Who speaks for Iranian-Americans?

In 2009, Obama pursued a diplomatic approach toward Iran, while today he relies on sanctions and threats of war.

Iranians clearly prefer Obama's original approach which focused on diplomacy [GALLO/GETTY]

Washington, DC – The schedule for the American Jewish Committee (AJC) conference in Washington coming up in May highlights that Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-American, will be addressing the question: “Can Iran’s nuclear programme be stopped?” Ahmari has been popping up more and more these days, especially at neo-conservative organisations like the AJC.

The AJC, established in 1906 to combat anti-Semitism and advance human rights both at home and abroad, is now obsessed with Iran. (Check out its website). In recent years, AJC has dumped much of its domestic agenda in favor of supporting right-wing policies on Israel and especially, to war monger on the issue of Iran.

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Ahmari – the neo-cons’ favourite Iranian – is very much in the mould of the neo-cons’ favourite Iraqi. During the run-up to the 2003 invasion Ahmed Chalabi was their darling because, as an Iraqi émigré, he was thought to have unique credibility. Neo-cons loved hearing an Iraqi say that invading Iraq would not only prove successful, but would be welcomed by his fellow Iraqis. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a fake, whose agenda was almost entirely personal. The war he and his friends promoted was an infamous catastrophe. And, to put it mildly, the invasion he told us that Iraqis would welcome was not welcomed.

One difference between Chalabi and Ahmari is that Ahmari is a prominent neo-conservative, rather than someone who merely courts them. He is, in fact, a fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a neo-con think-tank in London.

Henry Jackson was a United States Senator from Washington and a proud champion of the original neo-conservatives. Known as the “Senator from Boeing,” he was a consistent supporter of increased weapons spending, the Vietnam War and anything and everything Israel wanted. He died in 1983 and left as his legacy a group of former staff members who still vociferously agitate for war. Among them are Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith. (Feith became infamous for creating and running the war’s disinformation shop at the Pentagon.)

The Henry Jackson Society closely reflects the world view of the former Jackson aides. And so does Ahmari who is now travelling the country speaking as, and for, Iranian-Americans. His sidekick is Peter Kohanloo, a law student in Boston and self-described organiser within the Iranian-American community.

However, like Chalabi, neither of these spokesmen have a following, either among Iranian-Americans or Iranians, a fact that  probably makes them deeply resentful of the Iranian-American organisation that does, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

NIAC opposes the Iranian regime and supported the 2009 protests against it. But it believes that the most effective and probably only, way to successfully change Iranian behaviour is through diplomacy, not sanctions and war threats.

This drives the Iranian neo-cons nuts. In a February piece on NIAC in Foreign Policy called “The Diaspora’s Conscience”, Ahmari and Kohanloo try to make the case that NIAC misrepresents the Iranian diaspora’s position; instead, inadvertently, they prove the opposite.

The heart of the two neo-cons’ argument is that NIAC distorts the Iranian-American community’s view by arguing (using NIAC’s own words) that, although they “deeply resent the Iranian regime, [Iranian-Americans] prefer US policies that emphasise engagement and de-escalation”.

They continue:

Widely available survey data belie these anecdotal findings. A 2011 Zogby poll commissioned by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), a non-partisan organisation that refrains from taking positions on foreign-policy issues, asked Iranian-Americans to identify their two top priorities for US policy toward Iran. An overwhelming majority (63 per cent) chose “promotion of human rights and democracy”, while 30 per cent chose “promoting regime change”. In contrast, only 14 per cent identified “preventing an American military strike against Iran” as one of their top two priorities.

But exactly how do those poll findings contradict NIAC’s position? NIAC favours “promotion of human rights and democracy” as a US priority and, like all but the 30 per cent cited in the poll, do not favour “promoting regime change”.

Who is responsible for US-Iran tensions?

Here are some of the other poll findings, confirming that NIAC does indeed represent Iran-American views:

  * Only 3 per cent favour military action against Iran.
  * 44 per cent consider US sanctions to be “burdensome” to their families in Iran.

Most significant of all is this:

A majority (56 per cent) of Iranian Americans now disapprove of President Obama’s handling of relations with Iran, while thirty-two percent (32 per cent) approve of how the President addresses this issue. These numbers have flipped since 2009 when a majority of Iranian Americans viewed President Obama’s handling of relations with Iran favourably.

Of course, the difference between 2009 and today is that in 2009 President Obama was pursuing a diplomatic approach toward Iran, while today he relies almost exclusively on sanctions and threats of war. Iranians clearly prefer Obama’s original approach – not the one subsequently pushed on him by Prime Minister Netanyahu and the neo-cons (like Ahmari and Kohanloo).

Ahmari and Kohanloo have every right not to share the views of most Iranian-Americans and they clearly don’t. Earlier this month in Commentary, Ahmari made clear that his personal preference, like that of Commentary, is for regime change precipitated by a US bombing campaign:

The likelihood of an all-out Western land invasion aimed at toppling the mullahs is low. But a limited military intervention aimed at destroying their nuclear facilities may nevertheless precipitate regime collapse. Iran’s nuclear sites are spread out over a wide geographic area; an intervention aimed at disabling them must be wider in scope than the Israeli strikes that destroyed Iraq’s facilities in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007. A successful strike will require destroying much of the country’s national defence and security architecture. Having invested so much prestige, moreover, in one signature national project – the nuclear programme – the regime stands to lose what little legitimacy it has left should a week-long airstrike rubble its nuclear sites.

Later, he proposes “completely dismantling major state apparatuses”, promising that the the Iranian version of de-Ba’athification would not backfire as it did in Iraq. Of course, “dismantling” such state institutions as the Revolutionary Guard and the Basji (Mobilisation) forces would require occupying the country – a contingency Ahmari passes over – but which the US military, Iranians, Iranian-Americans and everyone else who knows anything about Iran dismisses as either impossible or insane.

But that is how neo-cons think. Force works every time. It is, however, definitely not how Iranian-Americans think.

And the two neo-cons know it too. Asked on a recent podcast how he, as an Iranian-American, can support a war that would hurt Iranians, Kohanloo responded: “I would say the Iranian-American community is not in any position to initiate or prevent a war, that is up to the president and the US government.”

In other words, don’t pay too much attention to Iranian-Americans who, as they well know, oppose war. If they thought their pro-war views were representative, they would not dismiss the importance of Iranian-American views.

Representative or not, if the Chalabi precedent holds, we are going to see lots more of these two in the coming days. That is why it is of critical importance that these Iranian Chalabis be exposed for what they are before establishing themselves as representing anything larger than themselves and their fellow neo-cons.

That won’t matter to the American Jewish Committee and others who have already enlisted in the anti-Iran crusade. It should – it better, matter to policymakers who might be inclined to believe that Ahmari and Kohanloo actually represent an Iranian-American constituency. They do not.

MJ Rosenberg is a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Media Matters Action Network.

Follow him on Twitter: @MJayRosenberg