Obama Held Private Session With Iranian-Americans

Calif. fundraiser had odd solicitation: raise cash to meet with candidate.

July 25, 2008— -- Sen. Barack Obama held a private session with a group of about two dozen Iranian-American donors shortly before a fundraiser this month in California after one of the participants said the Obama campaign would hold such a forum if local Iranian-Americans were able to raise $250,000.

The forum -- which was not on Obama's public schedule and was closed to the press -- took place shortly before a fundraiser at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach, Calif., on July 13. That was less than a week before Obama's trip to the Middle East, where the U.S. relationship with Iran is a critical issue.

Obama spoke for about 15 minutes, according to the Obama campaign. He did not take questions, and did not stray substantially from his standard stump speech about the need to engage with Iran and the rest of the world in new manner, according to one attendee.

While such private meetings with well-heeled donors are not out of the ordinary, at least one fundraising pitch for the event was unusual.

A businessman contacted by the campaign to help raise money suggested that special access to the candidate would only be granted if a fundraising threshold was met -- making it sound like the kind of pay-to-play event that is frowned upon by watchdog groups and generally avoided by campaigns.

"The Obama campaign has promised to have a private meeting with Iranian Americans if we as a group can raise $250,000 for this coming Sunday's event," Manouch Moshayedi, a prominent Iranian-American businessman in Orange County, Calif., wrote in an e-mail distributed to potential donors July 9, according to a copy of the message obtained by ABC News.

"I am asking for your help in making this private meeting happen," he added. "If we are able to succeed, we will inform all of the Iranians who have signed up for this event to gather in a different room either before or after the general meeting to privately meet with Senator Obama."

Shortly after the e-mail was distributed, the Obama fundraiser who enlisted Moshayedi's help, Hassan Nemazee, contacted Moshayedi to tell him he got some key details wrong: $250,000 was the target for him to help raise among Iranian-Americans in his area, but Obama was poised to address the group regardless of whether they achieved it.

"When that came to my attention, that got pulled back," Nemazee, an Iranian-American investment banker who was formerly a top fundraiser to Sen. Hillary Clinton, told ABC. "He individually sent an e-mail out where he misunderstood the nature of the task, and misunderstood what would occur."

Nemazee added that he would not characterize the event as a "meeting," since Obama delivered a standard short speech but did not have any discussions with the participants.

Moshayedi told ABC News on Friday that he realized even before Nemazee contacted him that he had incorrectly described the circumstances surrounding the promised event. He said he called the "11 or 12" friends he had sent the message to in order to inform them of his error.

He said Iranian-Americans wound up raising only between $180,000 and $220,000 for the event; Obama, of course, still addressed the group.

"There was no discussion by the campaign [about] 'if you do this, we do that,'" said Moshayedi, the CEO of the Santa Ana, Calif., high-tech firm STEC Inc.

Moshayedi said he was interested in pursuing private forum with Obama so Democratic Iranian-Americans in heavily Republican Orange County could interact more closely with the party's presumptive nominee.

"There are a million Iranians around here, and we've never talked to any politicians, really," Moshayedi said.

"We thought, if we could just have him in a room next to the big room, say hi to Iranians, and discuss or at least say what he's been saying at all along about having conversations with Iran rather than just confrontations," he said.

"Sen. Obama came in, said hello, spoke [several] minutes, discussing what he said all along, about wanting to have dialog [with Iran]," he added. "Then he walked out, went next door, and stood in place as everyone stood on line to take pictures with him."

Later, in an e-mail to ABC News, Moshayedi wrote: "I would like to confirm that the campaign did not authorize the email that I sent and the wording of my e-mail did not reflect the event itself.  Like any other fundraiser, we set a goal for the event -- $250,000. The campaign did not set the expectation that policy would be discussed -- it was just a chance to meet the Senator and very similar to any fundraiser I have attended with any other candidate."

The meeting took place one room removed from where the main Obama Victory Fund fundraiser was scheduled, inside the Balboa Bay Club. Tickets to the VIP reception -- where attendees could get a picture with Obama -- cost $28,500 per couple, while the "requested contribution" to the general reception was $2,300 per person.

The event raised about $1.2 million. A "pool reporter" representing all media organizations was inside the VIP reception and the main fundraiser, but the traveling press was not told about or allowed into the private meeting that was taking place beforehand.

At the time, a reporter for the Orange County Register picked up on the private gathering and made brief mention of it in a story about the fundraiser, describing it as a "discussion of Middle East tensions."

The reporter quoted one attendee -- who gave his name as "Manouch," but Moshayedi said it was not him -- in describing Obama's short speech: "He basically talked about stopping this rhetoric about going to war with Iran," the attendee said. "Manouch" described Obama as the right man to "calm down the world" and "stop all these nonsense wars we are having."

The Obama campaign said there was nothing unusual about the event.

"As Mr. Moshayedi has acknowledged, his e-mail did not reflect the nature of the event and was not authorized by the campaign," said Hari Sevugan, an Obama spokesman. "Like all campaigns that host these sorts of functions, we committed to an event and set a fundraising goal with the hosts which they tried to meet. Sen. Obama spoke to the group for about 15 minutes, shook some hands and took some photos. There was no Q & A." 

Obama has come under attack from Sen. John McCain for his commitment during the Democratic primary to talk directly with Iranian leaders, without preconditions.

On Friday in France, Obama urged Iran to "end its illicit nuclear program," warning of increased pressure from the international community.