Iranian Diaspora Struggles to Find Unified Voice

  • by Barbara Slavin (washington)
  • Tuesday, June 29, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

Opposition leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi had urged followers to stay home after failing to get government permission. Those who demonstrated anyway were risking arrest or worse.

In Washington, D.C., however, those who attended a solidarity rally on Jun. 12 had only to brave summer heat - and miss the last minutes of a U.S. match at the World Cup. Still, only a few hundred people showed up to march from the Iranian Interests Section in upper Georgetown to the White House and chant slogans such as 'Hey, hey, ho, ho. Dictator has to go.'

In the year since the election, the Iranian Diaspora has become linked to political events in Iran to an extent not seen since the 1978-79 revolution. But those outside Iran have also spent considerable time criticising each other and replaying old divisions, turning off potential supporters and distracting from the goal of political change at home.

The disputes play out in disagreements over slogans and banners at rallies. They also proliferate in virtual space such as Facebook, where many expatriates earlier this year hyped the potential for the Green Movement to swiftly overturn the Islamic Republic.

'People with good intentions were confused about how to help encourage people to come out for Feb. 11 [the anniversary of the 1979 revolution],' says Omid Memarian, an expatriate Iranian journalist and human rights advocate. 'It's natural because what happened last year was very unexpected. Now they understand more how to contribute and have calmed down.'

One frustration for supporters of the Green Movement is that wealthy Iranian Americans seem reluctant to contribute to the cause.

An estimated four million Iranians live outside Iran, including close to one million in the United States. Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, estimates that Iranian Americans own or manage 700 billion dollars in assets.

At a recent event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Milani said that this is 'arguably the most successful Diaspora in the last 30 years to have come to the United States. They are disproportionately well- educated, they've been incredibly successful and now … they have begun to pay attention to politics and they're beginning to organise. And they can … become a virtual part of the Iranian civil society.'

Milani conceded, however, that this Diaspora 'hasn't realised that potential yet'.

Some members of the community fear retribution against relatives still in Iran and want to be able to continue to travel there without interference. Others are loath to trust organisations that have sprung up only in the past year.

'We do not have a good level of unity in the Iranian- American community,' says Ali Afshari, a former student activist in Iran and political prisoner who now helps direct one of the new groups, the Solidarity Committee to Protect the Iranian People's Will. 'We don't have a strong custom of contributing politically. In Iran, people give money for charity not for cultural or political causes.'

Afshari's group helped put together the Jun. 12 rally in Washington and a conference in May at George Washington University that focused on journalists imprisoned in Iran. However, the organisation had to cancel an event at Georgetown University to raise money for the estimated 4,000 recent Iranian political refugees in Turkey; not enough people purchased tickets from among the Iranian-American community, which in the Washington area numbers about 150,000.

U.S. officials complain that they get mixed messages from the Diaspora about how to deal with Iran. Iranian Americans disagree about sanctions and whether the goal should be to eliminate the Islamic Republic or simply to seek freer elections.

Hadi Ghaemi, who directs the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and co-founded another group, United4Iran, says that the community is divided between a majority that has not paid much attention to politics in Iran in the past and a small number that identify with distinct political factions.

The latter group includes monarchists, supporters of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq - a cult-like organisation that is on the U.S. terrorist list - as well as more recent exiles who follow reformist leaders Karroubi, Moussavi and former president Mohammad Khatami.

'The Iranian community suffers from a lack of trust,' says Mehdi Khalaji, a former clerical student in Qom who is now an Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 'We cannot talk to each other well… We don't tolerate each other.'

Khalaji adds, 'When people here talk about Iran, everyone has a different Iran in his mind.'

A recent émigré, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Fereshteh, blamed agents of the Iranian government who she said provoke fights at rallies over trivial matters such as which flags to display - that of the Islamic Republic or the pre-IRI banner.

'These fights … can also be seen between satellite TVs broadcasting in Iran,' she said. 'These differences are only causing the energy and potential to be dispersed in different directions but of course it [the Green Movement] is not going to die at all and the common goal for 'change' is shared by many.'

What happens in Iran, of course, depends first and foremost on those living there. Still, Iranians say they need the Diaspora to disseminate information and lobby foreign governments to pay more attention to human rights.

'Our primary role is to amplify what they are saying and interpret events in Iran for American audiences,' says Trita Parsi, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Organisations such as the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which Parsi co-founded, have also lobbied the U.S. government for sanctions that are targeted against the Iranian regime, rather than ordinary people. They successively sought the lifting of sanctions that blocked provision of U.S. technology that can help Iranians evade Internet censorship.

Legislation just passed by Congress could apply new penalties against foreign companies that do business with Iran's energy sector. A number of Iranian groups such as NIAC opposed that provision.

However, NIAC was pleased that the law also contains a section noting that it is in 'the national interest' of the United States to allow U.S. nongovernmental organisations to 'establish and carry out operations in Iran to promote civil society and foster humanitarian goodwill'.

Ghaemi says the Diaspora is also working hard to keep the spotlight on human rights abusers, lobbying foreign governments to press Iranian officials to abide by their own laws and international conventions and to 'name and shame' Iranians linked to torture and unjustified arrests and executions.

Hamid Zangeneh, a professor of economics at Widener University who came to the U.S. in 1972 and participated in demonstrations here against the Shah, says it was easier to mobilise the Diaspora then because the goal was more clear- cut and had obvious growing support in Iran.

Now, he says, 'we have to be careful because what we do here is going to play in the hands of the regime in repressing and suppressing people inside Iran… We don't want to do too much or too little.'

Zangeneh, who traveled to Washington to attend the Jun. 12 rally, said it was also important to take to the streets when it is so dangerous for Iranians to do so at home.

'I want to keep the flame going so in Iran people will see us here and know we are keeping an eye on the system and what they are doing,' he said. 'That is the most important thing we can do.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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