Hopes & concerns

The founding of PAAIA, the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian-Americans in Washington, DC, is in many ways a milestone for the Iranian-American community. Seldom have Iranian-Americans of such diverse backgrounds come together and invested in an organization. For that alone, the organization should be applauded.

Yet, in many ways, PAAIA has also been a major disappointment. Its less than open nature, its unwillingness to clarify its positions and reluctance to shed light on its decision making processes have left many potential Iranian-American supporters like myself skeptical.

I very much support the stated objective of PAAIA to make Iranian-Americans more influential, but before I make a donation, I would appreciate answers to a few of my questions. Since no answers were provided at the PAAIA presentation in Houston last November, and since my other inquiries with the PAAIA headquarters have been ignored, I thought that I could turn to the blogosphere for wisdom. [PAAIA’s replies]

What is PAAIA’s relationship with John Bolton?

One of PAAIA’s great strengths is the political diversity of its leadership. I was personally very impressed to hear PAAIA’s founder, Goli Ameri, a Bush Republican who supports the Patriot Act and raises money for John McCain, had managed to enlist the support of left-wingers such as Kamran Elahian and individuals believed to be sympathetic to the Islamic Republic.

But as you get a group with mixed political backgrounds, it makes it all the more important to be transparent about the organizations political stances – and the processes through which those positions are determined. Clarity about PAAIA’s relationship to the political agendas of these individuals is also needed.

For instance, at the founding meeting of PAAIA in New York in late 2006, Goli Ameri invited John “Lets Bomb Iran” Bolton to be the keynote speaker. Delivering Bolton was an impressive display of Ameri’s connections within the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party. But what did it say or not say about PAAIA’s political orientation? There was nothing wrong having Bolton deliver the address at the event, but not clarifying the nature of PAAIA’s relationship with Bolton, however, is problematic.

Does PAAIA support Bolton’s view on bombing Iran? If not, why was he invited to be the speaker? Since his function in the Bush Administration was limited to foreign policy, it is hard to imagine what else he would have spoken about. Does Bolton play any role in PAAIA’s decision-making? Why hasn’t PAAIA spoken openly about this issue and put the concerns of people like myself to rest?

What is PAAIA’s relationship with Goli Ameri and the Bush Administration?

PAAIA is the brainchild of the Goli Ameri, one of the Iranian-American community’s most prominent political personalities. Though she failed to win a Congressional seat in 2004, she has gone farther in US politics than any other Iranian-American. She currently serves in the Bush Administration as Under-Secretary of Public Policy. Her job is to defend the Bush Administration’s foreign policy.

Ameri is no longer formally involved in PAAIA. But her husband Jamshid Ameri serves as the President of the organization. Mindful of these family ties to the Bush Administration, what is PAAIA’s political relationship with the Bush Administration? Can PAAIA take an independent position and even push back against the Administration if it acts against the interest of Iranian-Americans? Or do the family ties prevent PAAIA to fully represent the views of the community in a hypothetical confrontation with the Administration.

Does PAAIA serve the community, or does PAAIA serve PAAIA?

A second strength of PAAIA is that many of its leaders are significant political personalities. While PAAIA has John Bolton and Goli Ameri on the right, it also has Hassan Namazee on the left. But again, the impact of these individuals on the organization is unclear, as are questions of how PAAIA would resolve any potential conflict of interest that could arise.

Take Hillary Clinton’s “obliterate Iran” comments, for instance. Clearly, our community was up in arms. Clinton – who had received tens and thousands of dollars from the Iranian American Political Action Committee, which just merged with PAAIA – completely disrespected the Iranian-American community with her statement.

But from PAAIA, there was silence. The “powerful” lobby did not even issue a statement. Could this be because Hassan Namazee of PAAIA also was the national co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s campaign? Or that Vali Nasr of the PAAIA Board was a foreign policy advisor to Clinton?

This was a clear case of a conflict of interest. Namazee and Nasr’s interest was to remain quiet and ignore Clinton’s insults. The community’s interest, however, was to speak up and take a stance. Rather than respecting the interest of the community, PAAIA apparently followed the personal interest of one of its board members and one of its key donors.

This may have been a mistake, but PAAIA must clarify how it will handle issues of this nature in the future. No sane Iranian-American will give money to an organization that puts the personal interest of some of its key donors ahead of the interest of the community at large.

Congratulations on criticizing McCain – but is it enough?

