Last week technological laziness, sanctions, ethnic pride, and grass roots activism came together to create what in all likelihood will be remembered as one of the critical moments in the evolution of the Iranian American community in the US. I am referring to the now infamous Monster.com incident [Monster mistake].Come to think of it, as far as critical moments go, this is as a good as a name you are going to get.
The Iranian American community has come a long way in the US. As the political organizations of the early to mid-80's were replaced by the civil discussions and polite professional organizations of mid to late 90's; we learned to avoid all things political and to distance ourselves from “Iran of the Mullahs.”
There was some value in that we learned to relate to each other as Iranian Americans. Slowly we started forming the Iranian Republican and Democratic groups, with a mostly regional focus, without much teeth or unity. The past two years have seen an increased activity in the emergence of groups focused on organizing the Iranian American community on the national level and harnessing the power of a very affluent community. The groups each have their own agendas, visions and missions but last week's events illustrated both their effectiveness and the community's need for them.
The incident with Monster.com allowed the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), one of these groups, to shine. NIAC successfully took the lead in our community by getting the word out on the Monster.com incident. The group encouraged us to send emails, call – let our voices be heard on the issue. The thing is, which issue? Because there are two – and here is the critical moment in our evolution as a community. One issue is the discrimination against Iranian Americans. The second issue is the sanctions and the Bush administration's foreign policy; in other words, the discrimination against Iranians without an American after their ethnic identity.
As NIAC and the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) started to get the word out, Monster.com kept referring to its compliance with the sanctions law. On Friday, I got on the phone with Monster.com, the Treasury Department and its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) wondering what the story was and to figure out what where you studied had to do with the sanctions. To boil it down to the simplest of terms, Monster.com was afraid that OFAC would come to them one day and tell them that they were violating the sanctions because they were helping people in countries on the list like Iran, find jobs in the US – OFAC could do that because if Intel hired a software engineer from Iran it meant they were going to pay them; therefore Monster would have a hand in “facilitating a transaction.”
Treasury sources confirmed to me that the administration could interpret things that way and that they could also make the case that by helping people find jobs in the countries on the sanctions list, Monster.com was “facilitating the flow of restricted information” into those countries. So if you got a job in Syria and took a copy of a software that was deemed sensitive in the unlikely event that something happened, Monster could be held liable. Keep in mind, that could be a highly sensitive code or it could be you teaching someone how to build a secure network using encryption technology for e-commerce purposes so hackers don't get in – all depends on how it is interpreted. Hence Monster.com, decided to be a responsible corporate citizen and self-regulate. A policy that sources at Treasury said is “encouraged” by the current administration. So the company decided to remove the names of countries on the sanctions list from their Target and Current Locations.
That's where the technological laziness came in (trust me on this – it's hard to believe it if you have never launched a product in corporate America but this is the norm). In doing so, they also inadvertently removed those countries from Education Location or where you got your degree. As they have admitted, there was one universal listing of countries in a database and it was faster and cheaper to do things the way they did – and a practice that despite their vociferous denials is discriminatory. Who knew people who studied at Tehran University could possibly be US citizens gainfully employed in the US?
Look at it from their point of view, only 5,000 resumes were removed from the site and only about 20,000 resumes were impacted overall. That's not a lot of numbers when millions use your site. At first, Monster.com was not so willing to admit that it was inadvertent – it just kept repeating two things “we are complying with the sanctions rules,” and that it was too expensive to change things back. They were probably hoping the whole thing would just blow over.
I asked the Treasury spokesperson about the education issue from a policy perspective last week and according to Taylor Griffin “sanctions are meant to govern transactions and not speech.” Important, because at least officially, Monster.com's position on the educational field did not have any connection to the sanctions, it did not have any merit and they had to back off. NIAC, and all the other groups – Iranian, Arab and others; everyone who called and sent an email should take credit for Monster.com's change in position because at the end of the day it wouldn't have taken place if no one had brought attention to it.
