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Come back (and be quiet)
Iran's conditions for returing expatriates

By Khordad
July 21, 2000
The Iranian

Given the choice, most young Iranians would pack their bags to find their fortunes elsewhere. Every day a host of talented and brilliant young Iranians depart for destinations in North America, Europe, Australia, and even Asian and South American Countries, where they build new lives for themselves and their families. They leave for a multitude of reasons. Key among them is the opportunity for a better life, which consists of, among many things, economic and professional growth and political and individual freedoms.

The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) are upset about this continued flight of "national resources" (sarmaay-e meli). Well, even if they are not upset, they are finally taking note of the vast potential the Iranian diaspora offers, both economically and in terms of brain power, for economic and technical development efforts within Iran. Truth be told, if nationalistic sentiment were enough to keep these people within Iran's borders, they would never have opted to leave in the first place. But this approach, as evident in a recent conference on the subject, titled "Goftemaan Iranian" (Iranian Dialogue), is the cornerstone of the IRI's policy for attracting and engaging the Iranian diaspora in the economic growth and development efforts within the country.

With little exception, every speaker at the conference spoke eloquently and passionately about nationalistic sentiment among Iranians living abroad, Iran's glorious 2,500-year history and the significant achievement of the Iranian diaspora in adopted homelands. They beckoned a return of the diaspora, whether permanent or in the form of organized cooperation, on the grounds that these "national resources" owe their country their continued involvement in its strive toward economic and technical/scientific development. They cautioned the Iranian immigrant community not to surrender their countrymen and women living in Iran. And they emphasized that national sentiment and patriotism, a hallmark of Iranian identity, is sufficient inspiration for drawing these "national resources" back to Iran.

This national pride and sentiment, it was argued, would be enough inspiration for the return of even the younger Iranian generations living abroad, who may or may not have lived in Iran and who may or may not be familiar with its language or culture. The return of this younger generation, speakers contended, would depend, in large part, on the success of cultural preservation and promotion efforts carried out by the IRI and the expatriate communities in the West. The nationalistic tone of the conference, especially on the heals of the latest parliamentary elections, which also emphasized, to the exclusion of Islamic rhetoric, nationalistic identity and unity, is noteworthy. But it falls short of a concrete and realistic plan for addressing the issue at hand.

Ataollah Mohajerani, the Minister of Culture, possibly one of the most eloquent speakers of his generation, one who fought successfully, through oratory excellence, his attempted impeachment by the last Majlis, echoed much of this sentiment. "Freedom and compromise were the main elements of success which allowed Iran and Iranians to achieve their glorious height of civilization," he noted. Perhaps a political analysis would take this statement to be a criticism of the lack of freedoms currently enjoyed by Iranians. Unfortunately, Mohajerani's double talk (dar lafaafeh harf zadan) can hardly serve as a starting point for dialogue between the IRI and the expatriate community it is courting so feverishly.

This is not to say that I am naive about the political implications and consequences of a dialogue with Iranian expatriates and the need for its advocates to take a cautious route. Already the hardline newspaper Jomhouri Eslami, has objected to the Khatami's policy of courting expatriates. The hardline Kayhan has also printed a couple of articles condemning efforts of cultural and scientific exchanges with the West and the expatriate community, because they offer opportunities for infiltration by foreign agents and enemies of the IRI. Nevertheless, any discussions with Iran's expatriate community about their participation in development efforts in Iran need to be upfront and honest.

Another speaker at the conference representing the government, Mr. Hadi, listed the recent, more expatriate-friendly, policies of the IRI. Chief among these policies were the easing of restrictions on the return of expatriates to Iran, including military service exemptions, reducing passport fees, and the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding dual nationals. Unfortunately, much of these expatriate-friendly policies, particularly with respect to dual nationality expatriates, are implemented outside of a systematic legal framework, offering little guarantees and assurances for returning and visiting expatriates. Hadi went further to claim that 99% of the flight of Iranians for destinations in other parts of the world is not due to ideological differences with the state, but for economic and professional opportunities.

Hadi also mentioned that the IRI would work through its embassies to support and defend the rights of its citizens living outside Iran with the employment of legal services and other such measures. As honorable and heartwarming as these efforts are, they smack of an unbearable irony. How can the IRI commit to protecting the rights of expatriate Iranians living abroad or returning to Iran, when it has failed so miserably to protect the rights of its own citizens living in Iran?

In his speech read during the opening ceremony, President Khatami claimed that "sound and constructive dialogue would be possible if there existed mutual understanding and courage to face opposing view points, refusal to consider personal preferences as absolute, and recognizing and accepting differences and diversity." In other words, he asked the expatriate community for tolerance of an intolerable political situation. It is absurd to imagine that Iranians living abroad would come back to Iran to work toward economic and technical development, based simply on good will and nationalistic sentiment, without being overwhelming tempted to address issues of political instability and freedom. In fact, open and upfront discussions about political and personal freedoms, the rule of law, individual protection under the law and pluralism need to be precursors to any attempts at regaining the trust, the cooperation and the eventual return of Iran's expatriate community. Economic and technical development issues then can follow suit.

In a country, where the majority of its intellectuals, whether they question the legitimacy of a theocracy or not, spend their time behind bars, a dialogue such as this one needs to begin at home. How can a country attract its diaspora, for cooperative purposes or for a permanent return, if it cannot manage any sort of dissent within its borders? These silenced intellectuals, who in fact mirror the images portrayed during this conference, of the successful Iranian living abroad, do indeed have the nationalistic and patriotic drive, which has committed them to their homeland.

Instead of importing intellectuals from abroad, with the condition of silence on political issues, Khatami's government needs to engage and support the existing dialogue with intellectuals in Iran and demonstrate a real commitment to change, regardless of consequences promised by the hardliners.

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