My Iranian Learning Curve

WASHINGTON — There are learning curves and then there are learning curves, and there seems to be no greater disadvantage than the one the American media is suffering from when it comes to Iran.

Me included.

Fancy that. Engaging Iran, with which we have had this powerfully emotional and ultimately dysfunctional relationship going back decades, is one of the most critical foreign policy issues of our times. And yet our understanding of its culture and politics — its people — is no deeper than a teaspoon.

This was driven home to me with a neon sign as I settled in to cover the annual conference of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) in Washington on Monday. Of course, I had a pretty good idea of one thing — that this group and its speakers would be opposed to the U.S. using military force to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. While not everyone in the Iranian-American Diaspora necessarily agree, NIAC and its ubiquitous president Trita Parsi have made it crystal clear that is where they stand.

But looking around the room, listening to the eminently qualified journalists, intellectuals, and philosophers on the dais, hearing the cogent questions from the mostly Iranian-American audience, I felt, well, out of my league. U.S. foreign policy with Iran as described by our “best and brightest” politicians — bomb or sanction? Contain or destroy? — seems like it’s coming from Toontown compared to the elevated discourse found here, where Iranians are considered more than a faceless monolith but a deeply passionate, highly educated people, suspicious of America’s intentions, but chafing under a brutal government that uses foreign crises to crack down on dissent and maintain its legitimacy.

This is what I learned: there’s a labyrinth of political factions and scheming by Grand Ayatollah Khamenei that would make Machiavelli proud and take me six months to untangle. There’s a global Diaspora that is factional and cliquish and practically invisible to non-Iranians like me. There’s a Green Movement that’s been driven dormant by the 2009 crackdown in the streets of Tehran. It is waiting for the moment to re-converge but people are hungry for food and jobs, not protests.

That was probably the biggest message to hit me today. Rather than the war that looks to be delayed — at least until next spring — the real issue is the sanctions, which according to the experts on the stage, seem to be hurting ordinary Iranians while emboldening the totalitarian impulses of the regime, especially against the media and access to vital information from the outside world.

“The economic concerns these days are more important than anything I can think of,” said Nazila Fathi, who worked as a reporter for The New York Times for nearly 20 years before she was exiled by the regime in 2009. She sat on a panel Monday about how the Iranian-American Diaspora could facilitate change (like assist the democracy movement) from the outside. All seemed to agree that the regime was no closer to relenting under the pressure of sanctions than a year ago.

“The majority of people,” however, “are wary of sanctions, the majority of the people are under economic pressure. It is very hard for any kind of Democracy movement in the country to have the space and room for activism when the country’s leaders have gone into crisis mode,” Fathi said.

“In Iran, we have a vibrant society that is looking for democratic change. The question is, are the sanctions stunting or promoting it?” said Farideh Farhi, an Iranian-American scholar and author who sat on the panel about U.S./Iran relations.

“I make the argument that it is stunting it. Look at what happened in the United States after 9/11 — it became more securitized. You have to have a conversation about what foreign pressure is. Those people who are promoting sanctions — and there are quite a few of them in the Iranian community — have to address it and without name calling.”

The fact is, the Iranian conversation in this country — in the mainstream media and among politicians — revolves around a single narrative about competing tactical approaches. One, represented by neoconservatives and legislators friendly to the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) line, is that the only message the regime will respond to is the threat of force. Two, represented by the Obama Administration and more moderate “realists” in Washington, is that negotiations, combined with tough economic sanctions, and not war, will bring the regime around to non-proliferation.

Left behind is one in which only diplomacy will work. Ambassador Robert Hunter, who spoke Monday, said it all when he replied simply: “Number one, sanctions don’t work. Number two, sanctions don’t work. Number three, sanctions don’t work.”

“If we wanted Iran to get the bomb, I would be doing exactly what we are doing.”

The panelists noted that economic sanctions have not only contributed to job loss and economic hardship, but they are inhibiting vital communication between the democratic movement and their supporters outside, thanks to an embargo on technology imports. While promoters of sanctions suggest the pressure is working, that it could trigger the “next Arab Spring,” a revolt of the working class against the regime in Iran, others say the mullahs could just as likely double down. They point to Saddam Hussein in the face of brutal sanctions in the 1990’s.

“The reality now is, the current American position of shaking hands with Iran with one hand … while slapping Iran with the other hand … it’s against common sense. It’s against common sense if the objective is to stop the nuclear program,” said Farhi.

“Maintaining sanctions is egging on the regime,” she added, “and it is a path to war in my point of view. The calamity that kind of war would bring is clear.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, the value of Iranian currency plunged on Sept. 1 to a new record low, with the rial reflecting a street value of 32,500 to the U.S. dollar. Overall, since sanctions went into effect, the currency’s value has dropped 70 percent, driving up inflation and the cost of food.

But for his part, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continued to bluster in the face of his adversaries in recent interviews following his United Nation’s appearance that week. After telling CNN’s Fareed Zakaria Sunday that he is not taking the military threats from Israel, nor the U.S. seriously, he said sanctions would not “bring Iran to its knees.”

The NIAC panelists insisted that only diplomatic negotiations — done right, with realistic goals and expectations, with both sides willing to make compromises from the start — will hope to prevent Iran from building a bomb (though there is no certainty, yet, that Iran has even decided to build a bomb). Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who coauthored a recent paper arguing against the military option, and was the only speaker Monday morning to support sanctions, suggested negotiations have been sidelined because of the presidential elections.

“The success of the Obama administration with Iran on a scale between zero and 100 measures somewhere between zero and five,” he quipped. If talks resume in earnest after the election they should be one-on-one. “They should proceed on a basis that would open up the entire panoply of differences … over and above the nuclear questions.” That would take a heck of a lot of trust building, he noted.

On the other hand, speakers like London-based Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari say there is plenty the Diaspora can do in the meantime, like push for the end of sanctions and encourage the democracy movement on the ground. Just as important, they can help interpret the politics here for the Iranians there, and help explain how the issues are framed there, for people with a learning curve here, like me.

“Our main duty is to be part of this internal discourse,” said Bahari. “We need to understand their narrative and for people living outside of the country we need to interpret these narratives and share these narratives with others. I think that is what’s missing, they don’t understand the Iranian narrative.”

Sadly there didn’t seem to be much media at the NIAC conference yesterday, learning about the narrative. But it wasn’t surprising — in a world where cutting corners, lazy journalism and the easy sound bites reign, Toontown will always prevail.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.