Bitta Mostofi of Where is My Vote? – NY is an organizer of the upcoming event, “Voices for Iran: No to Ahmadinejad, Yes to Human Rights – Rally at the UN.” Where is My Vote? NY is expecting delegations from across the country to join the rally under the “Voices for Iran” banner when Ahmadinejad visits the UN September 23. Bitta spoke with NIAC’s Lloyd Chebaclo last Thursday about the protests. Excerpts:
Q: What is the central message you wish to convey by demonstrating against Ahmadinejad when he arrives at the U.N.?
“I think what many of us were hoping to do with this rally is to create a forum in which we’re able to open up a new dialogue about Iran… both spoken to the Iranian delegation as well as to the United Nations and the international member states. [The message is] when you are talking about Iran, do so in the context of human rights. When you raise Iran at these international forums, condemn the violations that we’ve been seeing over the last few months at a minimum, or the escalation of those [violations]: the torture, the detainments, the mock show trials, the sweeping arrests, and suppression of free speech. In this context of an international body, it’s the obligation to condemn these violations, to investigate them. And also, it’s the first time that … many people … who have protested have an opportunity to address the Iranian state themselves.”
Q: About how many volunteers and organizers are working with you on the event?
It’s tremendous, actually. We’ve probably gotten at least [one] hundred committed volunteers from all over the country. As for the organizers, [there are] people from at least twenty cities who have taken it upon themselves to organize a delegation from their cities. We have estimated anywhere between five thousand or [more] people are going to probably just show up.
Q: Are you working with any other international human rights organizations on this event?
We are not. We have been in consultation and advisement with the various organizations. Another part of our platform that I think makes us distinct from some of the bigger human rights entities is that we have taken a position against military aggression towards Iran and against blanket economic sanctions. This is typically seen as a political position, which many of these organizations don’t take positions on. It was important to us that when we are before the international community saying that we want human rights to be the focus of their conversations, [to say] that [this] doesn’t mean that the response to condemnation includes these things.
Q: Could you describe what policy positions Where Is My Vote? NY and Voices for Iran take?
The platform position has four points. It is a yes to human rights, […] calling attention to the violations that we have been witnessing. It is a no to Ahmadinejad, which translates to a questioning of the outcome of this election [as] the Iranian people have been doing and taking that seriously, as well as holding him accountable for these violations. In the context of that, there is also a platform position of saying no to military aggression against Iran and no to [imposing] blanket economic sanctions.
Q: Many of the other groups protesting against Ahmadinejad in New York have different agendas. Many of the groups are pushing for sanctions or even military strikes against Iran. How do Voices for Iran plan to distinguish itself from those other groups who will also protest against Ahmadinejad?
That’s a good point and a good question, which is in large part why it was really important for us to make those four points part of our platform. That’s why they are distinct, and they are on all of our language about the actual rallies. So that’s one way that we have to do so.
Another is, of course, the physicality and integrity of the rallies themselves. We’ve gone through tremendous lengths to actually make our rally as distinct as possible, which is difficult on the actual day of [the protests] because so many different groups are going to be there. We are starting completely independently at Iran’s mission to the U.N. We’re going to be the only group that’s there, which will allow us to maintain the integrity of our rally and those platform positions. From there, we have advocated, lobbied for, and received – in large part through the cooperation of the Community Affairs Department of the NYPD – a separate stage and rally location within the U.N. plaza. So all the lengths that could be taken to physically mark the distinction have been taken.
Additionally, we’re probably the only group that has on our speaking platform prominent non-Iranians who have taken positions on this. For instance, we have Dennis Halliday speaking for us. He is the former U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq appointed by Kofi Annan. He’s a longtime diplomat working in the Secretary General’s Office, and he resigned his position in Iraq in protest of what was happening with the sanctions. So Dennis is, in the international community, really the sanctions guy. He is really the person that has taken the humanitarian catastrophe that he witnessed to an international level and platform in discussing what it means. It was crucial for us to get people like him, to not only have the dialogue be there, but [also] to educate ourselves and our communities about what it means [when sanctions are] what’s asked for.
