Jan 19, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Feds say Iran scholar was secret Tehran agent

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is seen speaking during a news conference.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the beneficiary of one ghostwritten column. Photo: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A prominent Iranian-born scholar arrested Monday was secretly paid to write columns favorable to Tehran and lobby at least one U.S. lawmaker on its behalf, federal prosecutors say.

Why it matters: Kaveh Afrasiabi’s writings showed up in prominent publications such as the New York Times and The Guardian as he drew regular payments from the Iranian government and communicated frequently with the country’s diplomatic staff, per the Justice Department. None of these professional or financial conflicts was disclosed.

What’s new: Federal officers charged Afrasiabi with acting as an unregistered foreign agent.

  • Prosecutors say Iran’s mission to the United Nations paid him more than $265,000 from July 2007 through November 2020. Many of the checks described payments to Afrasiabi as a “salary.”
  • Prosecutors say Afrasiabi also received health insurance benefits from the Iranian UN mission since 2011.

During that time, Afrasiabi made media appearances and published writings in major publications that described him as an independent scholar and expert on Iranian affairs.

  • Afrasiabi’s columns have appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, and HuffPost. He’s also appeared on Chinese and Russian state media in the U.S.
  • His writings uniformly aligned with Tehran’s position on world affairs, and according to the indictment, were often written in consultation with Iranian diplomatic staff.
  • Prosecutors say Afrasiabi also helped craft an April 2015 column in the New York Times written by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Afrasiabi’s work also included direct communications with an unidentified member of Congress and his staff, prosecutors say.

  • According to the indictment, Afrasiabi helped write a December 2009 letter from the unnamed congressman to then-President Barack Obama regarding Iranian nuclear negotiations.

Be smart: DOJ’s indictment was unsealed on Tuesday, as the Trump administration unveils last-minute measures going after foreign powers it considers top U.S. adversaries.

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