(Persia Digest) - Nahal Toosi writes in the Politico that divisions in the community and opposition to the administration’s travel ban face Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he addresses leaders this weekend.
As President Donald Trump looks for ways to pressure the Islamist government in Tehran, he is seeking the support of Iranian-Americans in the U.S. — even though his administration has barred their Iranian relatives from visiting, imposed sanctions on their ancestral homeland and is suspected of sidelining an Iranian-American official partly due to her heritage.
Prominent members of the Iranian-American community have been invited to a gathering on Sunday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Simi Valley, California, where he will deliver a speech, titled “Supporting Iranian Voices,” and engage in a Q&A, according to the State Department.
The unusual outreach to Iranian-Americans is a facet of a ramped-up public diplomacy campaign the Trump team is pursuing as part of a broader, if still fuzzy, strategy on Iran, a country that the White House maintains is a major threat to America and its Middle East allies.
Already, the administration has issued 12 demands of Iran’s clerical leaders, a list so broad that some analysts say it amounts to a call for regime change. The administration has also increased its use of social media targeting Iranians, using Twitter and other platforms to cheer on protests in Iran, highlight the government’s economic mismanagement and, especially lately, challenge its abuse of human rights.
In a May speech in which he unveiled the 12 demands, Pompeo promised that the Trump administration would “advocate tirelessly for the Iranian people,” adding: “The regime must improve how it treats its citizens.”
But trying to get Iranian-Americans on board with Trump’s agenda will be a tricky task. Iranian-Americans, while generally well-educated, economically well-off and unhappy with the government in Tehran, hold diverse political views. Many support gradual reform in Iran and disdain what they see as Trump’s ethnic and religious chauvinism. Some support a change of leadership and are happy to see a U.S. president stand up to the clerics in Tehran. There are monarchists and hard-core secularists among them. And many simply try to avoid politics altogether.
“I don’t think that anyone in U.S. politics really understands the fractures in the Iranian-American community,” said Kia Hamadanchy, an Iranian-American from California who recently mounted an unsuccessful Democratic bid for Congress. “But I do think it is smart for the administration, as public relations, to seek Iranian-American voices who support their policies, even if their policies are wrong-headed or dumb and not supported by the majority in the community.”
The divisions have become apparent in recent days as prominent Iranian-Americans have debated among themselves whether to accept the invitations to the Pompeo speech.
The Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans told POLITICO that some of its representatives would attend. PAAIA stressed that it disagreed with many of the administration’s policies, including Trump’s decision to scuttle the nuclear agreement, which gave Iran relief from sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
till, “it’s important for Iranian-Americans to have a direct line of communication with officials that create and implement policy that affects our community,” the group said in a statement.
The National Iranian American Council, on the other hand, said its staff appeared to have been blackballed by the administration and that it might stage protests against Pompeo’s speech. The organization, a major defender of the Iran nuclear deal whose leaders have vociferously criticized Trump, has not gone so far as to urge Iranian-Americans to decline the invitation.
But it is warning them not to get used as props.
“Just as the Bush administration cultivated a few Iraqi exiles and talked about human rights to provide legitimacy for a disastrous invasion of Iraq,” the group said, “the Trump administration appears intent on using Iranian exiles to advance dangerous policies that will leave the Iranian people as its primary victims.”
Sunday’s event is being held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Center for Public Affairs. A State Department spokesman said Pompeo would take questions from the audience, although an invitation to the gathering indicated that questions must be submitted in advance.
The audience is not limited to Iranian-Americans, and lawmakers are expected to be among the attendees. Choosing to hold the event in California, however, is logical given the large number of the state’s residents with Iranian ancestry, estimated in the hundreds of thousands at least.
The State Department declined to say who among the Iranian diaspora it had invited, but the guest list appears to include a range of activists, analysts and business leaders, as well as representatives of the Iranian-American Jewish community and other minority groups.
An Iranian-American community organizer said invitees had been assured there would be an opportunity to talk to Pompeo and other administration officials beyond the speech and Q&A. The invitations sent to the Iranian-Americans include an after-program dinner.
Some Iranian exiles targeted by the Islamist government have also been invited, although it’s not clear how many will attend. They include Masih Alinejad, who has fought the Iranian leadership’s rules mandating that women wear headscarves and who recently released a book about her efforts.
Alinejad won’t attend because she doesn’t want her cause to be affiliated with any political faction, said Nazee Moinian, a well-connected Iranian-American consultant who spoke on Alinejad’s behalf.
Moinian, who is Jewish and advised Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign on Iran policy, plans to attend. She noted the diverse views held by Iranian-Americans but maintained that the “common denominator for all who are going is that they know this regime in Tehran does not serve the interests of the Iranian people.”
Others who plan to attend said they were doing so partly out of curiosity, even if they are deeply unhappy with some Trump administration policies on Iran.
The travel ban in particular has galled Iranian-Americans. The ban covers a handful of mainly Muslim countries, but Iranians are the largest group affected. Trump says the ban is an anti-terrorism measure, but it has had the effect of keeping out of the U.S. numerous ordinary Iranians, including some who’d hoped to go to college in America or simply visit relatives.
Opponents of the travel ban say it is a cruel, bigoted and hypocritical policy by an administration that insists it cares about the people of Iran.
“If the administration really cared about the human rights of Iranians, it would lift the travel ban,” said one Iranian-American who plans to attend Pompeo’s speech but asked not to be identified by name.
Iranian-American activists have also been troubled by other moves the Trump administration has made that smack of discrimination against Muslims or others from the Middle East.
One case that caught the community’s attention was that of Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, an accomplished U.S. civil servant who was pushed out of a top State Department position after discussions among Trump administration officials that included the false assertion that she was born in Iran. Nowrouzzadeh was also attacked by the conservative media, which questioned her loyalty to Trump and her role in helping craft the Iran nuclear deal.
Most Iranian-Americans, according to surveys commissioned by PAAIA, supported keeping the nuclear deal, which was negotiated under President Barack Obama.
Trump’s decision to scrap the agreement, and thus reimpose sanctions, has many Iranian-Americans worried about the effect those sanctions will have on ordinary Iranians who already deal with a shaky economy. But, anecdotally at least, some hope that the sanctions will help prompt the collapse of the clerical leadership, and they point to recent protests in Iran as signs of the strain.
One Iranian diaspora faction that has supported many Trump policies is the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a group with leftist roots that the U.S. previously listed as a terrorist outfit. But the MEK has few backers in Iran, even though it has major defenders among Trump’s aides and confidants. Among those who’ve spoken at MEK events are Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton.
It’s not clear whether anyone affiliated with the controversial group has been invited to Pompeo’s speech. A spokesman for the MEK did not respond to a request for comment.
Some Iranian-Americans, meanwhile, support restoring the monarchy in Iran, whose shah fled amid the late-1970s revolution that brought the Islamists to power. Reza Pahlavi, the son of the late shah, lives in the U.S. and describes himself as an advocate for secular democracy in Iran. His office said on Wednesday that it is aware of the event and that Pahlavi “supports and encourages” such dialogue. It did not say whether Pahlavi was invited.
Among those hoping to attend is Goli Ameri, an Iranian-American businesswoman who served as an assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs during the administration of George W. Bush.
It’s not lost on her or others on the invite list that, no matter their views on Trump, they’re being an offered an opportunity that their brethren in Iran could only dream of.
“We are fortunate to call a country home that respects and solicits the voice of its citizens,” Ameri said.
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