Accused Iranian Agent Sues Tehran for Ruining His Life


An Iranian political scientist accused by the feds of covertly working for Tehran while lobbying the U.S. government is blaming the Islamic Republic for roping him into a situation that ultimately threatened to put him behind bars for a decade.

Lotfolah Kaveh Afrasiabi, who was, among other things, an adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team, says he was lied to about the legality of an illicit “consulting” gig by former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, according to a $50 million lawsuit obtained by The Daily Beast.

Afrasiabi claims in the suit that he got duped into taking the position after getting false reassurances by Zarif, and names the ex-FM, the Islamic Republic of Iran, its Mission to the United Nations, and several others as defendants, claiming they exposed him to a federal prosecution that thoroughly ruined his life.

When Afrasiabi was arrested and charged in January 2021, the nation’s top national security prosecutor claimed the 67-year-old had for years “pitched himself to Congress, journalists, and the American public as a neutral and objective expert on Iran. “However, all the while, Afrasiabi was actually a secret employee of the Government of Iran and the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations who was being paid to spread their propaganda,” then-Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers said in a statement at the time.

But Afrasaibi, an Iranian citizen who has been a permanent U.S. resident since 1985, says in his lawsuit that he would never have accepted the position “had he not been repeatedly mislead [sic] and negligently assured… that [it] was a United Nations authorized role.”

To that end, Afrasaibi argues that Zarif, Iranian diplomat Gholamali Khoshroo, and a pair of mission functionaries “are solely responsible for the dire consequences Afrasiabi suffered including his subsequent arrest, incarceration, prosecution, house arrest, public defamation, job loss, and significant damages to his reputation and to his career.”

Afrasaibi’s attorney, William Keefe, told The Daily Beast that he could not comment on the record because he is hoping to discuss a resolution with the Iranian defendants. He declined on Thursday to make Afrasiabi available for an interview.

Officials at the Iranian Mission to the UN in New York City did not respond to a request for comment. An email sent to Zarif, now a professor at the University of Tehran, went unanswered.

Afrasaibi has had “a long rapport” with Iran’s UN Mission, according to his lawsuit, which was filed on Feb. 26. In it, Afrasiabi says the relationship began in 1990 after The New York Times published a letter he wrote, titled “Give Iran Credit for the Strides It Has Taken.”

Afrasaibi had access to top Iranian officials, and Mike Wallace from 60 Minutes subsequently contacted him to work with the show as an Iran expert. He introduced Wallace to Iranian UN Representative Kemal Kharazi, and got Kharazi guest spots on CBS World News during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, states the lawsuit, which was filed Feb. 26 in Boston federal court.

Afrasibi, a confidante of leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky, also wrote op-eds for various newspapers and interviewed influential members of the Iranian government, according to the suit.

In 2005, at the request of Iran’s Deputy Oil Minister (and present Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Roads) Mohammad Hadi Nejad Hosseinian, Afrasiabi represented the nation at two international oil conferences in Istanbul and Baku, Azerbaijan, the suit goes on. He traveled with then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to Turkmenistan, Germany, Spain, and New York, and in 2007, was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s personal guest at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C.

In early 2007, Zarif approached Afrasaibi about becoming a consultant to Iran’s Mission to the UN, according to the lawsuit. It says Afrasiabi “wondered if that was legal and permitted, given the U.S. sanctions on Iran,” and that Zarif promised to investigate.

“Approximately two weeks later, Zarif informed Afrasiabi that he had ‘looked into’ this matter and that the Mission was allowed to hire ‘two outside consultants’ under the UN guidelines,” the lawsuit continues, adding that Afrasaibi’s contract as an “international affairs consultant” began that spring.

For the next decade-and-a-half, Afrasiabi would receive a monthly salary of $3,000 from the Iranians, and was on the UN mission’s health plan, the suit states. In exchange, Afrasiabi claims he did his best to help both sides foster more peaceful relations.

“Afrasiabi repeatedly used his rapport with Iran for the sake of U.S. hostages in Iran,” the lawsuit states. “A case in point is when Afrasiabi collaborated with the M.I.T. Linguistics Professor Noam Chomsky for the release of three American hikers held in Iran in the years 2008-2009. Also, Afrasiabi helped the family of an F.B.I. agent Robert Levinson, who was missing in Iran. Afrasiabi refused the family’s offer of monetary compensation for his humanitarian efforts.”

Afrasiabi says he also collaborated with future U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who was then the director of preventive diplomacy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, on a joint proposal to prevent “accidental warfare in the Persian Gulf” between Iran and the U.S. The lawsuit says Afrasiabi worked to persuade Zarif to agree to the proposal, and that he “received a positive response” from the FM.

Afrasiabi insists he didn’t hide anything, participating in meetings at the UN attended by former U.S. diplomats, and deposited Iran’s checks into his personal account at Chase Bank. According to the suit, Afrasiabi received repeated assurances from “several Iranian ambassadors” that his consulting role “was fully legal and legitimate under the United Nations standards.” His Iranian bosses asked Afrasiabi for copies of his passport, green card, and fingerprints to submit to the UN for registration purposes, giving the entire affair a sheen of legitimacy, the lawsuit states.

