NYT opinion writer admits being paid $265K by Iranian mission to UN

An opinion writer who frequently contributed op-eds to the New York Times has admitted to being paid well by the Iranian mission to the United Nations but insists that this did not make him an agent of the Iranian government or influence his writing.  Kaveh Afrasiabi is currently under arrest, accused of violating the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).  For its part, the New York Times, which still claims to publish "all the news that's fit to print," is dummying up, keeping its readers in the dark on the subject, and offering no comment.

Ira Stoll of The Algemeiner has the story:

"I received checks from the Mission's UN account and it never occurred to me that I was doing anything illegal," the New York Times opinion writer, Kaveh Afrasiabi, wrote in a statement to the Algemeiner.

"My conscience is clear, and if the US government had an iota of sense of appreciation, they would thank me for all my tireless activities for the cause of detente, non-proliferation, human rights, inter-religious dialogue and understanding," Afrasiabi said in the statement to the Algemeiner.

He called the government's claim that he was a secret Iranian agent "absurd" and "wild."

"Whatever I did was perfectly legal and fully transparent," Afrasiabi said, saying that he had believed the Foreign Agents Registration Act "only applied to those engaging in lobbying efforts on behalf of a foreign government, which I never did."

A New York Times spokesperson did not respond to a query about whether the newspaper, which according to a search on its website Monday morning had not yet covered the federal criminal complaint against Afrasiabi, plans to tell its readers about the situation. The spokesperson also did not respond to a question about whether the newspaper plans to publish an editor's note indicating that the opinion pieces came from someone who was getting paid by the Iranian government.

Afrasiabi said the payments from the Iranian government — about $265,000 since 2007, plus health insurance coverage, federal prosecutors alleged — had not swayed his writing. "At no point in my professional career, I have been moved by anything other than my rather puritanical moral responsibility as an intellectual," he said.

Congratulations to Ira Stoll and The Algemeiner for uncovering this and pursuing both Afrasiabi and the Times for what should be regarded as a major scandal — one that is not receiving a tiny fraction of the attention it is due.  This is first-class work that stands in contrast to the Times' treatment of the scandal.

In my opinion, a claim that more than a quarter-million dollars plus health insurance coverage does not influence one's opinions or make one a "agent" is absurd.  What was the money paid for?  Does Iran merely hand out money and health care coverage to random people expecting nothing in return?

The fact that NYT is not even letting its readers know that a frequent opinion writer on Iran was also receiving big bucks from the mullahs and is now under arrest is another huge scandal.

Afrasiabi claims that, if anything, he was lobbying the U.S., not Iran:

"The only lobbying I am guilty of pertains not to US but rather to the Iranian government, case in point I assisted as much as I could the family of FBI agent missing in Iran, Levinson …  Another example is my efforts on behalf of the Washington Post reporter, Jason Rezaian and, before that, Wilson Center scholar Haleh Esfandiari, who suffered in Iran's jails, just as I have in US jails," he wrote. "Yet, another example of my lobbying the Iranian government pertains to author Salman Rushdie, …Although never a fan of Rushdie's writings, I found it my moral duty to do whatever I could to get the fatwa, death sentence, lifted."

But how does this square with being paid by the mullahs, not the U.S. taxpayers or other American interests?

He does have a point, though:

He also questioned why, if his activity was illegal, the US government allowed it to go on for so long: "Ironically, the government complaint against me admits that they were aware of my relations since 2007, which raises the question of why allow an illegal activity to go on for 13 years, unless they knew that it was not illegal or 'secret.'" 

It is true that FARA has been too rarely enforced, and that is a scandal of its own.  It is part of a larger problem, that our open system of government is subject to being subverted by foreign interests.  But FARA is not like the Logan Act (the basis the FBI used to persecute General Flynn).  There have been prosecutions in the current era under FARA, and there ought to be a lot more.  

The accused has the right of a legal presumption of innocence, but his and the New York Times' failure to disclose these payments — and the Times' cover-up of his arrest — is a journalistic and moral scandal of its own.

Photo credit: Ajay SureshCC BY 2.0 license.