Hello Capitol Hill
By Trita Parsi
After Mohammad Khatemi's victory in the presidential elections, an initiative was taken by a few Iranians to bring change based on common beliefs that 1) U.S. sanctions hurt the Iranian nation and violate human rights and 2) U.S.-Iran dialog would benefit the democratic forces that exist inside Iran by decreasing tension and facilitating the opening up of Iran. Through the Internet, 14 Iranians and friends of the Iranian people drew a petition aimed at the U.S. Congress, calling for the end of sanctions against Iran and commencement of U.S.- Iran dialog.
Why should we -- Iranians opposed to the theocracy in Tehran -- work for an end to sanctions and the start of dialog? We realized it was time for Iranians in the West to use their voice and power in the U.S. and Europe to influence decision makers in the West in order to help the people of our own nation. So far, only the Mojahedin Khalq Organization, Kenneth Timmerman's pro-Israeli FDI (Foundation for Democracy in Iran) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) had been active in influencing Iran issues on Capitol Hill.
We wanted to change that. From the mistakes of the last 20 years, many of us Iranians have learned that the wisest strategy is to exploit best available alternatives. Having a moderate as Iran's president is a very positive step in the direction of easing the lives of our people. We didn't find Khatemi to be our ideal candidate, but there was no doubt that he was a much better alternative than Majlis Speaker Nateq-Nouri. We understood that Khatemi would have a very hard time implementing change in Iran if the U.S. continued its very aggressive and counterproductive policy of isolating Iran.
What could facilitate and help moderates in Iran? An end to sanctions would be a very helpful step. Although U.S. sanctions haven't inflicted any great loss on the Iranian economy so far, the possibility that they will do so in the future is considerable. One example: Iran is running out of spare parts for its oil industry, parts that apparently only the U.S. can provide. Crippling the Iranian oil industry will only lead to increased suffering for our people, more poverty that in turn will breed more extremism. The sanctions must end. Dialog would undermine attempts by Iranian radicals to isolate Iran. Dialog would decrease tensions in the Persian Gulf and remove many of the obstacles Iranian business and industry have face in their efforts to develop Iran.
When we drafted the petition, we were accused of working for the CIA, the Islamic Republic, U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the U.S. oil industry all at the same time. Nevertheless, we were determined to proceed. The petition was sent out through email to solicit support. Also, several Iranian homepages posted the petition. We gathered the signatures and made more than 400 copies of the seven-page petition. About 100 copies were faxed to Congressmen by Iranian volunteers from both the U.S. and Canada.
The next step was to hand over the petition personally to members of the House and Senate. For four days I walked from office to office in the Congressional buildings in Washington D.C., handing over the petition and talking to Foreign Affairs Legislative Assistants (LAs) about our beliefs. To my surprise, support for dialog and resistance against the isolation policy was much greater than I had predicted. And to their surprise, a 23-year-old pony-tailed Zoroastrian graduate student living in Sweden was, with the support of many Iranians, lobbying to end the isolation of Iran.
I found it deplorable to see these congressional staffers so shocked to hear that Iranians were against sanctions and isolation. In the past, the only Iran-related lobbying was for a Cuban-style isolation with Cuban-like suffering for the Iranian peopleŠ I explained that we did not represent any political group, we were just concerned individuals, Iranians and Americans. Their response varied, and many seemed to be in the process of formulating a new policy. Several LAs showed sympathy with our arguments but contested that the current political situation is too harsh for change. A few bluntly opposed our view. One of them said that he preferred to "bomb the hell out of Iranians and mullahs."
To the sceptics, I replied that we wanted to show that there does exist strong support for a dialog and that we would stand behind and support any Congressman that would work to shift U.S. policy on Iran. To the antagonists, my reply was silence. Yet others were very positive, impressed and hopeful. They expressed their delight of having us taking our time to inform them on our opinion. They all mentioned that it is very positive to hear "this side of the story," admitting that they indeed needed other sources of informantion rather than the "usual" ones. They all called for ordinary Iranians to contact members of Congress and let them know what they think.
I was also very surprised to see how uninformed many of theses legislative assistants were. Of course, Iran is not a big issue in Congress, thus they take the "politically correct" position, i.e.isolation, without looking into various aspects of the question. If Iranians in the U.S. expressed their views on this issue, I am sure more members of Congress would be open for a dialog.
I have reported my activities on Capitol Hill to the signatories of the petition, which has resulted in the formation of a small but active Iranian lobby group. About 80 members of Congress receive faxes and letters from us on a regular basis, and we are determined to continue to lobby for the interests and well being of our people and nation. We Iranians need to show that we are a political force to be reckoned with.
The author is a graduate student in poltical science and economics at the Stockholm School of Economics. He can be reached at email@example.com