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    Cover story

    If Mahdi doesn't come
    A reformer's guide to engagement

    November 9, 1998
    The Iranian

    Our parents had it tough at our age. They lived under the despotic rule of the Shah and had to decide whether to risk their elitist position and fight for changes in the society they lived. We have inherited a challenge that is even more daunting. We are not even sure which society we belong to, and yet our motherland remains far from exercising the democratic values we espouse. Even those of us, like myself, who have decided that Iran is where our attention and love is most needed, remain confused as to what to do and how.

    I have been driving myself to nonplus grappling with this quagmire: While I want to focus my intellect and love in making Iran a better place, I fear success as much as I do defeat. After all, if I do manage to instigate change for the better, have I not also fortified a draconian system, granting it a longer life? But then how am I to remain a disengaged and silent witness to the wide range of intolerable problems in my motherland? What if I contribute to changes that do not reflect the wants and desires of the Iranian people living inside the country? How do I even know what they are thinking and what they need?

    What follows is a silhouette of my personal plan to work around this "dammed if I do, dammed if I don't" state. It represents a process that has slowly brewed throughout the years in my mind and by no means stands above critique. In fact, one of the main reasons for writing this piece is to call on others to contribute to shaping these thoughts and to work with me towards improving what I have called "A Reformer's Guide to Engagement."

    The term "reformer" hints at my personal disillusion with sudden or revolutionary change. Call it the 1979 syndrome. As frustrating as it may be, we need to use the law to change the law and alter not only the behavior of the state, but also the thinking of the people. I am looking for sustainability, something that demands a strong foundation that can only be constructed over time. But time alone does not build the necessary groundwork; it is our job to instigate reform and to make things better. Patience that is not coupled with a sense of responsibility and involvement is a euphemism for apathy.

    Before calling for change, we must somehow define "our" society and ourselves. Who are "we" and how do we differ from our Iranian or American counterparts? Following an attempt to offer an answer to that query, this article will identify the challenge posed to "us" and move on to sketch out a plan to live up to our "responsibility." This is done by analyzing our strengths and weaknesses as a group. Essentially, I am trying to heat up the debate towards understanding what the role of Iranians abroad is, what it can be, and perhaps, what it should be.

    On Being a Hyphenated Iranian

    It has already been mentioned that among the major obstacles we face on the road towards initiating plans for improvement is a lack of a clear understanding as to who we are. As the Persian proverb goes, we are az unjaa raandeh, az een jaa maandeh. Our world is multi-tiered and complex. It stretches from childhood and adolescent memories in a motherland that we dearly love, to a distant new land that we have come to feel fond of and now call home. We bridge two cultures, two ways of looking at the world, two peoples; yet, when we look at ourselves in the mirror of truth, we realize that we simultaneously belong to both and neither.

    Perhaps our Persian is far from perfect or our English is still spiced with an accent. We seem to have lost a total sense of ease in dealing with the country we come from. We clumsily handle and often fumble any gestures of ta'rof in Iran. At the same time, we are ironically befuddled when an American friend happily starts rolling the Persian rug in our house after we respond to a compliment on how pretty it looks with an English variant of "peeshkesh."

    The point to appreciate, however, is that beyond emotional challenges, this state has its unique strengths and benefits that can be harvested and gained. While we may lack a complete sense of belonging to either world, we retain influence on both. As a group, we are more affluent and educated than the average standards of the two countries we represent. We have close or distant leads to the ears of political rainmakers in Iran and the United States. It is certainly easier for us to bring an issue under international limelight than our fellow Iranians back home. Most important, despite our confusion, we understand the combination of both sides' outlook and problems better than most Iranians or Americans. Even those of us who have not been back to Iran since our early childhood have learned about our motherland in the interactions of our parents and their friends.

    Identifying the Challenge

    The purpose of defining ourselves and understanding our cultural schizophrenia is to help identify what our challenges are, and subsequently how to address them. Our world is the amalgamation of two countries; hence the challenge before us is to change the behavior of two actors as independent entities and also towards each other.

