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All sticks
... no carrots

October 24, 2001
The Iranian

In the short span of a few weeks, we have witnessed the anguish and sorrow resulting from the tragic events that began with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and which have continued with the retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan (Taliban and Alqaeda terrorist network) to avenge the loss of life here in the United States.

These and all related incidents have commanded our attention, as we have watched and listened to news reports with an unnatural fascination. However, I do not wish to address those events and related issues here at this time. Rather, I would like to attract your attention to a couple of completely different observations that have caught my attention as a result of this horrific terrorist episode.

Our own example: what we are

For the most part, all of us, as individuals and as organizations, unanimously condemned the massive loss of life and property. With some precious few exceptions, not very many of us tried to argue that Iran was not involved. Some of us were more than happy to oblige the media and provide some support to the claim that the IRI's fingerprints could be found in some roundabout way.

It is apparent today that Iran has not yet been cleared of suspicion. The Israelis and their cohorts who want to see Iran hurt are still pushing the idea that "terrorism started in 1979 as a result of Iranian revolution and will not end until the eye of the octopus in Tehran is taken out." I do not need to elaborate on how disastrous and devastating this insinuations and innuendoes, if taken seriously, could be to Iran and Iranians -- you all know what it implies.

An Israeli example: What we could be

Within a few hours after the attacks, we saw and heard Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, and Israeli sympathizers and supporters on every television channel trying to shape the agenda in the eyes and minds of American public, media, and the government. Their main aim was to change and deflect the discussion.

They did not want the discussion to center around Israel and American Middle East policies, yet it seemed that anything else was acceptable. Therefore, they all simultaneously proclaimed that these attacks on the US were the result of hatred for the "US democracy and the American way of life."

They claimed that the people engaging in the current terrorism hate America and Americans because they are free and wealthy. Arabs/Muslims are jealous of American military, economic, and political successes, they proclaimed.

These statements would have been laughable under any other reasonable circumstances. Yet, lo and behold, these arguments were picked up by every print and broadcast news group, were repeated day and night, and now, after a month has gone by, they continue to be repeated as valid explanations.

The avoidance of innuendo directed toward Israel has even occurred in fictional programs. For example, the other night the popular "West Wing" show on NBC devoted a program to an evaluation of terrorism. Every concept and every country was touched upon except one, Israel, of which no mention was made, good or bad. One way or another, attention was deflected away from Israel and the Jewish people altogether.

Why am I rehashing this general knowledge? It is because I want to attract your attention to our own behavior in the aftermath of this tragedy. We must learn from it.

Collective actions in progress

We have been struggling with the idea of forming an association of sorts to deal with the IRI's infractions with regard to individual freedoms and human rights in Iran. I am sure all of us, one way or another, have been involved in activities against human rights abuses, restrictions on free press, violations of the Constitution by the judiciary, inability of the Majles and the President to deal with the right-wing political monopolists. Among us, there is, and rightly so, an abundance of critics of the IRI.

But up until now, Iran (not the IRI) and Iranians have lacked a base of support in the West. As a friend proclaims, Iran is basically an "orphan country. Iran's enemies are more than willing to provide ammunition for her demise, but it seems a great many of us consider it beneath our personal political and social standing to speak in defense of Iran -- either because we are afraid or because we have come to the conclusion that "they deserve what they get."

Since the IRI government does not behave according to the norms and standards that we believe to be an acceptable modus operandi, we conclude that it is reaping what it has sowed. To take a phrase from George W. Bush "either you are with us or against us." Bin Laden says either your are with the Muslim brothers or with the infidels. IRI says you are either darooni (insider) or birooni (outsider) and to the Iranian expatriates you are either a lackey of the IRI or in the opposition -- the choice is between black and white and nothing in between is acceptable.

Why Iranian Diaspora needs to chart a new course?

We need to come up with a better alternative for at least three reasons. Our children do not have a place to call "the old country" because of our relationship with our motherland. This has robbed our children of a sense of identity. Mindful of their parents' sensitivity and perhaps out of respect for them, they cannot show the emotional vacuum they feel relative to other children from other parts of the world who proudly express their roots.

Somehow, and I do not yet know how, we need to make sure that our children can connect to the old country without being fearful of hurting our feelings, and without being ashamed. We need to set the example by finding a way of defending the old country without associating ourselves with the repressive elements and factions of the IRI regime.

Jewish Americans chastise the Israeli government when it does something unacceptable and defend it when it is attacked. For example, a few days ago, when Ariel Sharon put his foot in his mouth with regard to the Israeli interests in the coalition building of President Bush, Jewish Americans publicly and privately forced him to apologize.

