Iranian-American community, which is relatively well-off compared to other immigrant groups, toward more concerted political activism.

“We’ve got all this money on the table, all this political influence that’s not being utilized,” said Jamal Abdi, NIAC Action’s executive director. “Now we can actually start playing the full political game.”

NIAC, a 501(c)3 non-profit started in 2002, has long faced rumors and accusations from neoconservative activists and rival Iranian organizations of being a stooge of the Islamist government in Tehran and of skirting rules governing lobbying.

Its leaders deny any wrongdoing and once even sued an accuser, a bitter and costly lawsuit NIAC lost because it couldn’t meet the legal standard for defamation.

In an interview, Abdi reiterated NIAC’s independence, saying: “We are not lobbying on behalf of the Iranian government. We don’t coordinate. We don’t take money from the Iranian government or the U.S. government.”

Still, Abdi and others make no secret of their desire to shift the political landscape in Washington away from groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has criticized the talks with Iran, and toward movements more inclined to pursue diplomacy with the longtime U.S. nemesis.

The exact number of Iranian Americans isn’t known, though some estimate there are more than 1 million. But despite being well-educated and often wealthy, Iranian Americans have rarely had the political muscle as groups representing other immigrant communities.

NIAC has some 5,000 dues-paying members, though it has around 45,000 Iranian-Americans signed up for its emails and events. Using data pulled from that broader list of backers and campaign fund-raising sources, organizers estimate that NIAC supporters as a group give on average $1.4 million to political candidates each election cycle.

That’s a small sum in the grand scheme of U.S. politics, but it’s a start, NIAC leaders say.

“While we may not be able to match the largesse of [pro-Israel donors] Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer, our side is for the first time bringing serious resources to the playing on the field,” Abdi said.

NIAC Action, which will launch with 30 chapters across the country, will be able to endorse candidates and channel donations toward aspiring office-holders. Abdi said NIAC Action views J Street, the left-leaning Jewish-American group that also supports the nuclear talks, as a model.

The Head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi walks through a garden at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel during an extended round of talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, in Lausanne, Switzerland, Thursday April 2, 2015. Iran’s foreign minister says his country and six others have made ‘significant progress’ at marathon all-night nuclear talk sessions. But Mohammad Javad Zarif said Thursday that agreement still remains to be written, adding there is not yet a ‘final result.’ (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)

Like other 501(c)4 organizations, NIAC Action won’t have to name its contributors, and it likely won’t do so because “Iranians are worried about how working on political issues impacts their ability to go to Iran,” Abdi said.

The nuclear talks, which involve Iran, the United States and five other world powers, are due to wrap up Tuesday, though it’s likely negotiators will slip well past that deadline.

Already, groups that oppose the talks are launching ads and other campaigns aimed at members of Congress, who ultimately get to weigh in on any deal. NIAC and allied groups who support the talks say they’ve already begun their own campaigns, but are saving much of their firepower for if and when a deal is reached.

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