IAAB Conference Open Forum: The role of the Iranian Diaspora in Political Conflict

Narges Bajoghli of IAAB is moderating this forum: The goal of this forum is to facilitate conversation between organizations represented and to engage the community in a safe and open space. We felt we couldn’t ignore the big elephant in the room: the political situation between Iran and the United States. As a community we need to discuss these issues. There will be some ground rules. We request and plead, really, that everyone be extremely courteous to one another. That doesn’t mean that we can’t debate and have disagreements, but with that, we do want to request that everyone will be respectful. Just to outline the format, it is hour-long, so it’s a short time period.

The organizations are:
The Mennonite Central Community, who worked in Iran after Bam and have started other programs since.
Enough Fear, a campaign to prevent war between the U.S. and Iran.
Network 20/20, which promotes lectures and initiatives to promote global security.
Fellowship of Reconciliation, which tries to educate people and send civilian diplomats in times of political tension and strife
Iranian American Friendship Committee – work closely with Stop War in Iran
NIAC – the National Iranian American Council
Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, aka CASMII

Can you please speak about the role of NIAC?
One of our most important goals is capacity building in local community Iranian organizations. We want to help these organizations get more efficient and more effective. We are going to hold workshops on how to be effective, including grant-writing and staffing.

We know the Mennonites have been in Iran recently, with a coalition of religious leaders… can you please tell us about that?
We felt the U.S. was replacing Communism with Islam as an ideological enemy, and we wanted to break down stereotypes. We learned to know people in Iran who asked us to have a meeting with the president of Iran, where he invited us to Iran. It’s important to sit together and talk over issues. It’s so important for our two governments to engage each other directly. I’ve met a number of Iran desk officers in the State Department, none of whom have ever been to Iran. I’ve been there 20 times, and it’s been tremendous, the hospitality I’ve received.

Network 2020: Can you please tell us how you’ve engaged the community?
We focus on ways in which the U.S. and Iran and groups in civil society have been working together for some time. We found that there are literally hundreds of organizations that collaborate directly with counterparts in Iran. Our main focus in elevating debate has been to make sure people are taking part in academic panel discussions that they traditionally would not have been included in.

Why does CASMII do its work?
CASMII is working both with American and Iranian organizations. It’s much easier to work with American peace activists. Many Iranians consider that defending piece is defending Ahmadinejad; but the war in Iraq has made Iranians more interested and engaged. It’s not a hard job for us to show what would be the result of a war. With sanctions, the problem is that though it’s not going to blow up Persepolis, it’s still catastrophic for Iranians. We are working with peace groups in order to prevent war and sanctions, because the results are the same.

Why did Fellowship of Reconciliation send delegates to Iran?
There are very few Americans visiting Iran; just 300 each year. We try to show them humanity. They’re civil diplomats, sent to show images beyond the army or military images shown on the media. We try to make connections between different people.

What does Enough Fear hope to achieve with person-to-person work?

Why was the Iranian American Friendship Committee formed?
We were founded when some American friends came to a social event at our house [the speaker is an American woman who married an Iranian man]… and they said we don’t know anything about Iran. So we seek to educate. We work towards peace and dialogue. It is mainly educational, but we are distinctly a political organization. If you read my button, it says “U.S. Hands Off Iran” – I have seen what the U.S. policy has done to Iraq. We defend Iran in the secular community, but also because Islam has been wrongly interpreted in the media, as an American I also want to educate people about the fine history and culture in the Middle East.

Narges: For the audience, we want to know, is it desirable to be engaged as a community at all?
Ahmad Karimi Hakak, audience member: Who was the delegation that went with the Mennonites?
Mennonite organization panelist: Most of the officials and leaders are not in the very active opposition at this point, because that didn’t seem possible in this first visit.
Fellowship of Reconciliation: There was an ayatollah we wanted to visit, and we were denied permission to visit him. We had the chance to meet Mr. Khatami but not as a group.

Audience member: Is getting a visa difficult or are Americans just not interested? Also, the Iran desk in the State Department numbers eight part-time people, and as you said, none of them have ever been to Iran.
Fellowship of Reconciliation: Americans have to apply for visas via groups and organizations, it’s really hard to get a visa as an individual.
Mennonite: It’s very difficult.
Network 2020: We had a delegation of 14 people going in Fall, and eight of those got the visas when we’d already left. One way that’s easier is to engage a group, or a tour company.
Mennonite: Trying to get visas for Iranians to come to the U.S. is even more difficult.

Audience member: Before we can talk about being engaged as a community, we have to talk about how the community in the United States is disengaged, not engaged with itself.
NIAC: Part of the reason we feel so strongly about Iranian-Americans engaging is that we feel so strongly about the unique perspective of Iranians. One of the most important things we’ve noted this past year is that there’s a real thirst, a dearth of knowledge, for information about Iran among those in policymaking. It’s important to engage with civil society in the democracy we live in.
AIFC: When we founded the organization, mostly Americans were coming, but hardly any Iranians. But now there’s a shift. With sanctions, now Iranian voices are being stifled. I agree that we have to stand up for civil rights.

