Transparency: As used in science, engineering, business, the humanities and in a social context more generally, implies openness, communication, and accountability.
On July 6th, when I opened my mailbox, I was nicely surprised to see the following email:
What a fantastic outreach initiative by the White House recognizing a vibrant and successful community! Iranian-Americans, with an official population of about 300 thousands (based on 2010 census), and an unofficial one of over 1 million, have enriched the dynamic culture of their adopted country; and they continue making significant contributions to America’s competitiveness in educational and economic arenas. They also act as a bridge between their new and old homes and as ambassadors of peace and friendship.
I was delighted to be one of the invitee, and to be honest with you, and considering there are so many other qualified Iranian-American leaders around, it felt like I had won the lottery :-) So I rearranged my schedule to participate in this event, the first of its kind by the White House for Iranian-Americans.
Few days before the event, the agenda arrived in email. The event was packed from morning to afternoon, with 12 administration officials scheduled to speak on a host of issues. The speakers were from various offices including:
I arrived at my hotel in DC at 3 AM, due to few hours of delay in a foggy San Francisco. After 3 hours of sleep, I woke up and got ready, wearing a suit and tie, taking a break from the casual outfits of Silicon Valley! I was very eager to walk from the hotel, which was close to the Capitol, through the National Mall to the White House so I could enjoy the magnificent landscape. However, as soon as I stepped out of the hotel, the warm and humid air took me by surprise. I knew I couldn’t walk 100 steps, let alone over 2 miles! So instead I landed in an air-conditioned taxi. Call me a spoiled Californian if you wish :-)
The White House:
When I arrived at the White House Visitors’ Center, I went to the end of the line and joined a fellow Iranian-American. She was an immigration judge from Southern California -- too bad I wasn’t in need of a Green Card or Citizenship :-) We started chatting, while trying desperately to cool off! The relief came when we finally entered the grand place. We took a quick tour of the East Wing, admiring all the history that was embedded in the place, and trying to absorb what we could. We then headed to the historic Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is part of the White House complex, for the roundtable.
The Not So Round Table:
We arrived at the meeting place about 9:45, in the middle of a very long hallway on the second floor, where we joined the other Iranian-Americans and engaged in pleasantries. I knew about half of the group, and it was nice to see the familiar faces. Before long, the time came for the start of the roundtable. We entered an ornate room and about half of the people sat around an elliptic-shaped table in the middle of the room. The rest of us took our sits on the chairs placed around the room.
First, Paul Monteiro, Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement, greeted the participants. He then stated that the event wasn’t a political one since that White House cannot hold political events. He further stated that everything in the meeting was off the record and the officials should not be quoted.
After that, about every 20 minutes, the various administration officials, as set in the agenda, joined the discussion. Each official would talk for about 10 minutes in relation to his or her expertise. Then the next 10 minutes would be allocated to Q& A and engagement with the participants.
Most of the sessions were focused on issues of particular interest to the Iranian-American community such as cultural exchanges with Iran, the stringent economic sanctions on Iran, and the condition of human rights in the country. But there were also sessions regarding critical domestic issues such as the health care bill, the financial reforms and the initiatives by the White House to stimulate job creation.
Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor and former mentor to the President, was the highest ranking official to appear at the meeting. Jarrett was born in 1956 in Shiraz, Iran to American parents Dr. James E. Bowman and Barbara Taylor Bowman. Dr. Bowman, a physician and pathologist, ran a hospital for children in Shiraz in the late 1950s, as part of a program where American doctors and agricultural experts sought to help jump-start developing countries' health and farming efforts. After five years in Iran, the family moved back to the U.S. in 1962, and Dr. Bowman joined the staff of the University of Chicago Medical School. Jarrett said she used to visit Iran till she graduated from high school and that she would not forget the hospitality she enjoyed while there.
The last speaker was Cyrus Amir-Mokri, Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions, Department of Treasury. Amir-Mokri is the highest ranking Iranian-American serving in the administration.
Overall, the format of the roundtable allowed for interactive and substantive sessions, and the engagement was highly positive. Because of the number of speakers and participants, however, the time for the Q&A was quite short. Regardless, I felt the administration officials were sincere in wanting this engagement to be successful. They were there to listen and take note of issues of importance to the community, even if they could not make promises for immediate action. There is of course hopes that tangible results will emerge from this historic engagement. This is where having had a more coordinated message by invitees, at least on issues on which all agree, would have been helpful. This way, the available time could have been used more effectively. For future meetings, in order to maximize the results, there would ideally be more advance planning and coordination among the participants, so that a deeper understanding can be reached about issues of importance to the community at large. Also, participants at such meetings should not focus on narrow or personal issues; nor are such venues an avenue for self-promotion, since they deflect attention from community-wide concerns.
At first, the administration officials repeated their stand on Iran’s nuclear program and expressed their desire to make diplomacy work. They also indicated a willingness to expand cultural exchanges with Iran, increase the number of Iranian students in U.S. (currently over 5000) and even establish student exchange programs at the high school level. Opportunities could also be considered to tap private funding sources to facilitate these exchanges.
