NEW YORK – An author who has presented himself publicly as a foreign relations expert and political scientist was really a paid mouthpiece for the Iranian government and has been charged with violating the law requiring foreign agents to register with the U.S. government, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.
Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, an Iranian-born veteran academic who has been a lawful resident of the United States for more than 35 years and who received his education in this country, was taken into custody by FBI agents in Massachusetts on charges that he violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires individuals working as agents in the United States on behalf of foreign countries to register.
Since 2007, 63-year-old Afrasiabi has “derived a significant portion of his income from compensation for services performed at the direction and under the control” of the Iranian government, answering to officials at the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations, in Manhattan, according to an arrest warrant affidavit and criminal complaint filed Tuesday in federal court in Brooklyn.
The complaint against Afrasiabi notes that FARA is in place “to prevent covert influence . . . by foreign principals” in the United States. Agents of other governments are required to disclose their activities and payments that are issued to them for their work on behalf of other nations.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York is handling the case. Afrasiabi is expected to be transferred to New York to face charges. Many payments from the mission to Afrasiabi were processed by a financial institution in Queens. From July 2007 to November 2020, he allegedly received at least $265,000 and was provided with other benefits as an employee of the mission.
Officials allege that, taking directions from press secretaries at the mission, Afrasiabi frequently did interviews with news outlets including Al Jazeera. In 2009, he was the subject of an online Q&A hosted by The Washington Post. The Post has also published letters to the editor submitted by Afrasiabi.
While working as a secret spokesperson for the Iranian government, he was paid and received health-care benefits from Iran, according to investigators. His assignments included opining on Iran’s nuclear policy in discussions with U.S. officials, while presenting himself as an independent expert, officials said.
Afrasiabi’s role as an employee of Iran was not disclosed in 2009 when he assisted a U.S. congressman, who was not identified in court papers, in drafting a letter to President Barack Obama promoting a fuel swap agreement that Iran had proposed. He was identified in that letter only as “a former professor at Tehran University and a former adviser to the Iranian nuclear negotiation team,” the complaint continues.
Some of Afrasiabi’s efforts involved trying to pry sensitive information from Americans, officials said in court documents.
He allegedly emailed a State Department official asking for “the administration’s latest thinking” on the “Iran nuclear issue,” also without revealing the nature of his relationship to Iran, according to the documents.
Afrasiabi also allegedly continued communications with the elected official’s office for years, in an attempt to advance the agenda of Iran’s government. In one letter with a contact at the mission, he complained that his progress was stalled because the U.S. government “is in the palms of zionists.”
From affiliates at the Iranian mission, he allegedly sought approval and guidance on articles, books and interviews that he did under the guise of being an academic in the field, not an employee of Iran. When a deputy ambassador told him to make edits to an article he submitted to a publication to steer away from subjects that were seen as harmful to Iran, Afrasiabi complied.
According to a 1996 article in the Harvard Crimson, Afrasiabi sued Harvard University, claiming that he was defamed by comments made by professors around the time he was arrested for suspected extortion, a case that was dismissed. A 2010 piece on WickedLocal.com says he was arrested for an old vehicle registration issue after a dispute with a restaurant in Cambridge.
Afrasiabi appeared Tuesday in a federal court in Boston because he was arrested in Massachusetts, where he lives. On the Zoom court proceeding, he wore a tan, jail-issued shirt and a white face mask. He was ordered detained until his detention hearing, which is set for Friday.
A lawyer representing Afrabiasi at the virtual court appearance could not be reached for comment.