However, when Ahmad Sheikhzadeh, another consultant to Iran’s UN Mission, was charged in 2017 with conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions laws, Afrasiabi got spooked, according to his lawsuit. He says he “immediately” asked to meet with Khoshroo, and “expressed his concern as to why a consultant to the Mission was in trouble.”

Khoshroo “firmly assured Afrasiabi that Mr. Sheikhzadeh had been accused of money laundering and was not in trouble over his consulting role, and that Afrasiabi had nothing to worry about,” the lawsuit states. “Ambassador Khoshroo reiterated that Afrasiabi’s consulting role was being registered at the United Nations,” and asked him to resubmit his personal documents for UN approval.

Afrasiabi says in the suit that everything he was told had him “fully convinced that his consulting role… was fully legal and legitimate under the United Nations guidelines.”

On Jan. 18, 2021, Afrasiabi found himself in handcuffs.

His arrest by the FBI at home in Watertown, Massachusetts, left Afrasiabi “completely shocked,” according to the lawsuit. He was hit with one count of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a federal crime carrying up to 10 years in prison.

“Since at least 2007 to the present, Afrasiabi has also been secretly employed by the Iranian government and paid by Iranian diplomats assigned to the [Iranian UN Mission],” the Department of Justice said in an announcement of the charges. “Afrasiabi has been paid approximately $265,000 in checks drawn on the [mission’s] official bank accounts since 2007, and has received health insurance through the [mission’s] employee health benefit plans since at least 2011.”

Acting U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme said at the time that Afrasiabi had “sought to influence the American public and American policymakers for the benefit of his employer, the Iranian government, by disguising propaganda as objective policy analysis and expertise.” Without FARA’s requirement for “foreign agents to declare their paymasters,” the American people would not have the necessary tools to “evaluate opinions and arguments in the marketplace of ideas,” according to DuCharme.

A photo of former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

After three days in a federal lockup, Afrasaibi was released on “a significant bail posted by Afrasiabi’s family.” He was remanded to home confinement for the next two years while awaiting trial, with an electronic ankle monitor, a strict curfew, and allowed four hours of outside activity a week, according to court records. But, Afrasiabi claims in his new lawsuit, “The shame associated with the ankle bracelet attached to his leg prevented Afrasiabi from exiting his home and engaging in his normal activities including exercise.”

Afrasiabi denied the allegations, and his pleas to the Iranian Mission for an attorney to defend him “fell on deaf ears,” the lawsuit states. Instead, Afrasiabi opted to represent himself in court. In one letter to the judge, he argued strongly against the government’s characterization of him as a destabilizing force beholden to an enemy nation, insisting that his “theological and literary works alone prove that he is a humanist with a keen commitment to global and human causes.”

Afrasiabi also lodged a formal complaint with Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sending it via his court-appointed standby attorney to both the Iranian UN Mission and to Iran’s Interests Section at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C. In it, Afrasiabi “demanded an explanation,” according to his lawsuit, which says he sent a copy of the complaint to the UN’s Legal Department, as well.

Afrasiabi never got a response, the lawsuit says. News of his arrest was carried by major outlets throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world, which made Afrasiabi “the target of numerous attacks on social media by the various Iran opposition groups, including by the group known as MEK and the supporters of the Iranian monarchy.”

In a letter to the judge overseeing Afrasiabi’s case, Noam Chomsky said his pal had played a pivotal role in diplomatic efforts to convince Iran to release the three hikers, which it eventually did in 2011.

“I was personally involved in the efforts to obtain their release, and knowing that Professor Afrasiabi had some Iranian contacts, I asked him for suggestions about how to help. He was very forthcoming. Apart from suggestions, he tried as best he could to intervene personally to expedite their quick release from imprisonment, another of many illustrations of his engagement in human rights activities in Iran and elsewhere,” Chomsky wrote.

The renowned linguist and social critic further supported the condemned man in an email where he backed Afrasiabi’s testimony about his mistreatment by prosecutors.

When Afrasiabi wrote to the federal judge that he had “suffered more than any other academic in modern American history,” and begged to “be allowed the tranquility of retirement instead of the hot furnace of the instant action,” Chomsky followed up in an email by commenting, “Powerful statement, I hope someone will hear.”

But the letter to U.S. District Judge Brian M. Cogan didn’t change his situation at all.

Then, in September 2023, Afrasiabi’s misfortunes suddenly turned. He was granted a full pardon by President Joe Biden as part of a controversial prisoner swap that saw five American detainees sprung from captivity in Iran and five Iranians released from U.S. jails. Afrasiabi remained in the U.S., contrary to calls by Republicans for him to be expelled. In his lawsuit, Afrasiabi says he “welcomed the dismissal of charges against him as he was innocent.”

Afrasiabi continued his letter-writing campaign, complaining to Iranian officials that he had been lied to. Last fall, Afrasiabi’s lawsuit says he finally heard back from Zarif, who “stated in writing that he did not know about U.S. law and was only a political scientist at the time of Afrasiabi’s hiring by Iran’s Mission.”

In response, Afrasiabi told Zarif that he was “entitled to a full compensation for the damages brought about by the negligent and misleading information given to him.”

When it never came, Afrasiabi sued.

He is now claiming negligent misrepresentation, fraudulent hiring, fraudulent renewal of contract, and infliction of emotional damage. Afrasiabi wants $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages, plus legal fees and other costs.

The Iranian government has not yet filed a response in court to Afrasiabi’s claims.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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