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Let's talk jobs not attacks
Engaging in diplomacy with Iran will affect its internal politics, in a way that the current US Administration has failed to understand


January 28, 2007

The other night, over dinner in a cozy little tavern, I was engaged in a maddening discussion with my colleague from Norway on a recent Time magazine cover headlined "What war with Iran would look like." Even with the recent Democratic Party victory sweeping the nation, I argued there is still talk that Bush may have time to get his invasion plans for Iran in before his presidential timeline expires. If this proves true, then for this hyphenated-American, it's a hard thing to stomach. I will admit that I am frightened to think of the consequences. If we all buy into Seymour Hersh's concepts of Iran as the next Iraq, then what about my aunts and cousins who still live in Tehran and can't get out in time?

For many months now, Mr Hersh has filed ongoing reports on the Bush Administration's purported plans for an air strike within Iran. The Bush administration repudiated and cited Hersh's reportage as "wild speculation". But the potency of this argument has lingered around like a wet, stench odor.

It now seems fairly plausible -- this once wildly speculated plan. A travesty to those of us who symbolize a harmonious partnership between the US and Iran. Not all of us are automatically drawn to the side of Ahmadinejad.  

Having grown up in the United States, I want just as much a bite off that all American burger as any other American. And my father prefers to barbecue hot dogs to kabobs on any given Sunday. San Francisco Forty Niners cap and barbecue pit in tow.

One autumn Sunday after the September 11th attacks, my father barbecued us up a whole mess of hamburgers and hot dogs and we ate a big American feast. We were sitting outside as the late afternoon California sunshine warmed our faces. My brother's friend, another hyphenated American, but this time German, kept frowning at my father. He finally spoke up, juicy half-bitten chunks of hamburger still in his mouth,

"Its interesting your wearing a NYFD (New York Fire Department) t-shirt at a time like this. Considering what just happened."

My father just looked up at him a smiled and swallowed and then picked up a glass of water to drink.

"Oh, yes," he chuckled in a deep Iranian accent. "We do not all support terrorists. But it seems most Americans now think that because we are from the Middle East, this reason alone automatically associates us as being radical."

Whether we believe in what we read in the news or the multiple videos chronicling conspiracy theories, they all follow along the same yellow brick road. Yes Dorothy, that man (Ahmadenijad) behind the big scary façade is just a tiny mortal just like the rest of us.

My cousin, for example, is a firm believer in conspiracy theories. Speaking with a deep California surfer boy accent, he often outlines the Loose Changian philosophies that oppose what the media may be telling us at the time. Prior to September 11, my cousin preferred to discuss the technological wonders of Nintendo over the military blunders of NATO, but now all of his talks center on some kind of secret puppet master controlling the joystick of foreign policy.

"That's how they do it" he tells me. 

"Do what?" I ask.

"Trick us into believing that Muslims are the ones responsible for all of the disasters."

A soft man, now in his mid twenties, my cousin, a US Citizen having grown up in California, never fails to get stopped at airports. After all, he fits the US Homeland Security profile of the physicality of a terrorist. Young, male and Muslim.

It may be easier for my cousin and for many Muslim American men to believe there is a master plan. As they get swiped down and their luggage torn open, they may find it an easier place to rest in their minds if they think that someone must be behind the game panel. That this Guantanamo ridiculousness has to be some kind of funny game. Maybe this is easier to stomach than to actually believe that there is no higher force in control.

If we truly want to open up the dialogue then we have to come to the common understanding that Ahmadenijad and Bush are opposite sides of the same coin. They are both preaching a maniacal religious agenda and nationalist revolution. As Negar Azimi writes in What's Left of Reform (The Nation, November 2006), "Perhaps the only government they (Iranian civil society) dislike more than their own is an American one they associate with double standards and overzealous meddling that goes back more than a century, reaching deep into their psyches."

One can't dispute that the Iranian Revolution pioneered other nationalist Islamic revolutions. Its consequences, were nevertheless brutal to average Iranians just trying to get through the day.  I remember hearing stories from my cousins during the mid-eighties -the height of the revolution and fighting with Iraq. I was a young teen at the time and my cousin Behnaz used to tell us how the Kommittee (a sect of the Iranian revolutionary guards) used to break into house parties where teenagers from both sexes gathered.    

Having grown up in a deeply segregated Iran, buses where men sat in the front and women in the back, Behnaz was ready for the break-in and search and complete degradation of females by the guards. She told me stories of how underneath the chador, women and girls wore miniskirts and tank tops and if there was a Kommittee raid, they had pants ready in their purses to slip on quickly as they made a mad dash for the door, hoping on one leg while slipping into their conservative surrogate outfits. During these raids, teens would jump out of windows, climb rooftops and stumble down stairs upon hearing the words "Kommittee!" Her brother Nader, was caught once. He has whipped a dozen times on the back side with a belt. His friend Shahram, then fifteen, was jailed for four months for talking back during the beating. 

