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April 17, 2008

Internal rivalries undo Iranian-American potential

When one talks about a large ethnic group, it is not unusual to hear about conflict and rival organizations vying for influence and support. The Iranian-American community is a very diverse group in the United States, with huge populations on both coasts, as well as dense clusters in the middle of the country. With an estimated population of nearly one million Iranian Americans in the US, the sheer size and quality of the community (Iranian Americans are among the most educated and wealthiest ethnic groups in the US) means that the biggest obstacle to Iranian Americans reaching their full potential is, unfortunately, Iranian Americans.

At NIAC, we are constantly faced with defending our standing as a large and legitimate Iranian-American organization from groups that claim to represent Iranian-American interests better than we do. These groups have made it their prerogative to stop any event that is related to something they oppose (for example, diplomatic relations between the US and Iran). Civil discourse has always been a strong part of American culture and a tenet that we at NIAC strongly believe in. Therefore, we refuse to stoop to disgraceful levels of mudslinging and willful disruption of organized events. There is no doubt that Iranian Americans have a wide range of beliefs and that they have a right to voice these beliefs; but the problem is that many Iranian-American groups resort to acting like petulant children–shouting obscene and empty slogans at their adversaries– instead of choosing to engage in meaningful discourse with the organizations they oppose.

This came to an unfortunate head at an event which didn’t even involve NIAC. A congressional briefing on March 13 held by the Iran Working Group and the Leadership Council for Human Rights (LCHR) –aimed at exposing Iran’s abuse of ethnic and religious minorities– became a battleground for many Iranian-American fringe groups. The event went on without much incident until a self-proclaimed Iranian-American retired FBI employee and Colonel in the Iranian Army (during the Shah’s reign) began accusing the speakers of exaggerating, and (in one case) working for a foreign oil company. The commotion that resulted was saddening, with people up in arms and several face-to-face confrontations that threatened to explode into violence.

In my opinion, the most pathetic part of the event was when LCHR president and moderator, Kathryn Porter, had to bang on the table, like a Kindergarten teacher, in an attempt to stop the commotion. But I don’t blame her. Iranian Americans habitually misbehave at official events, hurting the efforts of Iranian Americans hoping to involve themselves in politics. The actions of fringe groups also disgust those in positions of power, keeping them from taking Iranian American concerns seriously.

As an Iranian American, I am in complete favor of Iranian Americans voicing their different opinions, especially on Capitol Hill. However, I do not believe that Iranian Americans should voice these different opinions at the cost of making our entire nationality look bad. Unless we learn to protect our community from the clamoring of loud fringe minorities, I fear we will find ourselves, like at the briefing, shouting at each other as everyone who matters files out of the room in disgust.

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