To build a bridge to Iran, tap the diaspora

December 23, 2011

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.”


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Do you honeslty believe that those Iranians who left the country when the going got tough should have a say in what the Iranians in Iran want and do? Perhpas you should go back to Iran for a visit The Iranians living in their country do not want Iranian overseas to interfere in their affairs. If you want to show concern, help remove sanctions and stop the war-mongering. The most important thing to remember is to stop foreign interference. An Iranian who has lived overseas for decade has no right to decide for Iran.

Posted by sorayau | Report as abusive

If only there was more time, the diaspora might have had a chance. Unfortunately, America now has the choice of going to war with Iran before it has nuclear weapon capability or after it gains that capability.

If Iran continues on its current path, war is inevitable… sooner, rather than later.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive

Great article. On a recent visit to Iran, most Iranians reached out to me (an American) with open arms and invited me in to their homes wanting to know me more.

Iranians are really good people with some crappy Mullas controlling their lives.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

When talking of Iran one needs to make a distinction between modern urban groups who are responsive to outside influences (and are keen to know about the US for example) and the rural Iranian who is a strong supporter of the Mullahs.

Most diaspora come from urban centers and so have a rosy ‘urban’ view of the situation as does this writer.

But the far more conservative rural community is different and provides the power base of Ahmadinejad and the ruling council.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

Commerce is instrument of peace as it caters to common economic interests. In absence of sanctions, expatriate Iranian could have made significant constructive contributions to US and Iranian common interest in extending trade and hence constructive cultural interactions in general.
However today as yesterdays; In absence of trade between Iran and US (by- product one sanction after another sanction) Iranian expatriate option in contributing to the nature of current affairs have been marginalized.
On the other hand lack of economic ties has made it inexpensive to speak hostile and to dupe public into unnecessary hostile attitude. In lieu of these parameters Iranian expatriates have only the soft option of carrying, the bi-millennium humanist message and practice of Iranian civilization and it`s deep seated internationalist consciousness and commitment. Again and again and again…

Posted by SAEEDMFEYZ | Report as abusive

A naive article. Iranians didn’t simply leave Iran for a holiday. There are deep divisions over the future of Iran, even within the government itself. A dialogue between immigrants and residents is likely to be just as divided.

Posted by Tobyh | Report as abusive

Interesting Op-Ed piece (NOTE: This is NOT a NEWS article, it’s someone’s OPINION)….
Having said that, it was interesting. I have only one question about this and many other pieces (articles and editorials) concerning the somehow supposedly “special relationship” between America and Iran…

The author says: ‘The relationship between the American and Iranian people is too important to be left to governments alone’?
Please explain to me EXACTLY how America and the Iranian people have this so called ‘important relationship’?
Were there Iranians at Valley Forge? Gettysburg? Pearl Harbor? Twin Towers? What is this, and how did this relationship get so ‘special’….
? ? ? ? ?

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[…] To build a bridge to Iran, tap the diaspora […]

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[…] To build a bridge to Iran, tap the diaspora […]

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Many Iranians who fled during the Revolution were Pahlavi Monarchists who had been part of a harsh regime of forced Westernization. I do not thing they are missed there.

In general, Western power elites are busy telling the world what it should look like, more or less as the 19th century European Empires did. This is not especially good and works some places better than others. Iranians do not, and have never liked, outside interference.

The “bridge” is to accept Iranian culture as it is and to go from there. Like their Russian predecessors, Iranian immigrants will do best to intermarry and intermingle right where they are.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

[…] To build a bridge to Iran, tap the diaspora […]

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This is a very good, well-written article!

The world needs people like Mr. Mafinezam who will peacefully and constructively engage countries that are presently subject to repressive, authoritarian regimes.

Generalized statements about people who were “Pahlavi monarchists” are not helpful and in my view are irrelevant. One comment says “A dialogue between immigrants and residents is likely to be … divided.” So don’t even begin to talk? I don’t think so.

There is no permanent “Iranian culture as it is.” Iran is changing, just as is the rest of the world. Much of this change is driven by interaction between the Iranian people and others via the internet and rapid, inexpensive travel.

Mr. Mafinezam’s approach is an important component of what is needed to produce a more stable, positive and productive world that respects human rights.

Posted by bill80 | Report as abusive