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For the past three months, a small yet very vocal group of us, living in a Midwest U.S. state, had held 14 rallies and 4 candle-light vigils in three different cities, in support of pro-democracy movement in Iran and in protesting gross violations of human rights there. Our actions had found widespread support among the local public so much so that a local U.S. Congressman, Thaddeus McCotter, became the single outspoken voice of Iranians in U.S. House of Representative.
Now that the opportunity had come to join others in front of United Nations to let Ahmadinejad and his backers know that they have not succeeded in suppressing our voice of freedom, we mobilized quickly. Aware that Ahmadinejad would speak at U.N. General Assembly at about 5 p.m. on September 23rd, 2009, we made plans to be there on that day and hour. A substantial group of us, because of work and family commitments, chose to take a one-day round trip flight to New York City; while others travelled by minivans and personal vehicles, planning to be there for the entire 3-day of protests before United Nations.
En-route to New York City, the spirit of camaraderie was such that I had not seen among Iranians since the first few months of 1979. When we arrived in the morning of September 23rd, because of heavy traffic and police control, the private van service we had chartered from the airport could not take us all the way to the protest sites. He dropped us at the nearest point he could and so we walked along the 2nd Avenue to 44th street and then along 44th street to 1st Avenue. We had just turned around the corner leaving 44th street and entering the 1st Avenue when we passed by Ted Turner and his beautiful female companion, both wearing U.N. special guest blue badges around the neck. I wanted to call the founder of CNN and ask if CNN is giving full and proper coverage to the 3-Day protests against Ahmadinejad’s visit or will CNN give the UN protests reporting a lip-service as it did to the millions+ pro-democracy protests held in Iran’s major cities on September 18th. But I muttered to myself that my questioning Ted Turner will not probably change CNN policy whatever that is, as he now may have little influence there. At 43rd street, various American-Jewish organizations had gathered along with other American civic organizations such as United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). There were some there who also carried posters and banners of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The entire length of 1st Avenue from 42nd street to 47th street was blocked by police, only allowing the U.N. traffic, which was often escorted by police. The U.N. building is located at the corner of 44th and 1st. Trucks and city buses passing by carried on their body huge anti-Ahmadinejad billboards, with scenes of Basiji attacks on peaceful protests in Iran streets. These and other displays were paid for by Amnesty International, Human Right Watch and other human rights organizations. One could not escape such displays all around Manhattan. Then there were kiosk posters and banners posted by UANI at bus shelters and on buses decrying the dangers of a nuclear Iran headed by irrational men who would not hesitate to “sacrifice” the lives of millions of innocent people for their geopolitical gains, while giving it a religious justification and sanction.
Iranians with flags and posters in hand, showing pictures from violent crackdowns in Iranian streets or photos of those who had been tortured, raped and killed, were pouring from every direction. New Yorkers on foot walking along the same streets would give us the victory sign while those driving would blow their horns and wave in support. One Caucasian New Yorker female driving in opposite direction to us had posted atop her brand new Lexus a large white cardboard poster which read in huge black letters: “A New Synonym for Courage: Iranian Women!”
There was huge police presence. We had heard that NYPD had brought support personnel from Albany Police Department due to presence of vast number of protesters. Also, Islamic Republic of Iran had hired “security protection” from Nation of Islam. The intent was to intimidate the protesters as security men of Nation of Islam in their black suits, white shirts and black or red bow-ties had an ominous and menacing presence both at the protest sites as well as Ahmadinejad’s hotel: Intercontinental at Barcley. Yet, they failed in scaring anyone into silence or flight.
Various Iranian political groups, all banned in Iran, were present. Among them were various Iranian TV stations in Los Angeles and their entourage, the royalists, the constitutional monarchists, Mojahedin-e Khalgh, the “Greens” (Voices4Iran, et. al), the Fedaiis (both Majority and Minority factions), Tudeh Party, the Socialist Worker Path of Iran, Communist Party of Iran, Worker-communist Party of Iran (WPI), … Yet, as I surveyed the crowd, the majority belonged to those who were not associated or affiliated with any of these groups, had no political affiliation, and merely were opposed to rule of theocratic tyranny in Iran. Each group had their own tent and platform, with banners and speakers. They all cried the very same slogans as those shouted in Iran’s streets during the past three months, yet because they were not synchronized, while group “A” shouted slogan “B”, group “B” shouted slogan “D”, group “C” shouted slogan “F”, and so on; creating a sort of disharmonious slogan chanting which changed as you walked past each group into next.
The absent from the protest was the Baha’i community in the United States, or so I thought, as I did not notice any signs indicating their presence. I surveyed the crowd for their presence but could not find them. I began asking around to no avail.