Audience member Pedram Moallemian: Narges, I don’t think we addressed your question at all. I think at some point our community needs to realize that we don’t have a choice; politics goes beyond -isms. It is essential, it is necessary – we need to get involved.

Audience member Diana: My question is about lending credibility to opposition to attacking Iran. I want to know which of you have reached out to Iraqis and work with them to help this movement of preventing military action.
NIAC: We have tried to engage the Arab-American community. For political reasons, they are divided on this issue and have not typically taken a strong position. The Arab-American Institute put out a statement asking the U.S. to engage with Iran and Syria to stabilize Iraq as well. We have tried; there are few Iraqi-Americans. Those who were active were supportive in the past of the war with Saddam.

Audience member Persis Karim: Has the panel parlayed any of their activities toward the 2008 presidential election?
NIAC: NIAC can’t legally take sides on legislation; our responsibility is to inform our public and our members. Since 2004, we have provided an opportunity for candidates for elected office to respond to our questionnaires and we look forward to engaging all of them. They are taking us a lot more seriously, and taking the community a lot more seriously.

Narges: How can we have a stronger presence in public life? Is it desirable, and if not, why not?
Audience member: Just an opinion for why my generation is not involved now: we were all activists in Iran, and we paid a heavy price for it. It’s wrong, we should be active. And I’m glad that the second generation has picked it up and they’re doing their part though we’re not. My question is CASMII: in my opinion, you can get a lot more support and audience and have a lot more sympathy if you could clearly make clear that you are for democracy in Iran, you are against closure of newspapers, you are against civil rights violations, and all those things. Make very clear first, and then you’ll see a lot more people that will see your cause and support it.
CASMII: The agenda for CASMII, for me as someone who works with the group, I say that I’m against war and sanctions. Are they pro or anti women’s rights? Or healthcare in Iran? We can come up with tons of issues to be pro or against. We have two things that we work on, which is anti-war and anti-sanctions. The problem with Iranian groups is that everyone wants to be non-political. Being anti-war or anti-sanctions is more a social issue than a political one; if you are anti-war, you are not becoming a political person.

Audience member Danesh Mazloomdoost: I think it’s rare to get all these civil leaders in one place, and I think in the past we’ve lacked a place to develop this kind of leadership. And we need a place to engage and develop this.

Audience member S.A.S.: I was lobbying Congress this week on a recent import sanction, HR1400
NIAC: We have had 20+ years of sanctions on Iran. These measures have not confined Iran’s behavior and have made Iran much more defiant. The sanctions argument is a ruse; it takes the attention away from the fact that we are looking at the possibility of war. We can’t just be anti-sanctions and anti-war, we have to be pro something as well, and that’s dialogue and policy to address these issues…[there are two NIAC panelists] Other NIAC panelists: …What is required of us to be successful is for us to be our own civil leaders. There are great organizations that are run by the first generation. But it’s our turn to take the reins from them; they demand it, they want us to be on their board. Are we too busy going to clubs? We need to take an active effort in taking control of the local organizations.

Narges: What would you like organizations to do to help the community?
FOR: I think it’s really important for us to stay active on the issue of sanctions, because they create isolation and destroy movements.

Audience member Roshan: It’s up to the second generation, without the baggage of the first, to start working on human rights and to be anti-imperialistic all around the globe. We’re politically conscious and it’s important for us to connect with everyone because the responsibility is on us.

Audience member: I think that, just by nature, it does not make sense to think of the Iranian community as one single community politically. I think it makes more sense for each of us to go towards our own topics of interest, in order to practice personal agendas.

Audience member: Considering that there are no free civic institutions in Iran, how would you set your priorities in order not to be influenced and to be independent of the Iranian government? Also, what about your positions on the militarism of Iran?
NIAC: The issue of working with organizations within Iran is something that needs to be addressed. It’s very difficult to obtain permission to work collaboratively with Iranian organizations. There was some slack with the Bam tragedy, but after a year those restrictions were back. The effort needs to be in NGOs; U.S. funding has a tainted image so non-governmental channels need to be taken.

Audience member Aref Riazi: Considering that money is the driving force in Washington, how are you affected by the large groups (AIPAC) and how active are your members in contributing to you?
Network 2020: In addressing the question of increasing military rhetoric, the point is that offense leads to defense. So the U.S. right now is squandering a natural cultural ally – the cultural connections between Iranians in the U.S. and in Iran is just something we’re not talking about. We tried so long to assimilate that we’re sort of wary to enhance our cultural identity and to have a lot of unity as a community.
Enough Fear: Our method for getting around problems of getting with organizations was to talk directly to people who have blogs and to communicate with them one-on-one. We’re looking for common ground between Iranians and Americans; we call on both governments to communicate directly also.
Mennonite: In our meeting with Ahmadinejad, we asked about the nuclear program. It was like preaching temperance from a bar stool.
NIAC: We relate more to the Iranian-American community, I can’t speak to activities in Iran. On AIPAC, they’re very powerful, they got a bill dropped recently by getting 400,000 people to call their representatives. You have to participate – voting is not enough. People in Iran vote – was that enough? You have to be more involved.