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Commentary: The Iranian American Moment

February 29, 2016 (Photo Credit: Staff Illustration)




Iranian Americans have had an important role in facilitating the rapprochement between the US and Iran, hoping this would instigate positive changes in the latter. They should pursue their effort to push for reforms in Iran to bring stability to the region and curb the sectarian conflict shattering it. 

Today, Iran is taking part in this conflict by supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime, hence prolonging the war in Syria, backing the Houthis in Yemen and buttressing the Shia militias in Iraq while blocking al-Abadi’s reforms.

Ideology is the reason behind Iran’s behavior. In Iran, there is a duality between the “state” and the “revolution.” The country has pragmatists who advocate economic development and those to whom the advancement of the country is secondary to the maintenance of the ideology on which the revolution is built.

Didn’t Khomeini say, “We did not start the revolution to slash the price of watermelon?”

To the ideologues, the sectarian conflict is a dream come true allowing them to “export the revolution.” Since 1979, the only success in “exporting the revolution” has been Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, due to the conflict, ideologues are “exporting the revolution” all over the region by supporting revolutionary style militias.

Pragmatists, on the other hand, who advocate Iran as a “state,” have no interest in these conflicts that drain the country’s funds and resources and nurture unnecessary regional enmity toward it. The burning of the Saudi Embassy exemplifies this internal conflict.

Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, and his security forces meant, primarily, to embarrass President Hassan Rouhani and weaken him domestically prior to the upcoming elections.

Here comes the role of Iranian Americans. The nuclear deal has witnessed a surge in Iranian-American activism. A grassroots movement is developing and organizations that traditionally have focused on the community as well as those that have been active in criticizing the regime's human rights abuses have been advocating the deal. Their rationale is that opening up Iran will expose the futility of the ideology.

The other dimension of this premise is that once the American threat fades away, hard-liners will lose the basis on which they are concentrating power. Driven by this hope, Iranian Americans have advocated normalization with Iran and this movement has been gaining momentum.

Unfortunately, the opposite of what optimists have anticipated is happening. As events unfold, this hope has proved to border naivety. In order to save face and show that they have not compromised on their principles and sold their soul to the “Great Satan,” the regime has intensified support to its proxies in the Arab world. Hard-liners have had a free hand in exchange for their acceptance of the deal.

Today, Iran’s image in the Arab and Islamic world has reached an unprecedented low. The Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes and Trends survey in 2015 shows that 89 percent of the population in Jordan view Iran negatively; in Lebanon only 5% of the Sunni population are positive about Iran.

This is bad news for Iran the “state” that is interested in having trade relations, cross investments and expertise exchange with its Arab neighbors. On the other hand, driven by ideology, the regime does not see any problem with the growing animosity towards Iran. On the contrary, ideologues seek to nurture it by making provocative statements ridiculing the sovereignty of Arab states.  

A member of parliament close to Khamenei has claimed that four Arab capitals are under the control of the Iranian revolution. On another occasion, Khamenei himself said that he is going to use Lebanon as a platform to fight America, totally disregarding the country’s sovereignty. 

Iranian Americans have played an important role facilitating meetings between Iranian and US officials. They have always had one mantra: opening up Iran will weaken the hard-liners and push Iran to play a constructive role in the regional order. They have to pursue this role in order to make sure that the premise on which the deal was built is fulfilled.

Now that the sanctions are lifted, Iranian Americans can travel freely to Iran, offer support to the pragmatists and instigate an indigenous change in the country. 

This is the moment for Iranian Americans to play a greater role by liaising among the US, the pragmatists in Iran, and the Arab world in order to ensure that Iran chooses regional political stability and domestic economic growth over regional hegemony.  

Dania Kolielat Al Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab Gulf relations and the author of, "The Arab Lobby and the US: Factors for Success and Failure."

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