For a period of time, it was clear that this administration had no policy on Iran except to say that it stands behind the Iranian people so long as the Iranian people stand for freedom. Regardless of how abstract and vague that policy was, it's clear that it has shifted now to something much more confrontational, and less focused on human rights. Here's an excerpt from a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal:
Bush: My theory all along has been to isolate the Iranian regime to determine whether or not there are people in their country who will worry about financial isolation, isolation from trade opportunities. One of the interesting things that we do know about Iran is that there is a large diaspora that is communicating inside Tehran, for example. There are rational people in that country who believe that isolation is not in their interests. And there is enough commerce that if it can be affected through international cooperation, it may cause people to say, 'Wait a minute. We'd better take a look to see who's running this deal.' And I can only tell you that I'm encouraged by the fact that others are beginning to question whether Ahmadinejad is capable of leading the country
I think you have a much stronger and dramatic shift in the Bush policy on how to promote democratization in Iran. The notion that economic isolation will force the Iranians to overthrow the government is too simple to actually believe. This is buttressed by the fact that the same tactic did not and has not worked in China, Iraq, or in North Korea. Rather the notion of economic isolation seems more like a tool the government can use to persuade its constituents that it is actually “doing something.” That is to say, sanctions on Iran do nothing except help politicians get votes.
Rather, the key difference here is Bush's recognition of links between the Diaspora and Iran. That link is important because it demonstrates that the administration has a fundamental belief concerning how the Diaspora and Iran interact and may influence one another.
I do not think the administration believes that the Iranian Diaspora is a significant lobbying group. It's clear that the Diaspora is disorganized, diverse, often conflicting with one another, and for the most part apolitical and apathetic. Especially since 9/11, most Iranians have shed their Iranian-American skin for American clothing. Most Iranian-American Muslims have for the most part stopped identifying Muslim part. In essence, we have become more Persian than Iranian in the most historically inaccurate way possible. Thus, I doubt that the administration is appealing to the Diaspora in order to appease them or gain their trust.
I think there is an opposite effect in hoping that the Diaspora can be a front, amongst many fronts, against the Iranian regime. This is nothing new or novel, but the approach I think might be different.
It is apparent that in the past the US administration would often cater to “organized” political groups in the US, such as the monarchists, the MKO, etc. While these groups may continue to have a nominal role in influencing US politics, particularly within military circles where I am sure officials continue to rely on them for intelligence (despite how unreliable that information obviously is), I think they are no longer trusted as a viable counter-weight to the Iranian government. In part, I think the US government has finally realized that Reza Pahlavi and Maryam Rajavi do not have support within Iran, and that US support for these groups harms more than furthers any US interest within the region.
So then when Bush talks about the “Diaspora”, who is he talking about? Most likely he is talking about you and me, normal Iranian-Americans who might have ties within Iran. There is certainly a growing realization that we are much more realistic and reliable source of information when it comes down to describing Iran, its people, and current political movements there. But there are several limitations to this approach which I wonder whether the administration or intelligence units are cognizant of:
1. While a number of those within the Diaspora travel back and forth from Iran, few if any stay in Iran long enough to be able to identify with it and be able to adequately describe the “mood” of the country. Given travel restrictions in Iran and the current hostility with the US, it has become almost impossible for Iranian-Americans to stay in Iran for an extended period of time. The most one could conclude is that the perception of an Iranian-American, even one who is fluent in Persian and has family there, is really viewing the country and its people from the perspective of a tourist.
2. Those who travel to Iran often see what the want to see and reject the multitude of diverse beliefs, particularly those which run counter to their own perspective. An Iranian-American who wants to believe that Iranians are pro-American for the most part will completely discount the elements of Iran which are clearly anti-American. Or those anti-American elements will be discounted as “foreign” to the country, when they are really not. On the other hand, those who have an anti-American perspective will view Iranians as being hostile to Americans, moreso then they really are. Perspective guides reality, and reality is all a matter of perspective.
3. Most Iranian-Americans come from a cross-section of Iran which is unrepresentative of the country as a whole. Is there any question that most Iranians in America come from wealthy, educated families in Iran? Obviously not. Thus, there is clearly a liberal bias in their views. Thus, even Iranian-Americans which are in constant contact with their family abroad should be viewed with suspicion, since they are more likely relaying the opinions of those who really only constitute 1% of the Iranian populace. This same bias was detriment to media coverage of Iran's presidential elections.
While there it is positive that the administration and intelligence agencies are finally moving away from elements within the Diaspora which possess political biases, are ill-informed, do not have support inside or outside of Iran, and are generally supportive of a more confrontational support with Iran than the overwhelming majority of Iranians are, there should be some skepticism when reaching out to other Iranian-Americans. As much as we would love to claim ties to the home country, the fact remains that we are Iranian-Americans. We do not live in Iran. We do not work in Iran. We do not go to school in Iran. We are in America and that disconnect with the every day lives of Iranians is sufficient to make all our views about the country and its people limited and possibly discredited.
Nema Milaninia is a law student at UC Hastings College of Law, executive editor of the International Studies Journal, and editor of the group blog IranianTruth.com