U.S. Think Tank Under Fire for Hosting Top Iranian Official

Event follows global outrage over Iranian execution

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif
Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif / Getty Images
September 15, 2020

A U.S. think tank is under fire from the Trump administration and its allies in Congress for hosting Iran's chief propagandist in an upcoming event that legal experts say runs afoul of American sanctions laws.

The Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan U.S. think tank that employs numerous former government officials, is scheduled to host next Tuesday Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, the regime's top spokesman and architect of the landmark nuclear accord, for a virtual conversation on the Zoom meeting platform. The event comes just days after Iran tortured and executed popular Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari over his participation in a peaceful protest. The execution sparked outrage across the globe and is casting a shadow over the CFR event.

Trump administration and congressional officials who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon about the upcoming event expressed outrage that CFR would host Zarif after his government executed Afkari, who has since become a poster boy for Iran's human-rights abuses.

The event also runs afoul of U.S. sanctions laws, according to a legal group. Under strict interpretations of the current law, Americans are prohibited from providing any services, including technology services like those used to host the event, to sanctioned individuals such as Zarif. The event could serve as a test for the Treasury Department as it determines how the law should be enforced. While Americans are permitted to meet with sanctioned individuals under the auspices of the United Nations in New York City, meetings of this nature remain in a legal gray area.

"Considering the Iranian regime's brutal execution of Navid Afkari on Saturday, no country or organization should be giving Foreign Minister Zarif a platform to spread his propaganda," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told the Free Beacon. "Zarif and his government should only be met with isolation and censure for their barbarity."

If current law is enforced by the Treasury Department, both CFR and Zoom would be exposing themselves to sanctions violations.

"From a legal perspective, this is pretty straightforward: The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control publishes a list of Specially Designated Nationals. American persons are prohibited from providing services, including technological services, to anyone on this list. Javad Zarif is an SDN because he is sanctioned under Executive Order 13876," said Brooke Goldstein, executive director of the Lawfare Project, a legal group that tracks malign regimes. Goldstein is also part of CFR's term member program, which seeks to partner younger members of the foreign policy community with more seasoned veterans.

The Treasury Department, which is responsible for enforcing the sanctions, declined to comment on the matter. However, the department has probed similar events in the past. In 2016, U.S. officials reportedly raised issues with an event at the National Press Club that featured a sanctioned senior adviser to Syrian ­president Bashar al-Assad, who spoke via Skype.

CFR spokeswoman Iva Zoric maintains the organization "has followed all directives and guidance from the Office of Foreign Asset Control of the U.S. Department of the Treasury in arranging this event." Responding to criticism of Zarif and the Iranian government's policies, Zoric said the invitation does not represent an endorsement or approval of Zarif's policies or arguments.

CFR has held past events with other controversial world leaders, including former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, former Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"Meetings organized by CFR give members the opportunity to challenge those that they do not agree with and ask the hard questions that leaders might not hear in other forums," Zoric said.

Zoom, which is hosting the upcoming event, did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.

Next week's virtual event is being billed by CFR as a "conversation with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif," according to an invitation for the event viewed by the Free Beacon. It will be hosted by CNN host and CFR member Fareed Zakaria. The event will focus on the Trump administration's withdrawal from the nuclear accord and its implications for diplomacy with Tehran and the region at large.

CFR told its members in a Monday afternoon email viewed by the Free Beacon that "several individuals have written" to the organization urging it to cancel the event in the wake of Afkari's execution. CFR leaders will not heed these calls. "Canceling would establish a precedent and a standard that could preclude us hosting officials from a significant number of countries," the letter states.

Iran hawks in Congress also expressed outrage that CFR would engage with Zarif as he provides cover for a regime that continues to fund terrorism across the globe and marches closer to a nuclear weapon.

"It is deeply troubling that even after the torture and murder of Navid Afkari, the Council on Foreign Relations would give a platform to the Ayatollah's chief propagandist, who is sanctioned by our government for his ties to the top of the terrorist Iranian regime," Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) told the Free Beacon.

Richard Goldberg, who served as director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction at the White House National Security Council from 2019 to 2020, warned that CFR and Zoom could be exposing themselves to sanctionable activity.

"Morality and decency alone should guide decision making for any organization planning to host Javad Zarif just days after this brutal murder by the Islamic Republic," Goldberg said. "True, providing Zarif a virtual platform may be a sanctionable activity and I expect CFR's lawyers will need to take a look at that. But come on: Is Fareed Zakaria really going to preside over this event right after they murdered Navid?"

Published under: Iran , Sanctions