To build a bridge to Iran, tap the diaspora
By Alidad Mafinezam
The views expressed are his own.
The online opening earlier this month of the “Virtual United States Embassy, Tehran, Iran” was billed by the U.S. government as an attempt at building a “bridge between the American and Iranian people.” Since the two countries haven’t had diplomatic relations for over three decades, this could mark the beginning of a proactive approach by the U.S. government toward Iran, suggesting a new focus on engaging the Iranian people and their government, an attempt at opening a new chapter in the hitherto fraught relationship between the two countries.
Yet, true to form, the Iranian government rejected the U.S. move, immediately blocked access to the site to those inside Iran, and called the initiative an attempt at spying on Iranians. Thus the opening of what was intended as a bridge between the two countries has turned into an exercise in information warfare and cyberspace competition.
The relationship between the American and Iranian people is too important to be left to governments alone. It is the Iranian diaspora in general, especially the million-strong Iranian- American community, who constitute the main human bridge between the U.S. and Iran, and they hold many of the solutions to Iran’s currently antagonistic relationship with North America and Europe.
Over three decades after a revolution that dethroned their westernized Shah, and the passage of a full generation, hundreds of thousands of Iranian émigrés have productively integrated into their new homes. They aren’t “exiles,” since they are largely fulfilled by their careers and live outside Iran. But they still maintain their bonds to the motherland.
The sizable and growing communities of Iranian origin in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and among Iran’s neighbors in the UAE and Turkey, represent a potentially instrumental bridge to the Islamic Republic. Since they are literally situated “in-between,” the Iranian diaspora has a great stake in, and is ideally positioned to lead dialogue and engagement efforts between Iran and their new home. This is especially needed at a time when Iran is becoming progressively more closed to the outside world. Who better to help Iran understand and build bridges to the world, and vice versa?
Many émigrés left Iran escaping political persecution, and many for better economic opportunities abroad: to put their resources and talents to use in more welcoming environments, striving, as immigrants do, for a chance at advancement. And they have indeed advanced.
Despite their physical distance, and as far away as L.A. and Toronto (dubbed “Tehrangeles” and “Tehranto”) the Iranian diaspora’s ties to Iran, and their potential influence over the future direction of the country, are highly important issues for Iran and its would-be partners.
Tens of thousands among the Iranian diaspora, especially in the U.S. and Canada, have built themselves into world class managers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, technologists, academics, innovators, professionals, and entrepreneurs – many of whom would welcome the chance to contribute to Iran’s advancement by sharing their knowledge and investing some of their resources. But that can only happen if the political environment – in Iran and among its erstwhile adversaries – permits it.
Key among the Iranian diaspora’s assets is the depth of its integration into western society. This is partially because during the 37-year reign of the last Shah, which ended in 1979, few countries in the Muslim world and Asia were as close to the U.S. as Iran. Thus, in the two generations after WWII, hundreds of thousands of Iranians graduated from American institutions, and learned about cutting-edge technologies, management practices, and gained fluency in English, as well as modern social and professional mores.
The staggering current success of the Iranian diaspora in North America’s technology sector, real estate, media and entertainment, medicine, the sciences and law, and other fields should be seen in light of Iranians’ long-standing association with the west.
It takes a long time to produce a Pierre Omidyar (founder of Ebay) Christiane Amanpour (of CNN fame), Jian Ghomeshi (prominent media personality in Canada), Firooz Naderi (leading NASA rocket scientist) or Cyrus Amir-Mokri ( the current Assistant Secretary of Treasury for Financial Institutions) – all of whom have, interestingly, declared their attachment to their Iranian heritage and, by extension, their stake in what becomes of their ancestral homeland in the decade(s) ahead.
The past decade has seen an explosion of research on the role of diaspora communities in advancing international development. Whereas the zero-sum discourses on “brain drain” and “capital flight” dominated thinking on these issues in the 1960s and 70s, “brain circulation,” “diaspora philanthropy,” “joint ventures,” and “global wealth generation” are the buzzwords now.
In-depth research conducted by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the UN, the International Organization on Migration, and the Migration Policy Institute, as well as a host of universities in North America, Europe, and Asia has shown that the meteoric rise of China and India (and the lifting of half a billion people out of poverty between the two of them) in the past generation simply would not have been possible without the seminal role played by their respective diaspora communities.
These two communities, over 30 million and 25 million people respectively, have led the way in the modernization and advancement of China and India, not only investing many tens of billions of dollars in these countries over the past generation, but equally importantly, sharing their know-how in the production, business development, management, as well as science and innovation arenas, much of it gained during their time abroad.
To claim their rightful place among other globally instrumental communities, members of the Iranian diaspora have two choices. One is to wait until the political conditions are ripe and the friction between the U.S. and Iran subsides. Judging by the level of political dysfunction and paralysis in Washington and Tehran these days, they would probably have to wait for a long time.
The other option is for the Iranian diaspora, especially in North America, to be proactive, unite, build common institutions, gain the sorely missing access and political clout in Washington, Ottawa, Ankara, Abu Dhabi, and elsewhere, and deliver a potent vision for international peace and development.
To avoid being called American or British “spies,” or agents of “foreign meddling,” it is important for the Iranian diaspora to rely on its own resources and maintain a healthy measure of independence from western governments – most of whom have much baggage in their past dealings with Iran. Such independent and self-generating coalitions of the Iranian diaspora would engage the current and future decision makers in Iran (as well as immigrant-receiving and citizenship-granting countries such as the U.S. and Canada) under the banner, “It’s our country too.”