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Among Sen. John Kerry’s top fund-raisers are three Iranian-Americans who have been pushing for dramatic changes in U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Most prominent among them is Hassan Nemazee, 54, an investment banker based in New York. Nominated to become U.S. ambassador to Argentina by President Bill Clinton in 1999, Nemazee eventually withdrew his nomination after a former partner raised allegations of business improprieties.
Nemazee was a major Clinton donor, giving $80,000 to the Democratic National Committee during the 1996 election cycle and attending at least one of the famous White House fund-raising coffees.
In 2001, at the invitation of Mobil Oil Chairman Lucio Noto, whom he counts as a “personal friend,” Nemazee joined the board of the American-Iranian Council, a U.S. lobbying group that consistently has supported lifting U.S. sanctions on Iran and accommodating the Tehran regime.
Nemazee tells Insight he “now regrets” having joined the AIC board and resigned his position after 12 months when he was vilified by Iranian exile groups.
“I’ve never, ever given a speech suggesting rapprochement with the regime,” Nemazee tells Insight. “Kerry is not calling for a resumption of relations with Iran, nor is he ignoring the regime’s human-rights abuses, its ties to terror, or downplaying the nuclear issues. I haven’t seen that he’s said anything to date that warrants all the concern.”
But Nemazee also acknowledged that he was rethinking his position in the wake of the recent parliamentary elections in Iran.
“There is a legitimate argument to be made that the regime has crossed a line and shown they are undemocratic and incapable of reforming,” he says, “and so there is no benefit to relations or to trading with them.”
The Kerry camp has identified Nemazee as having raised more than $100,000 for the senator’s campaign.
A Nemazee friend in Silicon Valley, Faraj Aalaei, has raised between $50,000 and $100,000 for the Kerry campaign. Aalaei has worked in the telecommunications industry for 22 years and is the chief executive officer of Centillium Communications, a publicly traded company.
Last year, Aalaei married a 35-year-old recent immigrant from Iran named Susan Akbarpour, whom the Kerry campaign also lists as having raised between $50,000 and $100,000 for the campaign.
In just six years since coming to the United States on a tourist visa from Iran, Akbarpour has started a newspaper, a magazine and, most recently, a trade association whose goal, she tells Insight, is to get sanctions lifted and promote U.S. business and investment in Iran.
“Susan Akbarpour was a journalist in Iran, where she was close to Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of [former president Ali Akbar] Rafsanjani,” says student activist Aryo Pirouznia. “She has done programs on Iranian television praising Faezeh Hashemi, and demonstrated against pro-freedom groups in California when Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi came to Los Angeles in September 2000.”
Rafsanjani’s daughter was a member of the Iranian Parliament until recently. Her faction, while hailed as “reformists” by pro-regime activists, has never pressed for an end to clerical rule and is widely believed to have served as a foil for hard-liners such as Hashemi’s own father.
Kharrazi’s trip to California was part of a failed Clinton administration effort to renew ties with the Islamic republic. Iranian-American Jewish organizations were outraged by his visit, which followed on the heels of the show trial of 13 Iranian Jews in Shiraz.
Akbarpour was filmed by several Los Angeles-based Iranian TV networks insulting the protesters and supporting Kharrazi. In the Persian-language edition of her monthly newspaper, Iran Today, she printed numerous anti-Semitic articles, Iranian Jewish activists tell Insight.
Akbarpour’s latest trade effort, SiliconIran, was planning to host a gala at the Ritz Carlton’s Laguna Niguel resort in Orange County, Calif., on March 3 as Insight went to press. Among the guests will be fellow Kerry fund-raiser Nemazee.
“I am an actor in U.S. politics,” Akbarpour boasted to Insight in an interview. “I am a fund-raiser for all candidates who listen to us and our concerns.”
The two candidates Akbarpour said she would “never help” are President Bush and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., because both have taken a no-nonsense approach to the Iranian regime.
Federal Election Commission records show that Akbarpour contributed $1,000 to the Kerry committee in June 2002 and another $2,000 in June 2003.
Akbarpour tells Insight she is not a U.S. citizen.
“I came here in 1997 as a tourist and changed my status several times,” she said. “At one point, I had an H-1 visa. Then I got married last year and got my green card.”
Under federal election laws, permanent residents are allowed to make political campaign contributions. But her June 2002 contribution to the Kerry campaign appears to have been made before she acquired status as a permanent resident.
One immigration lawyer Insight consulted in Los Angeles doubted that Akbarpour could have obtained an H-1 visa, which is reserved for foreign workers sponsored by U.S. companies that need their specialized skills.
“At the time, the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] was applying a very strict interpretation of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act and was not allowing any hiring of Iranian nationals,” the lawyer said. “And you couldn’t convert from a tourist visa to an H-1 visa, especially if the tourist visa had already expired.”
Because the United States has no embassy in Tehran, Iranians seeking to visit the United States must travel to Turkey or the United Arab Emirates to apply for a tourist or student visa, then wait several months while a background check is performed.
That experience still rankles Akbarpour, who has put loosening visa requirements for Iranians on the top of her political agenda, along with lifting U.S. sanctions on Iran and getting the U.S. government to open a dialogue with the regime in Tehran. Just by coincidence, those are the top three priorities of the Tehran regime, as well.
“I do believe in getting rid of the clerics,” she tells Insight, “but not overnight. That would not lead to stability in Iran. I see this as an evolutionary process.”
The FBI opposes loosening visa requirements because the Iranian intelligence ministry (MOIS) has a proven track record of sending intelligence operatives — and even assassins — overseas posing as refugees or legal immigrants. MOIS operatives have murdered Iranian dissidents living overseas, and helped plan and carry out the July 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing 86 persons.
But Akbarpour did not think security was a legitimate concern.
“I don’t think the MOIS is very good. You give too much credit to these people. They’re not that intelligent,” she says.
Nor does Kerry worry about loosening visa restrictions.
“We have to support the idea that someone who is an American citizen has a right to have their family visit them from anywhere in the world,” he told Akbarpour at a Jan. 14, 2004, fund-raiser in San Francisco.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.