A coalition of progressive activists bankrolled by George Soros, Charles Koch, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund are mounting a secret lobbying campaign to revive the Iran nuclear deal by tying it to the Iranian human rights movement, according to internal correspondence obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
Activists from groups including J Street, NIAC Action, the Open Society Foundations, Human Rights Watch, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund are coming together behind a plan to lobby lawmakers to use human rights bills as cover to revive negotiations for a nuclear deal with Iran. That's according to a January email sent from a J Street lobbyist to other activists and obtained by the Free Beacon.
"I'm writing to suggest that this group convene virtually next week to brainstorm and hopefully find consensus on the elements of legislation to support the Iranian people that we could propose to diplomacy-oriented lawmakers," J Street's Dylan Williams wrote. "Given the usual need to be discrete [sic], the charged nature of the topic, and the outrageous threats against several members of this group, please do keep this initiative close-hold," he added.
The activist groups "plan to pursue a dual-track legislative agenda, where they would find a way through legislation to give pro-deal Democrats cover by supporting Iranian women and Iranian human rights, without in any way challenging the revival of a nuclear deal, while at the same time building a coalition of members of the House and Senate willing to write a very public letter to the president urging him to keep the door to diplomacy over on the nuclear file," a source familiar with the discussions told the Free Beacon.
The news comes as U.S. lawmakers are facing increased public pressure to tighten sanctions on Iran amid the Iranian regime's violent crackdown on protesters and continued military support for Russia. The strategy is a sign that even the strongest advocates for the nuclear deal realize the pro-diplomacy position has become politically toxic—and that politicians who want to reenter the agreement will need to at least give the appearance of backing the Iranian human rights movement.
The Iranian regime's violent crackdown on protesters, military expansion in Latin America, and threats against the United States have complicated the Biden administration's attempts to renegotiate the nuclear deal, but supporters of the agreement say the negotiations should continue despite these concerns.
The activists' strategy—crafted during a private summit in New York in December—includes pitching human rights legislation to pro-Iran-deal lawmakers, in order to give the legislators political cover to sign a letter asking the Biden administration to consider resuming the nuclear agreement, a source briefed on the discussions told the Free Beacon.
The activists gathered for a strategy meeting during the week of Dec. 3 at the Pocantico Center at Kykuit, the John D. Rockefeller family's estate in Westchester County, New York, a source familiar with the discussions told the Free Beacon. The 200-acre property houses the family's 40-room stone manor, an underground gallery with artwork by Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, and "expansive Italian-inspired gardens with French and English influences," with views of the Hudson River, according to the New York Times.
J Street's Williams sent the email to a small group of activists, including NIAC Action's Ryan Costello, Open Society's Mike Amitay, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Matt Duss. These groups have all received funding from either George Soros or Charles Koch, both political megadonors.
Williams, Duss, NIAC, and the Open Society Foundations did not respond to a request for comment.
Human Rights Watch declined to comment directly on the lobbying initiative. A spokeswoman for the group said the group "doesn't take a position on the JCPOA," referring to the Iran deal's official initialism, and said it works with "policymakers and others in foreign policy on how to promote and protect human rights in Iran."
Several of the recipients of the email have recently written articles calling for renewed negotiations on the Iran deal, despite the government's human rights abuses.
"As fears intensify over the Iranian government's increasing use of violence against protesters, Western capitals are under pressure from groups that have long opposed diplomacy with Iran to scrap nuclear negotiations. Europe and the United States should not bow to these pressures," wrote Ellie Geranmayeh, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, in an October article for the Koch-funded Quincy Institute.
"A diplomatic route to the restoration of the nuclear deal, rather than bombs or more sanctions, remains the best outcome—both for the West and for the Iranian people," Geranmayeh wrote.
The Arms Control Association's Kelsey Davenport, who was also on the email, wrote a similar article in December.
"Negotiating with Iran while the regime is brutally repressing peaceful protests is not an attractive option, but an Iranian regime emboldened by nuclear weapons is a far greater threat to the Iranian people, the United States, and its allies and partners in the region," Davenport wrote. "It is time for a diplomatic plan B to stabilize the cycle of nuclear escalation and create space for future diplomacy."
The legislation discussed in the email was not related to the resolution condemning Iran's human rights violations that the House approved overwhelmingly last week, according to the source briefed on the conversations. But the source said the bill could help the pro-diplomacy strategy, since it allowed lawmakers to criticize Iran's moves without taking concrete action against the regime.
Nick Nikbakht, a California human rights activist who in January helped organize a protest outside Democratic Senate candidate Katie Porter's Orange County office, praised the resolution that passed the House. But Nikbakht said it is not enough for politicians to give lip service to the issues without targeting the Iranian regime through sanctions and other penalties. Porter, whose district is home to one of the largest Iranian-American communities in the country, is a supporter of the Iran deal and endorsed by the pro-regime lobbying group NIAC.
"If [politicians are] gonna continue only passing resolutions, then we know that they're kind of playing games and their heart is not where their mouth is," Nikbakht told the Free Beacon.