PAAIA should be congratulated for having spoken out against McCain’s joke about killing Iranians with cigarettes. What PAAIA didn’t do on Clinton, they sort of did on McCain. This is definitely a step in the right direction – at least if it indicates a new direction at PAAIA.

However, the question is if this is enough. PAAIA’s founder is after all a member of McCain’s fundraising committee. And the Arizona Senator’s statement was not an isolated incident. He has said similar things in the past and his campaign even put up a website called “10 Funniest Ways of Killing Iranians.” And all his statements fit very neatly into a neoconservative policy on Iran that eventually would turn the jokes into an action plan. Why doesn’t PAAIA use Ameri’s connections to McCain to push not just for a clarification of these despicable statements, but a full apology and a change to his policies and outlook that gave birth to these statements in the first place? PAAIA should not be an organization that settles for breadcrumbs for the Iranian-American community. If McCain refuses to apologize, will Ameri resign from his fundraising committee to show her and PAAIA’s loyalty to the community?

What is PAAIA’s relationship with the Islamic Republic?

The major strength of PAAIA can also be its greatest weakness. The diversity of its leadership has created – in the absence of clear policy outlines that demonstrate the organization’s independence from the personal political agendas of its key individuals – significant concern. Rather than being tilted in a specific political direction, PAAIA has thus far shown a greater inclination of either being drawn in many contradictory directions or simply being paralyzed.

While there is no shortage of neoconservative leaning individuals in PAAIA’s leadership – including Hooshang Ansary, a close friend of Vice President Dick Cheney and a contributor of over $2million to PAAIA – there are also individuals believed to be aligned with the views of the Islamic Republic.

Babak Hoghooghi, Executive Director of PAAIA, has a long history of activism in favor of the Islamic Republic’s agenda, dating back to his years at the Iranian American Bar Association and its efforts against US sanctions. A regular at events organized by the Iranian interest section in DC and the Iranian UN mission in New York, Hoghooghi is in many circles associated with the more regime-friendly elements of our community.

Hoghooghi’s personal views on the Islamic Republic may be his and his alone. But a clarification of these issues would certainly help alleviate concerns by those – including myself – who on the one hand doesn’t want anything to do with the Islamic Republic, but on the other hand is pragmatic enough not to judge an organization on the basis of the views of one or some of its members.

What is PAAIA’s position on the Patriot Act?

Beyond foreign policy, one of the most important issues for our community is discrimination and civil rights. Some say that there is wide agreement in our community on these issues, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Take Goli Ameri for instance. In her 2004 Congressional campaign, she repeatedly defended the Patriot Act and dismissed criticism from our community against it. At a PAAIA event, her husband Jamshid Ameri continued to defend the Patriot Act. Is that an official PAAIA position or is it again the rather worrisome confusion between the agenda of the organization and the personal agenda of some of its leading members?

Can PAAIA show more transparency in regards to its funders?

Sources of funding are always a relevant question. Organizations that raise a lot of money from a small group of individuals – which is the case with PAAIA – will always be in a weaker position to resist pressure from wealthy donors. In Houston, for instance, it became clear that Hooshang Ansary had donated more than $2million to the organization. His daughter – a trustee of the organization – has donated an additional $250,000. This is not spare change and in fact a considerable portion of PAAIA total budget. Will PAAIA put in place mechanisms to ensure that the organization won’t become an elite group in which a few wealthy donors call all the shots? Will I as a potential $75 member have any say at all?

Last but not least – does PAAIA support war with Iran?

This may not be an easy issue for PAAIA. With Tehran sympathizers like Hoghooghi and Akbar Ghahary – who hosted a goodbye party for Tehran’s UN ambassador Javad Zarif at his home in New Jersey last year according to Mirasse Iran – on the one hand, and Bush Republicans like Ameri and Niaz Kasravi – who up until recently worked for an organization receiving money from the State Departments infamous $75million regime change fund – finding some common ground may be impossible. But this is at the same time the most important issue on the minds of Iranian-Americans. For a self-proclaimed lobby for the community to avoid active involvement in this issue does not give me confidence in its competence, moral compass or dedication to the wishes of the community. Will PAAIA use its resources to stop a war before it’s too late?

To sum up, the creation of PAAIA is a positive step. But several questions and concerns must be put to rest for PAAIA to live up to its full potential. I hope these questions will grab the attention of its leaders and compel them to engage in a dialogue with the community they intend to represent. [See reply from PAAIA]

Soudabeh Bashirrad is a businesswoman in Texas. Her husband was a supporter of Goli Ameri’s unsuccessful capmpaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2004.

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