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March 5, 2008

Disrupting Discourse

On February 22, Amnesty International hosted a panel presentation and discussion titled, “Human Rights in Iran: How to Move Forward,” in Beverly Hills, California. The event was disrupted by Mohammad Parvin’s MEHR-Iran organization, various monarchist factions, and members of the outlawed Iranian Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK); and was cancelled after the opening remarks.

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The Amnesty event featured four Iran specialists (including NIAC president, Trita Parsi), and was organized to highlight Iran’s abysmal human rights record. Amnesty International organizers hoped to use this event to initiate talks with the Iranian-American community in Southern California about Iran’s human rights situation.

The MEHR-Iran, monarchist, and MEK groups in attendance rejected Amnesty International’s extended hand of cooperation, and instead embarrassed not only themselves, but the entire Iranian-American community. By setting back the efforts of one of the world’s premiere human rights groups, these radical Iranian Americans managed to do the Iranian government’s dirty work for them.

As an extension of our working relationship with Amnesty International—including NIAC’s own July 2007 conference, “Human Rights in Iran and US Policy Options,” held on Capitol Hill (transcript here)—Trita was invited to participate on the February 22 panel. In the days prior to the panel discussion, MEHR-Iran (a self-described Human Rights organization) demanded that Amnesty exclude NIAC from the event (a tactic they tried at NIAC’s July conference as well). Their belligerent harassment of Amnesty staff in July reached so high that Amnesty’s lawyers had to step in and put a stop to it.

Still, MEHR-Iran and its friends pressed on, intent on disrupting the efforts of a leading human rights organization. They organized a counter-event in the same building as the Amnesty event. This MEHR meeting became the breeding ground for their plans to demonstrate against and disrupt Amnesty’s panel.

An Iranian-American (and former Amnesty International board member) acted as the event’s moderator. His introductory remarks (in English) were met with a loud outcry from the Iranian oppositional groups, complaining in Persian that they do not understand English and demanding that he speak in Persian. Amnesty, an American organization whose events are always in English, had six staffers present, only one of whom spoke Persian. Similarly, the audience included dozens of non-Iranian guests that had come to learn about the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran.

When the audience settled down a bit, the moderator, continuing in English, reminded the audience that Amnesty was videotaping the event, and that no other recording of the event was permissible.

Chaos commenced.

Standing up and shouting in Persian, a producer with PARS TV demanded that, “on behalf of Iranian media outlets in Los Angeles,” Amnesty International must permit PARS TV to tape the event. As he finished, a few dozen people started shouting at the top of their lungs “Maarg bar Jomhoorieh Eslami” (Death to the Islamic Republic), very reminiscent of the “Death to America” chants we still hear in some quarters in Iran. People started marching around the room with placards held high, continuing to scream and yell. A few members of the audience started yelling back. One woman came to the front and insisted, “I drove two hours from Orange County to hear this talk; you are taking away my right to listen to this panel!”

Police officers, library staff, Amnesty’s own staff from DC, and about half of the audience in the 150-seat hall were all in shock, and were not able to control the demonstrators. It was obvious that the protesters only attended to disrupt the event—not to create meaningful dialogue. Amnesty International was forced to cancel the event.

With the announcement of the event’s cancellation, the most bizarre incident of the night erupted: Sparked by some of their own chants, the demonstrators started to scream at one another. Only minutes before, these groups were on the same side of the battle. Now bitter foes, the monarchists lined the room on one side, and MEK supporters lined the room on the other side. Profanities flew, as people chanted, screamed and yelled at each other. It was absolute chaos and an absolute embarrassment to the Iranian-American community living in California.

This incident illustrates the great frustration that legitimate human rights organizations have when working on Iranian human rights issues in the United States. Instead of being able to tap into the expertise and experience of the Iranian-American community, these organizations have learned to keep a healthy distance from our community—from the radicals still mired in the mindset and tactics of a bygone era.

And it’s no wonder why.

The destructive and disruptive behavior exhibited by MEHR Iran, an isolated human rights organization, does not legitimize the cause. Instead, by stifling the ability of internationally recognized human rights organizations to function in our community, these groups are actually providing a cover and a service to the very same Iranian theocracy they profess to oppose.

The February 22 Amnesty event, though shameful and tragic for the Iranian oppositional groups involved, has revived our conviction that NIAC has to step up to the plate. We have to work twice as hard with organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—as well as with groups in our own community who legitimately work for human rights—to correct the wrongs of groups like MEHR-Iran, radical monarchists, and the MEK.

NIAC urges the Iranian American community to engage in the same kind of pluralistic discourse we all wish to institute inside Iran. We can, indeed, make a difference. First, however, it seems we have to institute these democratic values inside our own community here in America.

 

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