The most interesting feature of these protests for me was that for the first time in my life I was witness to Iranians from a broad and varied spectrum of political thought and affiliation gathering in one place in peace for a common cause without attacking, insulting, and accusing one another. Though there were many localized discussions and debates, often comprising of not more than 2 or 3 individuals, yet the general decorum was of civility and respect. I proudly repeated to myself that “finally, after decades of living abroad something of western democracy has rubbed off on us.” I recalled then the days and years I was involved in Peace Now movement and remembered my Ashkenazi Jewish friends’ lamentations about difficulties of even carrying a conversation with Sephardic Jews, who had never experienced living for generations in a democratic society and did understood little of it. I murmured to myself “how wonderful would it be if these millions of Iranians who have lived in democratic societies in Europe, U.S., Canada, and Australia for more than one generation would all return to Iran one day soon and re-build Iran where Megabyzus some 2500 years ago spoke of democracy at the Council of Darius.”
Without exception, posters, banners and slogans of all groups demanded a democratic, secular, and pluralistic Iran with a transparent and progressive government. The only disagreements were over the form of the government. This made me wonder if what all these groups had in common was not sufficient to form a strong alliance for regime change in Iran. I wondered why after some 30 years of living abroad we still had difficulty uniting over what we all had in common: a love for a free, democratic, secular and pluralistic Iran, where people’s happiness, prosperity, freedoms and security are the paramount concern of its elected, representative government.
I could not understand why all these groups could not have sat together in advance of these protests and formed a coalition over their common grounds so that at minimum slogans and activities at these protests would be all performed in unison and harmony.
Those questions ran in my head again, when at about 12:30 p.m., I noticed Reza Pahlavi along with two bodyguards and one elderly gentleman standing on the northwest sidewalk of 2nd street observing the protesters in the plaza along 47th street, between 1st and 2nd Avenue. I watched them as Reza Pahlavi pointed to certain points in the crowd while discussing something with the elderly gentleman. After about 2 minutes or so, they began walking along the sidewalk in the direction of the 46th street. I recalled when I had met him some 8 years earlier, in October 2001, at Logan International Airport, while I was heading back to Midwest and he had stopped over on his way to Washington, D.C., for a TV interview. We had talked then for nearly 40 minutes. It had been just some 40 days after September 11 terrorist attacks and I still recall how embarrassed he was as the airport security ran a bodily check on him while they let me through without it. He was then accompanied with one American bodyguard, one elderly gentleman, and one young man, Kamran Beigi, who introduced himself to me as Mr. Pahlavi’s press secretary. I not only found Mr. Pahlavi approachable but also sincere. I had then proposed the same to Mr. Pahlavi, asking if he was willing to first publicly announce that he has no interest in bringing back the rule of monarchy to Iran and then work with all Iranian political organizations opposed to theocracy and dictatorship to form a strong “Alliance for Democracy in Iran” to unseat the clerics from power. I offered that if he would, I would devote myself to that cause and contribute all that I had learned in grass-root organizing in the service of such coalition. On my way back from Boston, while on flight, I wrote a few-page letter to Reza Pahlavi, outlining the same. But I never heard back from him, so some 8 months later, I wrote on Iranian.com about a dream though I had little hope that it would ever come through. It has not yet.
There had been some small groups of 15-20 people protesting Moamar Qadhafi (the Libyan leader & the longest serving head of government in the world: 40+ years), then there were another 10-15 Chinese protesting the mistreatment of Falun Gong in China, and yet another 30 people or so protesting the repressive military junta in Burma and Chinese occupation of Tibet. By about 1:00 p.m., these groups who were situated beside our massive presence, to the southwest of us (southwest of 47th street & 1st Ave.), began seeping into our crowd and were hospitably welcomed by Iranians, sharing placards and standing together, side by side. They became part of our protests as many Iranians were holding their placards and they were holding our placards. It was a global union of hearts, minds and action against human rights violations and for the right to self-determination worldwide.
I walked back into the masses of protesters and ran into Jalil Bahar who stood in the midst of the California crowd, where Iranian “Hollywood” celebrities had gathered around a podium and microphone, speaking in turns, in poor English and poor Farsi as well. I only knew they were Iranian TV personalities from California because a companion pointed to each and let me know who they are. I have never watched Iranian TV programs in U.S. available via satellite broadcasts and admittedly so, know nothing of them. Another friend pointed to a tall gentleman and said “here is Mr.Saeid Shemirani.” That turned my head because I recalled that name from email exchanges that began only months ago with someone with a similar name. I heard then that the other Iranian TV personalities from California had refused to give Mr. Shemirani to join them on their soap box at the podium to speak to the crowd gathered around their stand. I wondered what their “beef” would be with Mr. Shemirani, of whom I also knew very little. Mr. Bahar, whom I had met through my Facebook page, turned to me and expressed his disappointment with everyone present as well, be it the California Iranian TV personalities or the Mojahedin.
At about this time, I ran into an Iranian gentleman whom during the course of the conversation I found to be of Baha’i faith. I asked him why the Baha’i community is not present. He replied there is some of Baha’i faith here and they had been there also yesterday. They had tried in advance to contact the organizers of the protest or to link with anyone of them, to no avail. It seemed they were not wanted and they were told so implicitly.