    This is a key factor to understand. As a group we cannot, and indeed should not, limit our goal to altering the behavior of only one side. Any battle plan towards change should be bifocal, though this is not to say that as individuals we necessarily have to split our attention in this way. Essentially, we need to accept that we are a new breed, a hyphenated group whose interests span beyond the boundaries of one country. Since our welfare is spread over two lands, so should our calls for change. In short, we need to ensure that discriminatory behavior towards us as an immigrant group ceases to exist in the United States while we also have to fight for our rights and for greater freedom back in Iran.

    What is being suggested can be thought of as a new approach towards "dual containment." In other words, we need to harness the negative behavior of two states, or at least a subset of actions that directly relate to us. It should be underlined that I am not advocating change for the sake of selfish benefits. However, as a realist I understand that altruism is not a good engine for inspiring the masses. People will act to change policies only if they understand that it is in their benefit to do so, and also if they believe that they have a reasonable chance to succeed.

    Furthermore, going back to the need to create changes that undermine despotic behavior, I believe that the agenda of Iranian-Americans is indeed on the right track. Specifically, along with a sense of cultural confusion, we have to a large extent developed a microcosm that combines Western ideals of freedom and democracy with Eastern culture. Naturally, there is a lot of room for improvement, but we are much further ahead in this process than our counterparts back in Iran, especially those of us who have experienced both models first hand.

    All the same, it is not very hard to argue the point that change is needed. The tough part is figuring out how to instigate change and, as mentioned earlier, to do so in a sustainable manner and on an evolutionary track for the better. Perhaps an even more daunting challenge is coming up with a well-defined notion of what "change" is, especially on the Iranian side. What exactly do we need to change in Iran, and where do we breach the line as a group who is not living in the country it is trying to reform? These are tough questions, answers to which require constructive debate and our collective intellectual and emotional energies.

    Hit Them From All Sides

    Interestingly, our position as the bridge between two countries gives us the unique ability to demand and instigate reform from a variety of angles. Not only can we influence both the U.S. and Iran to initiate changes by applying direct pressure on them, but we can leverage our relationship with either state to use its political clout in attaining the improvements we seek in the other. Again, these are among the distinctive advantages of belonging to two worlds that are still not fully appreciated by us.

    I do not fool myself by thinking that the process is an easy one. I also fully understand that given the limited political relationship between Iran and the United States, the prospects of leveraging our clout in both countries to essentially play them off against each other is less than ideal. Still, that represents only an argument for working towards an Iran-U.S. rapprochement that is not based on the self-seeking interests of the American commercial sector or a select few in Iran who aim to benefit financially from such a development.

    Reaching beyond the abstract, we need to think about the political arsenal we possess in this battle in order to make sure we use what we have, and gain what we lack. Perhaps the best way of approaching this topic is by taking a separate look at our key political strengths and weaknesses in Iran and the United States.

    Iranian Expatriates and the Islamic Republic

    Clearly, the Islamic Republic has been reforming its behavior towards the 1.5 to 2 million strong Iranian population in exile. There are ample examples to support this claim, ranging from a recent change of the absurd price levied for consulate services (e.g., passports, powers of attorney, etc.), to granting temporary exit visas without requiring military exemptions. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this shift in attitude was seen during President Khatami's recent visit to New York on occasion of the U.N. General Assembly session. Khatami used this opportunity to reach out to Iranians abroad and voiced a very different tone than what we heard during the early days of the revolution.

    In fact, the new wave of relative liberalism brought on since the election of Mohammad Khatami in May 1997 brings new hope for those who wish to instigate change without resorting to violence. Why can't the Iranians abroad add their agenda to the list of reforms currently being demanded? Understandably, the limited reforms that we presently witness were not gained without a fight. However, it is not entirely naïve to think that we stand a chance to succeed in doing so. We have more political clout in Tehran than we often realize.

    Recall that the country is in dire economic straits and that the one of the pillars of the recently introduced Economic Recovery Plan is to attract the investment dollars of Iranians abroad. A the key benefits of being in a position where the government in Tehran needs our help is that it presents an opportunity to make reasonable requisitions. A rather benign example of a demand that should not be too hard for the Islamic Republic to grant is a call for Tehran to formally recognize dual citizenship. After all, if the government wants to draw in our capital, it needs to gain our trust. Current Iranian laws make it clear that a "foreigner" can not own anything in that country. That means that so long as we have no de jure guarantee of our right to hold two passports, we may very well witness our investments being confiscated under that law. While gaining a concession on dual citizenship is but shaving the tip of the iceberg in terms of problems that need to be addressed, it also provides experience in Iranian public policy and perhaps give us confidence in our ability to work for change.