Another not so fortunate nine year old girl went swimming that same week one scorching afternoon in her own swimming pool. A noisy neighbor reported her to the Kommittee and a guard came to the house and shot her dead in her own pool. The blood draining from her body, her father came home and attacked the guards. He was taken to prison and his wife, left alone. She was chastised by the rest of the community for allowing her daughter to be so "loose" as to swim in a bathing suit in broad daylight.

During the over eight year bombing raids, "Tavajoh, Tavajoh (attention, attention)" became common language and these words swept through the city, as families dived for basement shelters to escape death and destruction by Iraqi soldiers. With her nights spent hiding out in the shelter, it was during the days on her way to school that Behnaz and the other young girls were  followed on the street by the Kommittee. "Pull your chador up more" they'd shout at her. "Take off that make-up!" Older pious women would stand in the streets with dirty dish rags and wipe make-up off the faces of women and girls. Telephones would be wired, as oddly enough, they are in America today. The experience she'd tell me years later,  all too humiliating to comprehend.

I remember hearing these tales from the cozy nook of my living room high up in the sunny hills of California. My sister and I would sit, wide-eyed and amazed at the thought of being forced to grow up in such a draconian society. We felt so sorry for Behnaz and her friends.

These events underscore that clearly not all Iranians are eager to have the Islamic revolution continue. Indeed many Americans might be surprised to discover that the 70% of Iran's under 30 population is opposed to the Islamic party gaining more power. I believe the most effective strategy must be rooted in organized movement from Iranian civil society and youth groups. Although Iranian bloggers have been harassed and jailed in recent years, their messages do still get out to expatriate Iranian communities in Europe and the US. These voices need to be lent a larger stage in more American and European press. 

Iranian civil society has to be the key to Iran slowly building itself up an autonomous social framework to reach out to the remaining liberalized Iranian leaders. It is only then the Iranian community as a whole can work together to create a plan to boost investments and resources, create jobs to defeat the current staggering unemployment rate and advocate on behalf of women and youth.  Iran's Statistic Center and the Central Bank both reported last year that the rate was over 12 percent and some reports sited a rate as high as 20 percent. According to official estimates, nearly 3.5 million working age Iranians are currently unemployed. The jobless rate is particularly high among women and youth of the Islamic Republic. Iranian authorities have called unemployment a national threat and one of the country's most pressing priorities. 

What many western governments have failed to understand is that radicalization and Islamic fervor breed with unemployment, lack of liberties for women and youth disenfranchisement. Rather than fielding threats and sanctions, why doesn't the US Administration look to an economic solution rather than a foreign political solution? Better job opportunities for Iranians brings social prosperity and sanctions all but even further distance Iranians from understanding the American democratic ideal. After all, if an Iranian male in his early twenties can't get a job and a piece of bread to eat because of US lobbied sanctions, then why would he want to buy into the sanctimonious spell of democracy? He would rather buy into straying from radicalization if perhaps, food was on the table and a proper job through solid US investments made him better recognize the value of a democratic society free from Ahmadenijad's isolated notions of a Muslim republic.

The US Administration must also restructure its policy actions to include Iran in the process. As Walter Isaacson states: "Talks with Iran should begin, without preconditions, by discussing such a framework while getting Iran involved in keeping the chaos in Iraq apart from ripping apart the region, {and} in the process, Iranians will see more clearly the benefits of being treated as a responsible global player." But the Bush Administration has been relentless in even further sheltering Americana from the world's understanding. German author Robert von Rimscha has stated repeatedly, that Europe's young people "are not simply saying We do not need the US any longer. But we do not want the US any longer." And in his article entitled The Imperial City, broadcaster and editor Kurt Andersen writes that the recent US attacks on the middle east have confused the region's civil society to an end where there may be no clear understanding on their side that there is a way to go back to life as it once was. 

Engaging in diplomacy with Iran will affect its internal politics, in a way that the current US Administration has failed to understand. I am a hyphenated-American willing to listen to reason and I believe my brothers and sisters in Iran are also on stand by for a more integrated approach that doesn't focus on attacks but rather promotes economic and social investment. As former President Khatami stated in a speech on the dialogue among civilizations," When superficial issues masquerade as real, urgent and essential, and where no agreement, or at least mutual understanding, obtains among parties to dialogue concerning what is truly fundamental, in all likelihood misunderstanding and confusion will proliferate instead of any sense of empathy and compassion." 

So, let's break out the mini-sandwiches and bottled water and really talk to each other. Comment

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