A 70+ year well-groomed old Iranian man in a suit approached me. He started to tell me that he had overheard my conversation with others. He went on to give me free advice that we were wasting our time and energy, pointing out how disorganized the whole protest had been. He told me that only foreign powers which brought the mollas to power will be the one to remove them, adding that Iran was cursed with oil and personality cults; where “every idiot thinks he and only he has the wherewithal to be the ‘leader’, never mind whether he has the qualification, intelligence, ability, aptitude or the prerequisites.” He asked me “with all the noise created in the past three months, what have you people accomplished?”
At about 4 p.m., I ran into a group of 6 or 7 cyclists who had, in protest against the Iranian regime and in support of pro-democracy movement in Iran, peddled all the way from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, to New York City. I was wonderfully surprised to see that among them there was a female cyclist too. All young people full of promise and full of hope. I made an attempt to shake the hands of each one and thank them. I looked around. The Voices4Iran now had finally gotten up on their stand, starting with “Yar-e Dabestani” hymn, encouraging the crowd to join. Then there came a rap group with a Farsi & English rap song about freedom, followed by a short speech by Prof. Mansour Farhang, Head of Iran’s Mission to U.N. during Bazargan’s Provisional Government, right after the Feb. 1979 revolution. Dr. Farhang resigned his office in the aftermath of hostage crisis in Dec. 1979. His speech, calling on Iranians to learn democratic values, to be tolerant of opposing ideas and organizations, to learn the requirement of a civil society and to integrate these values in their personal behavior and lives, was followed by strings of slogans. Yet, neither at the Voices4Iran soap box nor at any other ever mentioned or thanked these 6-7 young Iranians who had peddled for 4 straight days, despite rains and challenging terrains, to make a stance for democracy and human rights.
About 4:20 p.m., I saw Amir Abbas Fakhravar and his female companion walking into the Voices4Iran crowd. He kept looking around to see if anyone recognized him but no one paid any attention to him. He tried hard to get the organizers to take a group picture with him but I guess that did not work. In the past 30 years, there had been only one Iranian opposition organization, which because of wisdom of its leaders; its name had not been tainted and dragged through the mud. This probably because its leadership decided to disband it in 1979, assuming its mission had ended. But Amir Abbas Fakhravar by using the name of Confederation of Iranian Students and resurrecting it without even seeking the collaboration of its earlier leaders or even following CIS’s original principles, has now done to that organization what neither the Shah nor the clerics of Islamic Republic had been able to do. Mind you that CIS with Mr. Fakhravar seems to be a one-man organization that exists only in name and on a website. It does not have much of an organization and does not do any grass-root work or take serious political action. It is been resurrected just in name to promote Mr. Fakhravar’s personal agenda of self-promotion. Confederation of Iranian Students, as an organization, was absent, for example, from any of the protests before U.N. It had no booth, no tent, no stand, no speaker, and no program. It was as if it did not exist. Fakhravar’s CIS has accomplished not a single action in the direction of democracy or human rights for Iran. But it was not just Fakhravar’s CIS which was absent but also NIAC, Iranian-American Council, PAAIA, and many such organizations who only claim in words but fail in action when it comes to defend the cause of democracy and human rights in Iran. I also saw no sign of Akbar Ganji and his clique. Such personalities seemed to be absent from the UN protests on Sept. 23rd.
At about 5:20 p.m., we were witness to a stand-off near the Worker-communist Party of Iran’s tent. A woman had strolled into the crowd carrying a flag of Islamic Republic of Iran while still shouting slogans against Ahamdinejad and for MirHossein Mousavi. People in the WPI’s camp had gotten into an argument with her, asking her to abandon her flag. She had refused and the refusal led to a scuffle. People around the WPI’s stand gathered around and tried to settle the scuffle before police arrives, but still neither side was giving up. There were some pushing and shoving and finally, some grabbed the flag out of her hand and set it on fire. The police which had arrived there by then stood at a distance and watched, having decided not to get involved. The situation gradually turned to normal as the two conflicting parties separated after the flag had been burnt.
Having witnessed this last event, I gradually walked away from the crowd and left the protest site. But for hours and days since then, I have been reflecting on what I had heard, what I had seen, and what I had sensed. I am trying to draw some perspective out of this protest. What is critical to me is to understand how far we have come in our political and social maturity. Have we learned anything in the past 30 years? And if so what have we learned? For those of us who have lived in the West, do we now know and practice in our personal behavior anything markedly different than 30 years ago? Have we truly learned anything about democracy and democratic values in the past 30 years? Do we have a good and proper understanding of what civil society is and to what norms of social behavior does the term “civil society” refer?
Once I have evaluated all these, and have a firm grasp of my observations vis-à-vis these questions, I promise to share them with you. But I like to hear your opinions and your answers to the above questions. Looking forward to hearing from you all, I close this narrative.
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