Q: What are Where is My Vote? NY’s goals beyond Ahmadinejad’s visit to the UN?
We have – since June when we started throwing some of these rallies, vigils, and public lectures – seen ourselves as a solidarity rally with the movement that transpired in response to the elections. We are very conscious that our role may change, and that our strategy or way in which we see ourselves as at all relevant might change as well depending on what happens in Iran itself. At the moment, you have a really inspiring movement of people from all backgrounds in Iran calling for their civil rights, calling for their human rights and making tremendous sacrifices. So for us, at a minimum, we have to continue that and amplify those voices from here – where we’re given a bigger and freer platform to do so – calling attention to Iran and saying that when we are having discussions about Iran, the focus really has to be human rights.
Just to give you sort of a timeline of some of the things we are looking at, in October, a resolution on human rights in Iran [will come before the UN General Assembly], as it does annually. So for us, taking a look at some of these international efforts is going to be really crucial and important in how we view our solidarity [efforts].
Q: How can Americans support the work of Voices for Iran and Where is My Vote? NY and the cause of advancing human rights in Iran?
I think first and foremost, my personal opinion would be to educate ourselves. We have for years under the Bush administration had this really one-dimensional view of Iran and Iranians. What I think this election has done is [to] create a much more dynamic, three-dimensional view, which many Americans can relate to, of Iranians themselves: a people that are completely capable of advocating for their rights and have done so vociferously and with tremendous integrity and courage.
I think the first and foremost thing I would say that we can do is really educate ourselves. As a result of that, our advocacy towards our own government, on policy towards [Iran], will change. We won’t want these more aggressive ways of going about bilateral relationships. We’ll encourage the way Iranians are looked upon and supported in a way that’s less aggressive than it has been in the past. That to me would be the first thing, though, that we could really do. And we can encourage other people to [help] through teach-ins and various other opportunities.
Q: Are international bodies and organizations like the U.N. focusing enough attention on the situation in Iran? What more should they be doing if not?
There are rapporteurs of torture, and journalism and others who do investigate the violations that have been alleged, that are going on in Iran. Three of them have actually come out already and issued statements of concern and issued a private report to the Secretary General that has yet to be made public. So there are serious concerns, and I think with the advocacy of the Secretary General’s office we could take seriously the need for these entities to go to Iran itself and to look at and investigate the allegations that have been made by Mr. Karroubi and various others as to what’s happening in the jails and to journalists, etc. This requires, I think, a lot more interested role for the United Nations and the Secretary General to take [on] what’s happening. That hasn’t happened.
Q: What are some of the stories that haven’t gotten enough attention?
I think that after the first couple of weeks, you saw a tremendous die-down of any attention towards Iran that wasn’t nuclear-focused. What you’re going to see next week is also conversation about nuclear non-proliferation and there’s going to be a meeting convened to discuss this by the Security Council, and of course Iran is at the top of that agenda. So for me, when I looked at what’s coming out in the last few weeks, it’s been focused on that and again, I think that’s where the conversation should change. The conversation should be focused on the human rights issue and what’s happening. The trials that are going on in Iran have very minimally been talked about, if at all, and I think the dynamism of the movement itself – the fact that there’s literally something that changes on a daily basis – should in and of itself be given more attention.
Q: Is there anything that you would like to add?
I don’t think some of these answers or questions are easy. I think the fact that many of us in the United States and other countries are asking them is really important. One of the bigger questions you said is what relevance or what role do people have in playing a solidarity piece, and I think if we think we know that answer, we are in some ways fooling ourselves. I think we can take a lesson perhaps from solidarity movements, with what happened in South Africa with the anti-apartheid movements and the importance of civil society and raising the attention that really caused some of the massive changes, ultimately, and not try so hard to reinvent the cycle but try to understand why solidarity movements and civil society from other countries plays a role in what happens inside Iran itself or other countries themselves and to be conscious of that and be honest with what we can do and where we are relevant. I think that’s really important.
To learn more about Voices for Iran and to see how you participate in the protest at the UN, visit www.voices4iran.org