    It should also be clarified that the recent charm offensive towards the expatriates is not confined to the Khatami government. In fact, the aforementioned development regarding temporary exit visas without having completed the draft is a three-year law passed by the conservative-dominated Majlis. That is to say, Khatami does not embody our ability to deal with the Islamic Republic, though his presence is helpful. What we need to remind ourselves is that changes do take place in Iran, though in a "two steps forward, one step back" rhythm, and definitely not at the rate or consistency that we desire. Nonetheless, what is obvious is that standing aside indifferently is not going to further our cause.

    We need to get involved and for the time being the government in Iran is even encouraging such a development, albeit not always harmoniously. Still, it would be foolish to rely only on our strengths in a political game with the Islamic Republic. We must also recognize our weaknesses and work towards alleviating them. Our lack of a clear understanding of the Iranian political process is among the issues that need to be addressed. The more we know about a system, the easier it is to drive our agenda through it. Increased knowledge in this field will also make for wiser political moves and less risk. More important, we must keep in touch with the people of Iran and always keep in mind their interests, along with our own, when working towards reform. We need to ensure that we at least do our best to understand the needs and desires of a nation of sixty plus million before trying to "improve" their lives, along with ours.

    To that end, we have to build stronger channels of communications with Iran. Specifically, we must increase our contact with the country by creating more opportunities for cultural exchanges. People-to-people talks, as called for by the new government, need not be limited to exchanges between Americans and Iranians. We should have more contact -- on a cultural and political level -- between Iranian expatriates and Iranians living in the country, in order to have both sides gain a better understanding of each other's worlds. Moreover, it behooves our cause to voice our opinions inside the country by turning to the mass media there and also finding ways to allow our countrymen to reach us through their writing here. Remember, evolutionary change means dialogue and converting viewpoints. This process in not limited to the government's view. We need to contribute to the strengthening of democratic initiatives in Iran and to its fledging civil society and add our voice to the concert started by the Iranian people.

    Finally, I should add that we have not yet learned to take advantage of one of the most obvious tools we have at our disposal and greatly lag behind our fellow Iranians who reside in the country in that regards. We don't vote! Iranian expatriates were clearly not a significant part of the movement that brought Khatami to power. It is important to start participating in elections and being recognized as a substantial constituency in order to increase our political clout in Tehran.

    I am not advocating that we should always vote. Boycotting an election is a very powerful message that any citizen can send. The low voter turn up at the recent Assembly of Experts elections in Iran attests to this fact. However, it is only after we start voting that we can engage in symbolic "boycotts" of certain elections in protest. Moreover, by casting votes we would be refuting the philosophy that a government's power does not come from the people, if only in token gesture. For the time being, in the eyes of the Islamic Republic we remain potential cash cows sought for their education and money, and not as citizens with the limited voting power as other Iranians.

    In the United States

    The above point about our voting habits leads well into a discussion of our key strengths and weaknesses in the United States. While many may argue that they will not participate in the electoral process of the Islamic Republic as it is far from democratic, free or inclusive, it is harder to justify our failure to become a significant constituency in the American political system.

    There are a number of explanations to this phenomenon. Perhaps the most significant is that it took us a while to admit that we are not in temporary transit awaiting a return to Iran. Slowly, as the years went by we understood that we are an immigrant group, like it or not, and that American politics have a direct impact on our lives.

    It is obscene that the American government and Congress pay no attention to our sentiments when taking major stands on issues that deal with Iran. Many of us have become American citizens, but why are we not making our political weight felt in Washington? Why is it that the only expatriate group that has managed so far to consistently make American politicians lend them a listening ear has been the Mojahedin Khalq Organization?

    We are not even a big part of facilitating the people-to-people initiatives. Fortunately, there are encouraging signs in this regard and we are gradually grasping the workings of mainstream American politics. New organizations such as the Iranian-American Republican Council or the Iranians for International Cooperation are flourishing on our collective political map and adding their voice to the cacophony of Washington lobbies. But we have a long way to go on the road to having our weight felt in American politics.

