By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Many Iranian Americans in the Washington area describe President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a provocateur, a hypocrite and an embarrassment to Iran. Yet some are disturbed about the hostile reception Ahmadinejad has received this week during his visit to the United States.
Students, professionals and academics in the region's Iranian emigre community said yesterday that they were frustrated and disappointed that the visit has focused on sensational issues such as Ahmadinejad's denials that the Holocaust occurred and that homosexuality exists in Iran.
Instead, they said they wished that the rare encounter between a senior Iranian official and the U.S. public would raise issues that they consider more pressing to residents of Iran-- such as the oppression of women, the quashing of political dissent and the social control exercised by the country's real powers among the conservative Shiite Muslim clergy.
"I agree that Ahmadinejad is a despicable human being, but he is not a dictator. He cannot dictate anything," said Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, director of the Persian Studies Center at the University of Maryland. The Iranian president was introduced Monday as a "petty and cruel dictator" by the president of Columbia University, which had been pressured not to let him speak at the New York City campus.
"Technically, he is a nobody in Iran's system, but he likes to make inflammatory comments," said Bijan Ganji, an Iranian-born law student at George Washington University. "He has nothing to say on the issues that really matter to most Iranians: human rights, the lack of political and social freedoms inside Iran. It's especially hard for us here, because we have to keep explaining why we have such a pathetically embarrassing president."
There are thousands of Iranian Americans in the Washington area, many of whom are exiles who fled after the Shiite revolution of 1979. They include surgeons, lawyers, developers and carpet importers. Some are monarchists who long for the return of the pro-Western Pahlavi dynasty, some are secular progressives and others are devout Shiites who think women should be covered in public.
But none of those interviewed yesterday expressed support for Ahmadinejad, 51, a layman with anti-Western views who was elected two years ago on a populist platform. His post is subordinate to those of the country's senior Shiite leader and his clerical advisers. He has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and has denied that millions of Jews were killed by the Nazis. He has strongly asserted Iran's right to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes, but U.S. officials fear that Iran has military nuclear ambitions.
This week, instead of using his U.S. appearances to repudiate his more provocative comments, Ahmadinejad either repeated or softened them. He also provoked more incredulity by denying that there are homosexuals in Iran.
"He had a chance to show a different face of the Iranian government, but he missed the opportunity," said Sam Khazai, a developer in Northern Virginia who moved to the United States from Tehran in 1984. But Khazai, like other emigres, also said it was a mistake for several of Ahmadinejad's hosts and interviewers in the United States to present him with a "laundry list of charges made by the Bush administration," as if they were speaking for the government.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, said the hostile atmosphere surrounding Ahmadinejad's visit has been "very counterproductive because it enables him to play the victim card and present himself as a defender of freedom of expression. We need to have dialogue with Iran over serious issues, not the kind of exchange that fuels polarization and becomes a game of insults," Parsi said.
Some Iranian American scholars, puzzling over the president's comments on homosexuality, said Persian culture has historically included the practice of powerful men who keep young boys for sex but are not considered gay. But younger Iranian Americans said there is a gay culture in today's Iran, although it is suppressed by Shiite authorities.
"He probably meant to say that there are pedophiles in Iran but that the country does not recognize homosexuality as an orientation," Karimi-Hakkak surmised. He said Ahmadinejad is unable to relate to such contemporary issues. "He is a genuinely premodern man in postmodern circumstances," Karimi-Hakkak said.