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Opinion Iranian Americans must speak up — not let Pompeo speak for them

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — July 22 is one of those dates on the calendar that stands out. That was the day in 2014 that agents of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) raided my wife’s and my home in Tehran and hauled us off to Evin prison to an uncertain fate. I was confined there for a year and a half before I was finally released.

Now, July 22 will also go down as an important date for the Iranian American community as a whole. As President Trump tweeted one of his most threatening messages yet at the president of Iran on Sunday night, his secretary of state addressed members of the Iranian American community in Southern California. At the event, called “Supporting Iranian Voices,” Mike Pompeo signaled a U.S. commitment to support efforts to undermine Iran’s clerical regime.

I went as a witness. This was my third July 22 as a free man, and I chose to spend it at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library where Pompeo made his case against the Islamic republic. I wanted to know who would be there. Exactly which Iranian voices would Pompeo be supporting?

To my surprise, there were a range of attendees representing the different ethnic, religious and political views that make up the community of Iranians in the United States. Among the several hundred Iranian Americans in attendance were professionals, politicians, educators, entertainers and entrepreneurs. That’s a good thing.

Organizers of the event at the State Department told me that the guests were individually selected to demonstrate the diversity within the community, but that many of those who were invited declined and others didn’t even bother to respond to the invitation. Still others openly boycotted the event. They wanted to be as far as possible from what they saw as the opening arguments in this administration’s case for regime change.

That may ultimately prove to be what this event was about, but it also provided a rare opportunity for Iranian Americans to engage directly with an administration as it begins to formulate its plans for their ancestral homeland. For anyone to whom Iran is important, now isn’t the moment to sit on the sidelines.

The Iranian voices I’m hearing — people I’m in touch with inside Iran and others in the diaspora — have long felt trapped in the middle of a decades-old struggle between a state that doesn’t represent their interests and a foreign power that says it does but has shown little regard for assisting them in meaningful ways, and in fact has consistently taken action that hurts average Iranians.

Pompeo, for his part, highlighted a long list of problems — including naming corrupt officials and describing human rights violations — but offered few ways by which the current U.S. leadership plans to help alleviate what it calls Iranian suffering. Most of what Pompeo said about the depravity of Iran’s rulers was true, but when coupled with U.S. moves that directly hurt Iranians — specifically, stiff economic sanctions and the recently upheld travel ban — it is difficult for the administration to support its own claims that the well-being and prosperity of Iranians matter.

I would love nothing more to be proved wrong about this. I suppose I was there to find out, and engaging with the nation’s top diplomat provided some fresh insight. I spoke to Pompeo after the speech and asked him what is being done for Americans still imprisoned in Iran. I also brought up the concerns most Iranians have about the travel ban. That portion of the evening was off the record, but on those two issues, at least, I walked away with more hope than when I arrived.

I asked members of his staff about ways to support Iranian voices inside Iran, which could undermine the current regime’s power. That could mean bolstering the strength of civil society through programs that give Iranian private citizens access to educational tools, an unblocked Internet, and the opportunity to engage directly with the rest of the world through commerce and legal forms of temporary immigration. None of those seem to be priorities in the current administration strategy for weakening the regime.

Still, I had the opportunity to raise issues and so did others, who talked about the need to support Iranian women, religious minorities and the importance of adjusting the travel ban, to name a few. Such venues to address U.S. leaders directly don’t come around often, and it’s for that reason I think Iranian Americans must stay engaged while the possibility to do so remains open.

Those opposed to the administration’s Iran agenda should know, though, that if they don’t begin to make their voices heard, and quickly, the narrative that’s being formulated — the one that says the Iranian American community is on board with the U.S. government’s unstated efforts to destabilize and remove the current regime whatever the cost — will be attributed to the entire community, and all will have to live with that.

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