The second issue is not so easily tackled and to many is the proverbial white elephant in the middle of the room. What about the discrimination against “them?”
What about the sanctions? That's the reason this whole thing got started. That's the next issue that we, as a community, will have to tackle. Every company from now on will point to the sanctions law to justify it's behavior and will assert that they are simply complying with existing laws – taking themselves out of the equation and making it a debate with the administration. For that, Monster.com, at least does seem to have the support of the US government. To many, it may not come as a surprise to find NIAC in the middle of a discussion involving sanctions but it nevertheless brings forth a very important issue – what is our role as Iranian Americans? Some would argue that sanctions are in effect a form of discrimination against Iranians, not Iranian Americans – as is profiling in the airports. Should we get involved in the discussion of discrimination against “them?”
Supporters of the sanctions would argue that removing them would in effect signal support for the current regime. There are also those who genuinely still believe that the only thing that stands between the clandestine underground terrorist network and sophisticated technological knowledge or supplies are sanctions – that unique blend of idealism and naïveté that you only find here. The third position, I believe, is held by a majority of Iranian Americans – born at times out of ambivalence, at times out of apathy, at times out of fear and at times out of a passion for self determination – and that is a position that supports staying out of the affairs of Iran by those not living inside of the country.
We have spent the past two or more decades separating and distinguishing ourselves from “them” – the Iranians, in Iran, in so many ways – but mostly by thinking that being an American is the same as being silent when Iran came in to play lest someone question our own hyphenated identity. Over the years, wistful discussions of what it would feel like to taste the water in Tehran one more time have been replaced by where's the best place to buy real estate in Iran right now and I mean that as an investment not a place to raise a family.
Some who had once left Iran disgusted by having to wear the chador, now justify wearing it as they go back to visit family and friends – and have found solace in cheap liposuctions. True, some amongst us actually did move back to Iran, some do continue to work for change and but most are now committed to a life here – some acknowledge and honor the Iranian in themselves along with the American; and some have put it aside all together; rubbing their hands together as if they are Lady Macbeth trying to get rid of spots.
Our duality as a community was challenged during the hostage crisis of the 80's and again at 9/11. The events horrified us and made us feel even closer with our adopted country. Yet, we also feared retribution. We looked the other way as people started discriminating against Arabs – well, no need to beat that dead horse. We barely put up a fight when they started profiling people from Iran – it wasn't against “us” – it was against “them!” We showed up to soccer games waving the flag, saw every movie and went to every concert but we didn't make much noise when people's visas were not renewed and people were detained. But again, it was “them” not “us.”
This latest incident is one where the lines got awfully close – where a rule meant to impact “them,” impacted “us.” It should have shown us that the world is not that black and white. I think we have been incredibly naive to think that it can all be that neatly divided, that we could stay out of it. While we distinguish between the Agha Jani's of Tehran v. those of Shiraz, most laymen don't distinguish that finely between Iranians in Iran and Iranian Americans. When it says in your passport that you were born in Iran, you are looked at differently. No need to fall to pieces over that, it's just a fact.
It seems that in this day and age it doesn't matter if you consider yourself an American or not but whether your neighbor or your President does. With the Patriot Act, there is really no guarantee that that we won't be considered an American just until the “security” risk is considered large enough as it was considered to be in WWII with the Japanese Americans. You think that's unlikely? Take away the name and the fact that the person is your best friend/brother/husband and he is just a 35-year-old Shiite Muslim male from Iran who is a nuclear physicist and goes to Iran once a year. Maybe not even Iran, maybe on a trip to Egypt or Turkey or maybe he attended a few meetings about donating computers to under-privileged children in Iran. In this environment, I am afraid to drink a Cote du Rhone and listen to Dixie Chicks in public.
It's not just about sanctions. It's about making sure someone in the Pentagon points out where the museums in Tehran are if it comes down to that or where Persepolis is on the map, or argue against a war in the State Department – would we be betraying the American in us by lobbying for that? It's time we decided where “they” end and where “we” begin.
Our community is at a critical juncture.