The Diaspora’s Conscience

Does the National Iranian American Council have a moral obligation to speak out against the ayatollahs?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In the epic poem The Book of Kings, the 11th-century Iranian bard Ferdowsi warns of how "Unrighteous thought and the turn of days / Combine to seal one’s fate." Ferdowsi’s verse expresses the ethical injunction, deeply ingrained in Persian culture, to speak truthfully in times of personal and collective crisis. Today, as the clerical regime in Tehran grows ever more repressive at home and defiant abroad, Iranian-Americans have a special responsibility to speak out clearly on the moral stakes at the heart of the U.S.-Iran conflict.

Unfortunately, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) — the most visible organization claiming to represent the community — has never fulfilled this duty. By cynically exploiting Iranian-Americans’ deepest fears and by misrepresenting the community’s true aspirations, NIAC promotes an Iran policy agenda that shortchanges both Iranians and Americans.

Consider NIAC research director Reza Marashi’s recent Foreign Policy article explaining why Iranian-Americans, in contrast with their Iraqi counterparts, are "so keen on dialogue with the mullahs who rule Iran." The first thing to note about this argument is that it is based on false premises. Reflecting on his own limited personal experiences, Marashi argues that though they "deeply resent the Iranian regime, [Iranian-Americans] prefer U.S. policies that emphasize engagement and de-escalation."

Widely available survey data belie these anecdotal findings. A 2011 Zogby poll commissioned by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), a nonpartisan organization that refrains from taking positions on foreign-policy issues, asked Iranian-Americans to identify their two top priorities for U.S. policy toward Iran. An overwhelming majority (63 percent) chose "promotion of human rights and democracy," while 30 percent chose "promoting regime change." In contrast, only 14 percent identified "preventing an American military strike against Iran" as one of their top two priorities. Yet Marashi and his NIAC colleagues have spent most of the last decade raising funds by instilling anxiety among members about the latter.

Marashi also distorts Iranian-Americans’ ultimate vision for their homeland, claiming that they "strongly prefer to use the rule of law to alter … the Iranian government’s behavior." Marashi’s clever choice of words here masks the reality on the ground in Iran, where there is no rule of law as such to accommodate meaningful reforms. As Marashi himself concedes, opposition figures within the Iranian establishment repeatedly sought, throughout the 1990s and during the 2009 presidential election, to liberalize the regime. They failed. Perhaps that’s why the Zogby/PAAIA poll found that 67 percent believe that "Iran should be a secular democracy," while only 6 percent believe that "any form of an ‘Islamic Republic’ would work well in Iran."

To suppress Iranian-Americans’ overwhelming appetite for fundamental change in Iran, Marashi resorts to scaremongering. Evoking "the ghosts of America’s neoconservative past," he predicts the rise of a new generation of Ahmed Chalabi-style exile politicians eager to lead "foreign armies into the motherland." Marashi thus frames the hundreds of thousands of Iranian-Americans who prefer a more robust U.S. policy toward the Khomeinist regime as national turncoats and opportunists. These smear tactics reveal Marashi’s lack of moral imagination. Rather than pursuing policies that would empower a generation of Iranian (and Iranian-American) Vaclav Havels and Aung San Suu Kyis, he is bent on intimidating the community.

NIAC’s own political vision is decidedly ayatollah-friendly. Since its founding in 2002, NIAC has consistently endeavored to shield the Iranian regime from Western sanctions and other forms of pressure. Prior to the 2009 post-election uprising, for example, NIAC rarely spoke out on the issue of human rights in Iran and, indeed, repeatedly sought to defund U.S. government programs for promoting democratization there.

Asked at a Middle East Policy Council forum in 2008 about the organization’s reluctance to address human rights issues, NIAC President Trita Parsi responded: "NIAC is not a human rights organization. That’s not our expertise." NIAC also notably opposed listing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — the military force that created Hezbollah and is the central lever in the mullahs’ vast repressive apparatus — as a foreign terrorist organization.

Today, the organization continues to advocate against sanctions capable of shifting the mullahs’ nuclear calculus. Any significant red lines and credible U.S. deterrents backing them, its leaders insist, are counterproductive to peaceful coexistence with the regime. What’s more, NIAC immediately smears any Iranian-Americans who dare to publicly diverge from its line as "neoconservative" warmongers and supporters of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, the bizarre terrorist cult that helped lead the 1979 uprising against the shah but was violently crushed by Khomeinist forces in the revolution’s aftermath.

Yet, as the recent signing of broad-based U.S. sanctions on Iran’s banking sector and the imposition of a European oil embargo demonstrate, the international community is coming around to the view held by the vast majority of Iranian-Americans all along: There is no peaceful coexistence with the repressive theocrats. NIAC has utterly failed to advance its legislative objectives; the U.S. Senate vote on sanctioning Iran’s central bank passed 100-to-0, over NIAC’s vociferous opposition. Despite remarkable access to the media, NIAC is an increasingly unrepresentative voice of the Iranian-American community.

As self-appointed ombudsmen, Marashi and his colleagues have a duty to reflect the actual values of their constituents. The statistics are clear: Iranians in the diaspora seek not to substitute President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government with a slightly more accountable one, but to uproot the current theocratic regime in its entirety. Iranian-Americans, sophisticated as they are, may differ on how exactly to achieve that aim. But no amount of obfuscation and alarmism will alter the will of the community. At this eleventh hour, NIAC’s leaders must change course rather than drive their organization into further irrelevance.

<p> Peter Kohanloo is an organizer in Boston's Iranian-American community. Sohrab Ahmari is an Iranian-American journalist and a nonresident associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. </p>