Iranian Agent Deceived American News Editors, Federal Prosecutor Asserts in Court Hearing
A first substantive court appearance by Kaveh Afrasiabi, the frequent New York Times contributor facing criminal charges for serving as an unregistered foreign agent of Iran, offered a tantalizing preview of what lies ahead if the case goes to trial.
In a video hearing before Judge Edward Korman of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York, federal prosecutor Ian Craig Richardson said Afrasiabi had “deceived the public” and “deceived various editors and publishers” by failing to disclose that he was a paid agent of Iran.
“It was part of an Iranian government operation to influence the American public,” Richardson said. “His connections with the Iranian government are at a very high level.”
Arguing for strict home confinement restrictions on Afrasiabi, Richardson raised the possibility that the writer could seek refuge in the Iranian U.N. mission itself, or that the mission could provide him with a fake passport that he could use to flee the US
Afrasiabi entered a plea of not guilty, and said his articles were “directed by nothing but the compass of the truth.”
“I have to defend the integrity of my editors,” Afrasiabi said, insisting that his “part time consulting work” for the Iranian government had “no bearing” on the articles he wrote.
The combination of the videoconference hearing and the somewhat unusual circumstance of a defendant choosing to represent himself made for a chaotic or even entertaining hearing, at least as monitored by telephone. At one point, Judge Korman commented that his dog was trying to get in. Then the judge lost his train of thought. Afrasiabi and his standby counsel Deirdre von Dornum, who were in two different locations, communicated with each other at times by speaking in Spanish, which Judge Korman said he did not understand.
Von Dornum, a former clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, described the case as one of “overprosecution,” saying that violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act are ordinarily enforced with civil, not criminal, remedies. “This is a regulatory case,” she said. “Any suggestion that he might flee to Iran is laughable.”
“There was nothing illicit about this,” von Dornum said, arguing that the US government had known of the arrangement for years without acting.
Much of the opening portion of the hearing was devoted to Judge Korman laying out for Afrasiabi the risk of serving as his own lawyer.
“You’ve already made statements that are incriminating,” Korman said. “You’ve already made some mistakes in things that you may have said.”
“It’s important to have an experienced criminal lawyer,” he said. “It would be foolish of you and risky of you to do it on your own … Even as intelligent and as bright as you are, it’s a mistake.”
Korman speculated that Afrasiabi’s intelligence could backfire. “You may have another disadvantage, which is that you think you are so smart, which you are,” the judge said.
Afrasiabi defended his legal skills. “My record against the government is four to zero, which gives me confidence that in the near future it will be five to zero,” he said. “I am looking forward to this fight. I know the law. I have complete and absolute faith in the American justice system.”
Korman replied, “If you are convicted, that’s not going to help clear your name.”
Afrasiabi answered, “I know I am innocent and I know that I will prevail.”
The judge agreed to modify Afrasiabi’s release conditions to allow him to leave his Boston-area home to go to the gym, libraries, and bookstores. Afrasiabi said he was facing a June deadline from an academic publisher for a book on US-Iran relations. Amid some back and forth about library hours, von Dornum observed that Harvard’s Widener Library is open until 10 p.m. (In fact, owing to the pandemic, Widener has not been open to visitors.)
Afrasiabi is an Iranian citizen who is a US permanent resident, or green card holder. Prosecutors say he was paid approximately $265,000 by the Iranian U.N. mission since 2007 and also received health insurance benefits. Afrasiabi has acknowledged to the Algemeiner that he received the money.
The case will proceed to the discovery phase, with a status hearing scheduled for April.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. His media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.