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Iranian-American Group Urges Diplomacy Despite Violence

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/mahmoud_ahmadinejad_columbia.jpgIranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Flickr: Daniella Zalcman)

Provocations from Iran accelerated this week, as the ruling Iranian ayatollah gave a speech that suggested Iran would reject a nuclear-fuel deal reached in Vienna last week, while his regime violently suppressed a new round of anti-regime demonstrations across several cities. Yet a group of former diplomats convened by a leading pro-opposition Iranian-American organization urged the Obama administration not to abandon diplomacy.

[Security1]Negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have been stalled over the Iranian leadership’s reluctance to endorse a deal offered by the United States and its allies — and accepted by Iranian negotiators in Vienna — to enrich 75 percent of Iran’s uranium stock in Russia and France, yielding a form of uranium suitable for civilian nuclear power but not an atomic bomb. Iran’s foreign minister said that it was not rejecting the deal, but wished to seek still-unspecified modifications. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, however, declared during a trip to Morocco that “we are not altering” the proposal.

Leaders of both countries issued heated rhetoric. President Obama, in a statement issued late Tuesday night, referred to the Vienna offer and said, “It is time for the Iranian government to decide whether it wants to focus on the past, or whether it will make the choices that will open the door to greater opportunity, prosperity, and justice for its people.” While not responding directly to Obama, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, Iran’s supreme leader, derided American outreach in a speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of the revolutionary siege of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. “Whenever they smile at the officials of the Islamic revolution, when we carefully look at the situation, we notice that they are hiding a dagger behind their back,” Khamanei said, deriding diplomacy with the U.S. as “naive and perverted.”

Yet at a forum in the Dirksen Senate Office Building convened on Wednesday by the National Iranian-American Council — an Iranian-American education and advocacy group that gained new precedence after denouncing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in June as illegitimate — a few retired diplomats urged Obama to give diplomacy more time to work, even if it meant retracting Clinton’s refusal to amend the Vienna offer. “Political isolation is something the Iranians are very much concerned about,” said Thomas Pickering, who served as undersecretary of state in the Clinton administration, arguing that continued diplomacy gave the U.S. the leverage of presenting Iran with a united coalition.

If Iran, in its formal response to the Vienna offer, rejects the idea of either Russia or France enriching uranium for it, “there are ways to get around that,” said Greg Thielmann, a former top nuclear intelligence official at the State Department.

There are several bills moving through the Congress to place new economic sanctions on Iran, including one sponsored in the House by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and another in the Senate from Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). But retired Amb. John Limbert, one of the U.S. diplomats held hostage at the embassy in 1979 and 1980, pronounced himself “very skeptical” of sanctioning Iran. “It’s easy to talk about smart sanctions,” he said, “but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one.” Instead, Limbert contended, sanctions would most likely “create shortages and artificial, wonderful opportunities for hoarding” that benefit “those with the best connections to the regime” at the expense of the population. Thielmann agreed, saying sanctions risked “strengthening the regime, when it’s meant to do the opposite.”

The clash between the regime and the Iranian population was on display today in Iran, as demonstrators in Tehran, Shiraz, Rasht, and Tabriz defied a regime order not to use the anniversary of the embassy seizure to protest the regime. Police and regime militiamen beat demonstrators and fired tear gas canisters to disrupt the gatherings. It is unknown whether anyone was killed in the clashes. But at the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs said he “hope[s] greatly that violence will not spread.”

Trita Parsi, the head of the National-Iranian American Council, reiterated his support for the demonstrators. “The demonstrations and the reaction of the government shows the aspirations of the Iranian people for fairness, human rights and democracy has not been crushed,” Parsi told TWI. “It shows the opposition’s timeline is correct: this is not a hundred-meter sprint, but a marathon” to achieve Iranian democracy.

Yet in recent days, articles in The Weekly Standard and The Atlantic have accused Parsi of loyalty to the very Iranian regime he has opposed. The Standard’s online editor, Michael Goldfarb, called Parsi “the Iranian regime’s man in Washington,” while Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic blogged last week that Parsi “does a lot of leg-work for the Iranian regime.” When asked by Mother Jones to provide evidence for the accusation, Goldberg clarified that while he “assume[d]” Parsi didn’t “take Iranian government money or Iranian government instruction,” Parsi “does argue quite vociferously against sanctions, and he does tend to present, at least in my reading, a fairly benevolent understanding of Iran’s rulers and their motivations.”

Parsi described his opposition to sanctions and opposition to Ahmadinejad as two halves of the same coin. His organization “strongly stands for human rights, but also opposes war and sanctions for that reason, and favors diplomacy,” he said. He denied taking money from the Iranian regime, saying, “Our records are open and our tax returns are on our Website, and the only people who have made [such allegations] are people with a diametrically opposite political view.”

Parsi continued, “You can debate us on the merits of your policy prescriptions, or you can attack, smear and character assassinate us. Unfortunately, due to the weakness of their position, they’ve chosen the latter. That’s what’s motivating these attacks.”

At Parsi’s Hill forum, Limbert, the former U.S. diplomat held hostage by Iranian revolutionaries, said that the Obama administration had no choice but to negotiate with Iran and should not be too distracted by Ahmadinejad’s character. “I don’t buy the argument that you legitimize Ahmadinejad [through negotiation, since] Iran is more than Ahmadinejad, and he will not be there forever,” Limbert said. “What’s the alternative? To continue what we’ve done for 30 years? That has not had any results.”

Update: This story originally referred to the National Iranian-American Council as a lobby group, when in fact it is an education and advocacy association.

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