Dinner with the US Secretary of State Regarding Iran

Some individuals and groups are surprised that I accepted the invitation to attend US Secretary of State’s “Supporting Iranian Voices” dinner on July 22, 2018. I don’t blame them; they don’t know me. They only know about my family perhaps, and little about my personal beliefs and my work.

I believe in dialogue, even when there is little agreement with the person sitting on the other side of the table. I do not say “no” to the possibility for dialogue and engagement, no matter how futile it may be. I do not say “no” to directly expressing my perspectives and experiences to decision-makers. I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat; I am registered as undecided and I am an Independent. Just as I accepted the Norouz invitation to the White House by First Lady Michelle Obama a few years ago, I accepted the invitation by Mike Pompeo, the current US Secretary of State.

Ironically, there are also others who are disappointed that individuals like me were at the private dinner for this event. They say that they are disappointed because people like me are not in favor of regime change from the outside. I also don’t blame them. They are correct in thinking that I do not believe in regime change from abroad.

I am a civil society and international development professional. I rarely appear on media. I take joy more in quietly empowering others, while also echoing their voice without claiming to represent them whenever occasions for international advocacy emerge.

I was at first hesitant to accept the invitation to this dinner; I was not sure if my presence in the crowd would be beneficial as I would not be able to express my perspectives. I decided to go when I found out that I was given the chance to engage directly with decision-makers at the private dinner. I wanted to go and echo what I know. I did not go there to tell the story of human rights abuses against my family; even though I certainly had the chance to do so if I wanted to. I went there to talk about what I know of today’s Iran. I went there to express that economic punishment of Iran seems to make the lives of those who are economically marginalized even harder. I went there to ask the administration to reconsider Travel Ban; I had consulted my immigration lawyer friends in advance who did not have the chance to be there. I went there to bring up the question of Iranian refugees many of whom are human rights defenders in Turkey, and other topics alike.

For those of you who may not know me, let me be clear: I have no regards (and I mean no regards) for the Islamic Republic of Iran. The same moderates and reformists that are celebrated by many watched my parents suffer in prison. Sure, they are less “hardliner” in theory, but in my personal experience their moderate views do not translate into action for people like me who were born as “outsiders”. That said, I accepted JCPOA as an option most preferred by Iranians inside the country. I wiped off my tears time and time again a few years ago in order to accept that I (and my dire need for justice) am “history”, and that now this is the time for the future. I endorsed the idea that the future is about the well-being of Iranians, even if it means that the path to democracy may take longer. This was not easy to accept; my acceptance came with many nights of tears.

No one understood the difficult stance that I had taken back then, no one. Everyone around me thought it was only natural that the daughter of two political prisoners, two victims, would support the deal. Let me tell you this: It is never easy to watch and see the world shake hands with the people who you consider responsible for your parents’ suffering. But, it didn’t matter. I believed that this was the right way, because people close to me in Iran felt that this was the right approach.

As for now, whether this administration decides to listen to the concerns and worries of people like me is beyond my control. But, what I felt and still feel was in my control was to go and to engage with the decision-makers present to tell them the following: While the Islamic Republic of Iran is an absolute nightmare, I as a civil society advocate, worry very much about the economic and political suffering that marginalized Iranians will have to endure for change the way it is prescribed nowadays. Change has to happen from within, and I firmly believe that it eventually will one way or the other. No government can go on the way the Islamic Republic does forever. No state can hide behind its atrocities for longer than a few chapters of a history book. The Islamic Republic’s time will be up, sooner or later.

Meanwhile, I believe in dialogue and in expressing my perspectives and opinions to those who have the authority to make decisions.

I was the only member of my family who briefly returned to Iran in 2005, while scared for my life. I sat face to face with the very authorities who had watched my father being tortured, if not actively torturing him themselves. I showed up at his door in Tehran one day, where he resided under house arrest as a political prisoner and where he ultimately committed suicide in despair in 2011. He was shocked to see me. He was angry, too. He was frightened that I had taken such a risk when my adult life was just about to begin; I was 19. I would lie to him in the evenings that I was going to parties when I was in reality going to interrogation sessions and to ask about my father’s case. I risked my freedom to go back in 2005 and sat face-to-face with those who caused my father pain. I did so, because I believe in dialogue. I believe in taking the risk to make my point, and to do so without any filter or intermediary whenever possible.

We live in odd times. The atmosphere has become ever more polarizing. In these circumstances I understand, I try to understand, and respect the agony expressed by various Iranians and Iranian-Americans, in favor or in opposition of the aforementioned event. I don’t prescribe to others how they should go about such circumstances. Nevertheless, I see occasions like this as a way to advocate for my perspectives, views and my understanding of the field. We enjoy democracy in the US, and no democracy is perfect. We should use, and albeit not abuse, the freedom of expression granted to us in this country.

I studied public policy, and in doing so I learned one important lesson: It is a mistake to avoid those stakeholders and decision-makers with whom you have small or fundamental disagreements. Influencing others, in my opinion, begins with engaging with them.