The Israeli government cannot afford to do without its American cousins, and both sides know that. We, on the other hand, have never been on the side of the IRI government, whatever the case might have been. We are all sticks and no carrots. While our critical words and deeds might be irritating to the IRI regime, except for the technical advices that they need to run they country, they are mostly inconsequential.

This should, of course, be not taken to imply that we should stop our human rights advocacy at all. It would be more than disastrous if we do. However, since the Iranian Diaspora is not an asset to the IRI, the government can choose to ignore its valid critical arguments, as it has done for the most part, or to use our input when it serves them.

The other reason is our responsibility to Iran and Iranians. Can we invite disaster to the people of Iran just to hurt the regime, like Reza Pahlavi and similar "patriots" have been suggesting? Or, is it our responsibility, at the very least, to raise our voices in an attempt to be heard, to interpret, clarify and protect the people of Iran, and to attempt to communicate our concern and insights to the governing leaders of Iran? Do we owe Iranians, at least, our protecting voices in the face of global attacks?

Why haven't we had a good relationship with Iranian regimes?

With the exception of the first couple of years after the revolution, Iranians living abroad have historically had no inclination to identify with Iranian leaders, as a whole or with a subset, even those that might have been considered progressive. During the Pahlavi regime and continuing into the current Islamic regime, neither the government nor the Iranian Diaspora trusted each other.

The Pahlavi regime tried, in some cases successfully, to persuade and co-opt individuals into its circle. But due to its authoritarian nature, it could not unconditionally open the system to all people from all walks of life. The case is more difficult for the Islamic Republic, which is totalitarian in nature. It is composed of a closed and close-knit circle, and it is more difficult, if not impossible, for a person with a different ideology to break into the inner sanctum (darooni) and be trusted and taken seriously.

This does not mean an individual (birooni) could not be used as a technocrat in the service of the regime. In all likelihood, a birooni individual would not be given a chance to become part of the system. Something like a second class citizenship would be the most that could be attained by those who are outside the inner circle of the system.

As long as an individual might be useful, he/she could stay and provide a service, and, if and when the individual loses his/her usefulness, he/she would be discarded like a piece of used trash. We have seen too many instances wherein those who were rising stars of yesteryears were disqualified for the offices that they had held before during the vetting of the candidates for the Majles and Presidency elections. So, most Iranian Diaspora has viewed neither the Pahlavi regime nor the current regime with affinity.

For Iranian Diaspora, and that includes almost all of us for whom return to Iran is no option, the ideal government that is characterized by openness, transparency, and equal rights, and that offers opportunity for all is only important in terms of what it would mean for the Iranians back in the old country. For us, a vital and prosperous country is a source of pride and well being.

That is why we argue for a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It is within an open society that we would see much less abuse of power, fewer violations of individual freedom and human rights (now rampant in Iran and other less open and democratic countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Iraq, among others).

What do we need to do:

In order for our critical voices to be valued by the IRI, we need to become a collective asset to them. Presently, we expect to hit the government on the head with a stick all the time and expect it to respect us and value our critical voices. This has not been very fruitful. There are two questions before us now.

The first question pertains to our relation with the Iranian authorities. Should we reevaluate our own approach to the IRI? Do we continue to reject the regime in its entirety until the "judgement day?" Or, is there a way of supporting what we consider to be progressive individuals or factions without being supportive of the regime in general? That is, how could we chart a new course without losing our independence and credibility? We all know it is very easy to take the high ground and be anti-whatever. But how do we transform this into a service for Iran and Iranians?

The second question pertains to our own community here abroad. In the last few years, partly due to a new level of maturity and partly due to our needs, Iranian Diaspora has created civil organizations for various purposes. We have been able to take advantage of the opportunities that a civil society provides its citizenry; something that we aspire for Iran and Iranians to have back in the old country.

However, the organizations we have created are fragmented and their powers are defused. There is no organizational structure to bring all of us under one umbrella, with a strong and powerful voice in society. Rather, we each dance to a different tune, and our lack of cohesiveness is neither useful nor helpful in times of crisis.

We need to create a web of independently controlled and operated organizations that are connected to a few regional units, with a national center, all with elected Boards and Directors whose terms are limited. International confederations could share information and resources.

These international / national / regional centers, could provide forums for us to engage in dialogue, and achieve a unified voice with which we can seek to protect and defend our interests here abroad, and to communicate vis-à-vis our homeland, Iran, and Iranians. These independent organizations would be serve as a bridge to Iran and the Iranians. If interested in perusing this idea please contact me by electronic mail.


Hamid Zangeneh is professor economics at Widener University, Chester, Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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