Some might call it reaching out to American Muslims. But to many Iranians living in California, a fund-raiser for Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) at the home of a prominent pro-Iran lobbyist on Feb. 19 sent a wrongheaded message to the ruling clerics in Tehran.
"When we learned that Sen. Biden was planning to hold a fund-raiser at the California home of Dr. Sadegh Namazi-khah, we immediately contacted his office to express our dismay," a prominent Iranian-American activist tells Insight. Why dismay? "Dr. Namazi-khah is well-known in the Los Angeles area for his support of the ruling clerical regime in Tehran and is one of the regime's leading unofficial lobbyists in America. We thought that Sen. Biden might not know his background. Getting the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to appear at this event will certainly be seen by the regime in Tehran as a show of support."
On the eve of the fund-raiser, which brought an estimated $30,000 into Biden's re-election coffers, a Biden staffer told the activist that the senator's staff "had all the facts necessary to make a decision," and he was planning to attend the fund-raiser despite the protests.
Several participants who paid to attend the event tell Insight that Biden arrived at 8 p.m., stayed until 11 and delivered a sweeping condemnation of President George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil" formula.
"He really impressed us by his grasp of world affairs," Namazi-khah tells Insight in an interview. "He encouraged us to make our views known and to get more involved in American politics."
Biden also impressed many of those present with his friendly attitude toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. The senator said that "Iran always wanted to be an ally of the United States and to have good relations with the U.S.," according to Housang Dadgostar, a prominent lawyer. "As Iranian-Americans, we don't want anything to happen to the Iranian government or to the Iranian people as a result of this war on terrorism," says Mohsen Movaghar, a Los Angeles businessman. Both men belong to the 70-member board of directors of Namazi-khah's Iranian Muslim Association of North America (IMAN).
Namazi-khah denied any official contact with the Iranian government. But he tells Insight that he regularly travels to Iran — something many expatriates do — and that he actively supports "moderates" within the ruling clergy, such as Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, in their efforts to bring reform to the Islamic system.
Namazi-khah and other IMAN board members say Biden's office contacted them to inquire if they would hold a private fund-raiser for the senator, who is up for re-election this year, after meeting with them at a pro-Tehran gala in New York last December. That event was sponsored by the American-Iranian Council (AIC), a pro-regime lobbying group trying to get Congress and the Bush administration to lift the trade embargo on Iran.
The AIC is funded by hefty contributions from Conoco and other U.S. oil companies seeking to get a piece of the potentially lucrative Iranian petrochemicals sector. The oil companies are prevented from working in Iran by the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996.
Namazi-khah acknowledges that he and other IMAN board members would like to see the U.S. sanctions lifted and that they worked actively with AIC and another antisanctions lobbying group known as the World Political Action Committee. However, he insists that IMAN is a "cultural and religious group, not a political group." Indeed, the group is registered in the state of California as a "church" and is exempt from financial disclosure. One IMAN board member says the group raises $300,000 to $400,000 per year from members. He insists that they take "no money from the government in Tehran."
California real-estate records show that the group purchased a building at 3376 Motor Ave. in Los Angeles in August 1995 for $925,000 and has spent hundreds of thousands more to build auditoriums and meeting rooms for religious services. It was unclear where the money for these projects originated.
One clue can be found in an official calendar circulated by the Iranian government for the Persian year 1379 (March 2000-March 2001), obtained by Insight. The mission statement of the "General Office of Cultural Affairs of Iranians Outside the Country," which circulated the calendar, is to "promote policies of the government of the Islamic Republic [and] strive to be a bridge between the Iranian community abroad and inside the country." In addition to listing Iranian government Websites, the calendar cites IMAN as a pro-regime group.
"If they are lobbying on behalf of the Tehran government they are probably in violation of U.S. law," an FBI source who has prosecuted several related cases tells Insight. But with high-level friends in Washington, IMAN may believe it has purchased immunity.
Norm Kurz, a spokesman for Biden, tells Insight the Delaware Democrat never would meet knowingly with a group known to back a terrorist organization and that he makes the distinction between the Iranian people and the regime. Nevertheless, Kurz adds, Biden hopes a dialogue with Iran could be constructive.
The AIC is playing host to a gala at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington on March 13, where it will honor Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), the only Republican openly to criticize Bush for his "Axis of Evil" rhetoric.
Also invited, according to AIC, are Sens. Biden and Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.). Biden's staff insisted that the AIC had announced his participation prematurely and that no final decision had been made.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.