Concerns about politically motivated enforcement of the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) have once again been raised after three Senators sent a letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ) requesting an investigation of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) for potential FARA violations. The allegations focus on NIAC’s advocacy activities. In a statement responding to the letter, NIAC said the accusations are “slanderous” and seek to “intimidate pro-peace voices.” A letter supporting NIAC signed by dozens of organizations and experts said, “these tactics have no place in our political process.”

The Jan. 14 letter from Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Mike Barun (R-IN) accuses NIAC of “troubling behavior,” characterizing public statements as “amplifying regime propaganda.” NIAC’s response disputed these examples as mischaracterizations. It noted that it receives no funds from any government and “routinely condemns the Iranian government for its gross violations of its international human rights obligations…” While these Senators may have profound differences in opinion with NIAC, particularly on the question of escalation and potential war with Iran, the Justice Department is not the forum to resolve those debates.

One disturbing example in the Senators’ letter characterizes a meeting arranged by the NIAC between a former Iranian ambassador to the UN and members of Congress as an act on behalf the Iranian government. Bringing people together for dialogue is a time-honored way of promoting peace. That is an essential role for civil society organizations.

FARA has been in the spotlight since investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election; since then several bills have been introduced in Congress to strengthen it. FARA requires registration and disclosure by those acting “for or on behalf of” foreign governments and entities. The vagueness in some key definitions could create problems for nonprofit organizations that receive foreign funding or work with allies outside the U.S.

Political use of FARA is not new. In 2018 the House Natural Resource Committee initiated an investigation of the Natural Resources Defense Council claiming its criticism of U.S. policies on the environment while praising China’s efforts to comply with climate change commitments amounted to action in the interests of the Chinese government. In a similar case the Committee asked the Department of Defense (DOD) for an assessment on how U.S. environmental organizations’ litigation against DOD impacts national security. A week later it sent a letter to the Center for Biological Diversity demanding extensive information on its advocacy regarding relocation of a U.S. military base in Okinawa.

For more background on FARA see the International Center for Not for Profit Law’s analysis FARA’s Double Life Abroad.