    The same recommendations as the Iranian case apply in the U.S. as well. We need to study and understand the system better than we do in order to influence it. We need to make our voices heard louder and more often. We must add our culture values and ideas to the American political landscape.

    Truth is, we have a duty that we should not turn our back on. Let me give you a simple example. Somehow, as an Iranian holding American citizenship, I feel responsible for the fact that sanctions against Iran mean that an Iranian student needs to travel to Turkey or another country just to take the TOEFL, GRE, or SAT exam. I recall that in a brief response to Khatami's CNN interview, during a press conference Clinton directly alluded to the fact that Iranian students have had a very positive role in American universities. Still, during an atmosphere where benign diplomatic innuendoes are highly sought after, we did not even attempt asking the Administration for these exams to be exempted from the Iran sanctions. We should in fact be in a position to demand it.

    What I suggest in this regard is a policy of engagement. There is no need to reinvent the wheel while we can easily benefit from the experience of the best there is. It is simple, really. I propose that we should start showing up to the leadership training seminars and other events organized by the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) for their youth. Not only will this create an opportunity to learn the fine skills of community organization and grassroots lobbying, but it also takes away from AIPAC's ability to spread misinformation about Iran through a deliberate campaign to further its own political agenda. I know first hand that this happens, and that the presence of one person can make a great difference. Dialogue between civilizations is most useful when we stop preaching to the converted, break taboos, and accost those with vehemently different ideologies than ours with a iconoclastic attitude that is at the same time tolerant and respectful.

    Our ultimate goal in our new home should be to take over as many decision-making positions in political nodes of power as possible. The obvious benefit of doing so is an enhanced ability to combat discriminatory acts towards us. But it is also important to go back to the idea of a creating triangular pressure for progressive change. The more political bodies we can influence, the more havoc we can raise against oppression back in Iran. Moreover, it should be remembered that this is a new world we live in. A world where setting off the right triggers makes renown dictators such as Pinochet lose their safe havens in Europe and fear international warrants for their arrest. We are exactly the kind of people who can get our fingers on these triggers.

    Concluding Remarks

    Hyphenated Iranians have been pathetically lacking in political influence in both countries they represent. Nevertheless, this is the result of our own attitude and choosing disengagement rather than an inherent deficiency of power. In fact, given our collective intellectual and financial capital we have a potent, if dormant, political arsenal at our disposal.

    I suggest that it is time to put aside our excuses and to step up to our responsibility as the natural bridge between two cultures and civilizations by engaging and influencing both their mainstream politics. As expatriates, we have our own unique agenda that we need to clearly define and implement. This takes time and patience, in addition to adroit political maneuvering, for we are challenged to make sustainable reforms.

    Understandably, a policy of gradual engagement spurs many emotional dilemmas for us, especially in regards to the Islamic Republic. But things are changing in Iran and a small space has been created for the maneuvers of civil society, if with an unpredictable ebb and flow. There is no arguing that the situation in Iran is very far from where most of us would like it to be. The country's human rights record is appalling, people lack in very basic freedoms, and to top it off they have to feel the weight of brutal economic times. However, so long as we sit idly by waiting for the situation in Iran to improve on its own, we are but an apathetic group awaiting Mahdi's appearance in one form or the other. We have to get involved and engage in the process of change for the better. We must also increase our ties with Iran in order not to drift too far away from the needs and wants of our fellow Iranians back home.

    As a fledging diaspora, there is much that we are yet to define and to work out individually and as a group, before there is a real "we" to speak of. Just keep in mind that someday we will have to explain our actions, or rather inaction, to our children when they ask us what we have done in the face of this storm. Even worse, we may have to find a way to forgive ourselves for the fact that they don't even care to ask.

    I wish to thank all those who read and commented on this piece before it was published. My particular thanks to Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, Sussan Tahmasebi, and Trita Parsi whose thought provoking challenges send me back to the drawing board and gave me much to think about. Unfortunately, I have failed to incorporate their wisdom in a deserving way and the flaws of this article remain all my own.


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