Washington, DC – The National Iranian American Council once again hosted a full house in the Dirksen Senate Office Building Wednesday for its policy conference titled “Iran at a Crossroads: Assessing a Changing Landscape.” Diplomats and staff from various embassies, members of the media, and other government and non-government officials interested in the Iran issue were present to hear members of Congress and two panels of experts analyzing the current state of affairs regarding Iran.
Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (CA-14), who represents one of the largest Iranian-American populations in the country, opened the conference, saying “I am very proud to work with [the Iranian-American community]; I will stand with you and continue to work with you and make your voices heard here in the Congress of the United States.” Coming from an Iranian background herself, the Congresswoman praised Iranian-Americans for their contributions to our country, and recognized the people of Iran and their struggle for democracy. “I think your conference is very appropriately named,” she said. “Iran is at a crossroads like no other…People of Iran are ready to fight and die for freedom, what we call democracy [here in America].”
The Congresswoman then introduced her colleague, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who is the lead sponsor of the Stand with Iranian People Act (SWIPA). “We believe that a democratic impulse in every nation must be fed by the international community,” he said, “but at the same time the freedom that the people on the streets of Tehran and around Iran are seeking belongs to them, all by themselves. It should be supported, but it shouldn’t be lead, and it certainly shouldn’t be directed [by us].”
Condemning the human rights violations in Iran, Congressman Ellison emphasized the need for policymakers to expand their focus beyond the nuclear issue and place the human rights of the Iranian people alongside other US priorities. Human rights violations are the Iranian government’s Achilles Heel, he said, and that is what the US should make the center of attention.
Additionally, Rep. Ellison stressed the importance of expanding people-to-people exchanges between ordinary Iranians and Americans, which is one of the goals of SWIPA, his proposed legislation.
The first panel discussion then got underway, focusing on the Iranian people’s “century-old struggle for democracy.” Panelists included Prof. Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak from the University of Maryland, Prof. Scott Lucas from the University of Birmingham, and Prof. Muhammad Sahimi from the University of Southern California. The New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar acted as moderator.
“What is the Green Movement and where is it going?,” asked MacFarquhar, to which Karimi-Hakkak responded that no time in the past 31 years has Iran witnessed such egregious irregularities in an election. This, he explained, led to a massive cultural and political movement committed to non-violence demanding basic rights and democratic reform. Prof. Lucas’ added that when one has a government that is perceived to be illegitimate, the stakes will inevitably rise beyond calls for modest change. “It’s a marathon,” he said, and it will take time for the movement to completely evolve.
MacFarquhar then asked about the leadership of the opposition movement, and whether it can formulate a set of goals acceptable to all of its diverse participants. Drawing parallels to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during America’s Civil Rights era, Hakkak said a final leader will eventually emerge, but it will take time. Iranian Intellectuals can do it, he said. “They have done it before.” Sahimi on the other hand, had a different view about the leadership of the movement. “Mousavi at this point is the recognized leader of the movement, at least inside Iran [he is].” Sahimi also said that Mousavi’s recent statements, in particular statement number 17, can be viewed as a benchmark for the movement to start organizing its members. Carefully crafted demands, he said, “will bring out the largest set of people [including the labor movement].”
MacFarquhar’s proposed his last question asking how the outside world can help without tainting the indigenous nature of the movement. Lucas addressed his question by saying, “We should start to understand Iran. What are their aspirations? What are their obstacles?” First and foremost, he said, it is important to deal with Iran on matters beyond only the nuclear issue, starting with the human rights of the Iranian people. “It’s not about us on the outside, but about the people in the inside,” he said. Sahimi agreed, saying so-called “crippling” sanctions “will gravely hurt the Green Movement” and could provide a justification for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to crack down even more on peaceful dissent. Finally, Professor Hakkak chided: “Anybody who claims to understand the Iranian judicial system has had it explained to them wrong.”