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Deli diplomacy at Purim
Iran, America & Iranian Jews

March 22, 2000
The Iranian

The farce aptly called Deli Diplomacy at Purim opened last Friday, March 17, at the Iranian-American Council meeting in Washington, D.C. Not even the virtuoso performance of the U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, could save this production from the shortcomings of a poorly written script. But the mis en scene could rival even an epic production as grand as Ben Hur itself. The standing ovation at the end was well earned by a riveted and timid audience that finally managed to stand up and stretch its leg.

The Albright soliloquy was the culmination of an elaborate choreography in Iranian-American relations since January of this year. The soccer match in Pasadena was one big step; it was followed by the appearance of the Iranian wrestling squad at an international tournament in Virginia. That was followed in turn by three PBS programs in February. Robin Wright, the staff writer for The Los Angeles Times, who has intimate knowledgeable about Iran and Iranians, appeared on the Charlie Rose show and gave a characteristically hopeful assessment of Iran's future in the aftermath of February 18th parliamentary elections in which the reformists posted an impressive victory. That was followed by an appearance on the Rose's show by Christiane Amanpour of the CNN, who talked about the softening image of the Iranian society, the elections, and previewed her piece that would then air on Sunday, February 27.

The pace of the plot quickened when suddenly the energy-deficient northeast region of the United States got caught in the grip of a cold spell, that sent the fuel prices through the proverbial roof. The U.S. would turn to OPEC for relief and Iran too appeared to signal that it would go along with an OPEC scheme to increase production and keep prices in check. Too bad, one must have thought, if only the United States did not have import bans on Iranian, Libyan and Iraqi oil!

The immediate prelude to Albright's number came in early March when President Clinton went to California to attend a few Democratic Party fund-raisers. Two of these fund-raisers were hosted by prominent Iranian Americans in Los Angeles. As Robin Wright reported in The Los Angeles Times, on March 7, one of events took place on Saturday, March 4, at which the president called Iran "one of the most wonderful places in all human history." "I hope and pray," he added "that what we've seen in three elections there means there is movement toward openness and freedom there too." "I've done my best to support that process in the limited way an American president can." Billed as a $2,500 per plate affair, the event attracted some 100 guests. No cheap talk here.

Polite conversation is an art form. It requires a careful avoidance of issues that are by nature incendiary, among which religion, politics and gender issues rank the highest. So when a polite group of Iranians sit down with a polite group of Americans, after twenty years of bad feelings, there is very little else to talk about other than the carpet that covers the floors or adorns the walls, the caviar that challenges the senses, the Persian cat that purrs in the corner, and the smiling Persian pistachios that crackle between one's fingers, even if they are produced in California. There is no point in spoiling the talk about Iran's traditional exports with talk about its embargoed oil or other recent exports as terrorism, or by talk about its strides backwards in the past twenty years. So, polite Iranians and polite Americans talk instead about Iran's three round of democratic elections and Iran's ancient civilization that included the first declaration of human rights ever issued.

"But, Mr. President," a complainant Iranian would intone, "we cannot even preserve and promote our heritage because of these sanctions. No caviar, no carpets, not even nuts. Can't you do something?" The president typically assures the host and donors that he would look into it. Would not the lifting of these bans be a great present for Noruz? For a quarter of a million dollars in cold cash, you bet, nothing to it.

In her monologue, Mrs. Albright signalled that the United States would lift the import ban on Iranian nuts, fisheries products and handicraft. She was also quick to point out that she was on the stage because president Clinton had asked her to appear at the event. Further along she also said that Iranians have enriched the United States. Make of it what you want, but as money buys access and access lets you ask for favors, especially with this president more than any other, then Mrs. Albright's speech and the news about the lifting of the deli sanctions was a part and parcel of electoral politics and not a sudden discovery of a higher moral principle or foreign policy imperative.

In demagogy lies a power that logic itself does not possess. To charm the audience, Mrs. Albright wished all Iranians a happy Noruz, the Iranian new year that falls on the beginning of spring at the time of the vernal equinox. The real story of this production is also the story of the Jewish festival of Purim, which this year occurred close to Noruz. The term Purim means the day of fortune, deriving from the word "pur" which in Persian means "fortune, luck" and "im" which is a contraction for "yom" meaning "day" in Hebrew (and yes, also Arabic). In the story of Purim, the Persian king Ahashuerus accepted the plea of his Jewish queen, Esther, and dismissed his evil chancellor Haman who had wanted to hang all the Jews.

Unlike in the story of Moses and the going forth from Egypt, or in the recent story of the Holocaust and the Exodus from Europe, Esther's Jews stayed in Persia. A few years before the Islamic evolution, many Iranian Jews began to emigrate from Iran and many settled in California. The untold story of the Clinton fund-raiser in Los Angeles is that one of the prominent Iranian Americans who hosted the president is a Jewish Iranian. Contrary to general thinking, including the president's perhaps, Iranian Jews love Iran just as much as any other Iranian and resent being asked to state if they are first one and next the other. Most of them also want to see Iran and the United States patch up their differences. When the United States demonizes Iran and by implication its Islamic government, then the Jews in Iran suffer because the ignorant among Iranians equate being Jewish with being pro-Israel, pro-Zionist, and pro-America, all of which in their eye threatens Islam and Iran and therefore must be eliminated.

The Iranian community in the United States numbers about one million. Some one half of that number lives, works, pays taxes, and votes in California, one of the more significant states in terms of electoral politics for both Democrat and Republican parties. That the venue for the Iran-America soccer match in January was moved from the east coast to Pasadena attested to the rise of the Iranian community in California as the capital and nerve center of Iranian-American relations, replacing in clout the Iranian communities in and around New York City and Washington D.C. In that context, the Iranian Jewish community, particularly in California, also has evolved as an influential counter-balance to the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) and other Jewish groups that advocate a hardline U.S. policy toward Iran.

When the curtain fell on the Albright speech, the AIPAC issued a statement and endorsed President Clinton's decision to lift the deli sanctions. It stated that it agreed with the measure because the lift would help Iranian workers make a better living. That view assumes facts that are not as yet in evidence. First, most of these industries are either owned or controlled tightly by the government. So it is unlikely that the lift would affect the workers in any tangible way. Second, the AIPAC position assumes that Iranian exports of the items at issue will be so great in value and volume, so unimpeded by competition and bureaucracy, that in all they would make a big difference in Iranian receipts. The AIPAC endorsement of the lift was a tactical decision; not having gone along with it could have produced a backlash against it and its more important business before the administration and the Congress. Speaking of the Congress, Senator Arlen Specter, the Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, too, welcomed Mrs. Albright's speech and endorsed the lifting of the ban. He is courted by Iranian Americans who are active in electoral politics.

The story of Noruz is one of renewal, of the triumph of light over darkness. The story of Purim is about triumph of negotiation over obstinacy, of good over evil, of getting along. Where is the next Esther? Is there an Ahashuerus in the house? Perhaps, Iran and the United States next should appoint each a negotiator to meet periodically in a third country to define and review further areas where tension may be reduced between the two countries. The Deli Diplomacy at Purim is in a dire need of a sequel.

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