Home iran Amid Criticism Over Iran Ties, Crisis Group Hires Lobby Firm

Amid Criticism Over Iran Ties, Crisis Group Hires Lobby Firm

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The International Crisis Group has retained Mercury Public Affairs to lobby on its behalf, according to filings alerting the US Justice Department.

The registration, filed on March 7, 2024, marks the first time the think-tank has reported lobbying activities in Washington since the first quarter of 2015.

The move follows just months after an extensive investigation by Iran International revealed that the Crisis Group signed an undisclosed deal with the Iranian government in 2016.

Another Iran International expose, published in September 2023, Based on thousands of emails from Iranian diplomats, showed that three current and former Crisis Group members were part of the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI), established by the Iranian foreign ministry in 2014 to extend Tehran’s soft power.

This network was active while the Crisis Group was attempting to shape US policy on Iran during and after the negotiations for the 2015 nuclear deal that the Obama administration negotiated with Tehran.

The Crisis Group did not answer specific questions on whether the move to hire Mercury was made in direct response to Iran International’s reporting.

“To help achieve our mandate, we have partnered with Mercury to assist Members of Congress from all political parties who want to meet with our analysts who work in conflict zones across the globe,” the Crisis Group’s Elissa Jobson told Iran International in an email statement.

Documents show that Patrick Costello, the firm’s Senior VP in its Washington DC office, will work on the account for Mercury.

According to the firm’s website, Costello is “part of the bipartisan federal lobbying team and leads the NGO/Think-Tank engagement practice” and is a seasoned expert in US foreign policy and national security.

In a subsequent filing, for the first quarter of 2024, the income related to lobbying activities listed was $20,000, for addressing issues related to foreign relations, with efforts directed towards both the US Senate and the US House of Representatives.

In response to inquiries regarding the specific funding source for the lobbying activities, and whether Qatar, one of the NGOs donors, will contribute financially to the lobbying efforts on its Iran file, Jobson told Iran International, “all fees and services provided are publicly disclosed, and Qatar has no role, financial or otherwise, in the engagement.”

The Brussels-based NGO previously rejected Iran International’s reporting, saying that it “mischaracterizes Crisis Group’s mandate and methodology” and that “these accounts distort the nature of the meetings” between its members and the Iranian government.

In its joint reporting with Semafor, Iran International also said that in 2016 the Crisis Group established a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the inhouse think tank of the foreign ministry of Iran, the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), but never publicized it.

Following Iran International’s and Semafor investigations, three Republican lawmakers have asked the US Department of Justice to investigate the Crisis Group for potential violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). 

FARA mandates that any individuals or organizations representing foreign entities in a political capacity must register their affiliations and activities with the Department of Justice. Established in 1938, the law does not necessitate funding from a foreign government for registration. Instead, it concentrates on efforts to influence the media, Congress, or government officials.

In their letter to US Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, the members of Congress say the Crisis Group has undisclosed ties and a formal relationship with the government of Iran, specifically pointing to the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding.

Merrick Garland, US attorney general, arrives to a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office building in Washington, DC, US, June 9, 2021.

“There is a clear pattern of behavior indicating that the Crisis Group is in fact not an independent organization, but a chief mouthpiece of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the United States. Given this evidence, we urge you to launch an investigation of the Crisis Group without delay for potential FARA violations to protect our nation from malign foreign influence,” the letter said, signed by Jim Banks of Indiana, Elise Stefanik of New York, and Mike Waltz of Florida.

The lawmakers also referred to President Joe Biden’s special envoy on Iran, Robert Malley, who has been placed on leave while his security clearance is reviewed – reportedly for disqualifying personal conduct and mishandling of classified information. The exact cause of his suspension remains unclear.

Earlier this year, the State Department’s Inspector General opened an internal investigation into the steps leading up to and after Malley’s suspension.

Malley, who ran the Crisis Group during Donald Trump’s presidency, worked closely with the three Iran experts who were members of the influence network formed and guided by Tehran.

The IEI members simultaneously worked for top Western think tanks and gave advice to the US and Europe.