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Iranian Americans: Critical Link Between Washington and Tehran
By Stephen Kaufman | Staff Writer | 06 October 2011
Congressman Jim Moran, shown speaking in front of the U.S. Capitol, says the U.S. needs Iranian Amercians to develop a more sophisticated and expansive relationship with Iran.
Washington — Iranian Americans can help improve communication between the peoples of their current and ancestral homelands. A U.S. lawmaker has urged them to step up their outreach to elected officials and their fellow Americans to help increase American understanding of Iran’s society and politics.
Speaking October 3 at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) conference in Washington, Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia said that for most Americans, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are “the face of Iran,” but as many Iranian Americans can attest, “that’s not what Iran is.”
“We need to understand that there are a whole lot of other people in Iran that we need to be dealing with, and have a much more sophisticated and expansive relationship [with], and that’s the kind of relationship we can really only generate with Iranian Americans,” Moran said.
NIAC, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that works to advance the interests of Iranian Americans, invited community members from across the country to attend a three-day leadership conference where they could see and learn how U.S. government decisions are made.
Moran cited a poll by Zogby International that showed six in 10 Iranian Americans have immediate family members in Iran, while seven in 10 talk to their friends and family in the country several times a month.
Given the more than 30-year break in diplomatic relations between the two countries, most Americans, including their elected officials, “know less about Iran than we do any other large country in the world,” he said.
Moran cited the September 20 remarks by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen in which Mullen warned that because there are no real channels of communication between Tehran and Washington, “we don’t understand each other.”
Even in “the darkest days of Cold War,” U.S. officials had links to their counterparts in the former Soviet Union, Mullen said. But in the case of Iran, “if something happens … it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right, that there will be miscalculations which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world.”
Moran told NIAC members, “We need to hear from you.” Iranian Americans “should be the source of our most accurate information on what is going on in Iran.”
For example, he said, the U.S.-based community was able to follow the events leading up to the June 2009 presidential election, which Ahmadinejad claimed to have won. Thanks to Iranian-American contacts with their friends and families, “we are able to know beyond dispute that those elections were neither free nor fair,” Moran said.
The June 2009 election and the subsequent wave of protests that swept the country have helped to refocus the community’s priorities, he said.
In a 2008 poll, 54 percent of Iranian Americans said U.S. domestic issues such as the economy and jobs, as well as concerns over discrimination, were deemed a priority, while the U.S.-Iran relationship and internal Iranian issues were cited as being most important to only around one-third of those polled.
“Only a year later, after the Iranian elections, those numbers have flipped. Now a majority cite foreign policy issues … as most important,” Moran said, adding that the increased interest “is good for our policy community.”
Moreover, he said Iranian Americans are participating in the U.S. political system “at a level that is not seen in most other ethnic and national groups.” He cited a recent survey from Zogby that said four out of five community members are registered to vote.
“That is more than 10 points higher than the general population and it’s almost 30 points higher than the voter registration figures for Muslim Americans,” he said.
Those numbers “should yield political progress” for the Iranian-American community, he said, urging them to be more active in U.S. politics. “Your contribution is needed,” he told the conference attendees.
Moran was asked about how the United States can support the efforts of democratic reformers in Iran without enabling Iranian authorities to discount or repress them by portraying them as the pawns of foreign countries.
The congressman said previous U.S. attempts to provide funding to promote democracy or civil society groups in Iran have backfired, with the money being seen as tainted, or by getting the recipients into trouble.
The most powerful weapon in the U.S. arsenal to promote democracy in Iran is the export of its ideals, which speak to universal values and basic human aspirations, Moran said.
He said statistics provided by the U.S. Library of Congress, which has digitized many of its materials on its website, show that Persian-language speakers are its second largest community of online users.
Moran said the library and other sources are disseminating the ideas that formed the foundation of the U.S. democratic system and have encouraged its continued support for universal rights.
“There are certain ideas that can’t be suppressed or eliminated,” he said.
“People want some spiritual nourishment. Nothing you can do can take that out of a human being. People want the truth. It’s just a universal need. People want justice. People want the ability to speak freely,” Moran said.