The first issue raised by one of the participants was in regards to the human rights situation in Iran, where the administration and President Obama were criticized for not doing enough and for not supporting the Green Movement in particular. There were several follow-up questions and comments on this issue. The human rights situation in Iran indeed deserves much attention. But considering the fact that the U.S. has already subjected Iran to the stringent sanctions, it’s important to discern the ways in which, short of a regime change, the U.S. can pressure the regime in Iran. Perhaps regime change is what some people wish or expect, even if they are shy of expressing it openly! Regardless, the senior foreign policy officials present made it clear that U.S. does not have a regime change policy for Iran. They also emphasized they have been very sensitive to the infringements of human rights in Iran and that, through relevant international organizations, they have been pressing for action in this regard.
Among other issues discussed was the lengthy and expensive visa application by Iranians. Since the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, currently those Iranians planning to visit the U.S. (mostly to see their family members), have to travel to a neighboring country to apply for visa at a U.S. embassy. They then have to wait 2-3 months for security clearance, and must make a second trip to obtain their visas. This is especially difficult for the elderly who wish to visit their U.S.-based children. There was a suggestion to expand the activities of the U.S. Virtual Embassy in Tehran to allow Iranian-Americans to file visa applications for their family members online so they only have to make one trip to a U.S. embassy. There is hope something serious can be done here.
In reference to the sanctions, there was general agreement that they are very cumbersome for Iranian-Americans, and they have created many problems for them. In particular, the language of the Iran Sanctions regulations, issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the Treasury Department, is difficult to understand, and open to divergent interpretations. It was also noted that people who go through legal channels to get licenses and waivers face great difficulty or lengthy processes. As the director of OFAC admitted, even when the waivers are issued, one cannot find a bank in U.S. that will engage in a financial transaction with Iran. This is an area where everyone is hoping for some action from officials in order to ease the pain of Iranian-Americans who are not the intended targets of the sanctions. The recent case of some Apple stores refusing to sell their products to Iranian-Americans was also cited as discrimination and an unintended consequence of the sanctions. Ironically, this is while the latest Apple gadgets are being offered for sale in stores in Iran! It was requested that in order to prevent such discrimination, clear guidelines need to be issued for companies such as Apple to follow.
Also in relation to the sanctions, one of the participants questioned why the high-profile Americans who are being paid to speak at MEK events or on behalf of this group aren’t being pursued by the treasury department, given the fact that MEK has been designated a terrorist group. This is while the treasury officials are certain to knock on the door of Iranian-Americans for simple violations of sanctions regulations. The OFAC official responded that he cannot comment on any investigations that may be ongoing.
Another participant talked about her recent experience visiting Iran for the purpose of conducting academic research. While there, she was not able to access a certain educational website in the U.S., even though the sanctions impose no restrictions on the sale and exchange of informational and knowledge products. As the OFAC official explained, some companies decide to err on the side of caution and go above and beyond the sanctions requirements. Again this is where more clarity by OFAC is required and is expected by the community.
There were also requests to facilitate humanitarian programs such as shipment of medicine to Iran, bringing sick Iranian children to U.S. for treatment, making it easier to financially sponsor needy Iranian children, and allowing sales of parts for passenger planes.
We are all from Shiraz:
When Valerie Jarrett entered the roundtable room, the mood turned festive. It seemed that everyone present related deeply to her and they were inspired by her example -- due to the fact that she was born in Shiraz, Iran! Some participants were boasting about their own Shiraz connections to feel closer to Jarrett :-)
For my part, I used the opportunity to make a passionate plea to Jarrett, and to express my delight in seeing that someone like her, with such a personal connection to Iranians, is a top advisor to President Obama. I stated that Iranian-Americans are very concerned about a potential military confrontation with Iran, and that even with the politically adversarial relationship between the two countries, the Iranian people feel closest to America. This, I argued, is a great asset for U.S. in the region. Jarrett agreed. I then commented that there are certain factions in Iran that are against normalization of relations and see it in their own interest to continue the status quo, and that a bold initiative by President Obama is needed to disarm this group and to pave the way for better relations, which is something that will also benefit the human rights situation in Iran. I cannot say that I received the answer I was hoping for. Regardless, I still want to believe in President Obama’s “hope” message!
There were 38 Iranian-American participants on the list provided at the event. But only about 30 were present at the meeting. The following is the breakdown:
Understandably, a meeting such as this is challenging to set up, and one cannot address everyone’s concerns. Much learning takes place at a first high-level engagement session of this sort, and valuable experience is gained. There is of course hope and a promise there will be more such meetings in the future. In that case the organizers should do their utmost to ensure the participating groups and individuals are representatives of the full spectrum of the Iranian-American community.
When I entered the Eisenhower building in the morning, the temperature was at about 80F with humidity way up there. While at the meeting, I heard the temperature had reached over 100F, so when the meeting ended, I was hesitant to leave! When I finally stepped outside around 4:30 pm, surprisingly I didn’t feel much heat. I started walking on the 17th street with a fellow Iranian-American sharing our takes of the event. As we crossed Pennsylvania Avenue, suddenly there was a thunderstorm followed by a shower. So we got separated and ran for cover. I took refuge under a tree waiting for things to calm, but finally gave up and ran up and down the street till I was able to catch a taxi for the airport. When in taxi I heard on the radio the temperature had dropped under 80F due to the rain and that some areas had been hit with power outages. Lucky for me, I was able to make it to Dulles airport on time and head back to the safety of California without a delay :-) Perhaps the dramatic changes in the weather were a reminder of how unpredictable things are in DC and in politics in general. Perhaps I should stick to the Moore’s law instead!
This was a great initiative for which the Obama Administration and the officials who participated at this roundtable deserve appreciation. And a special thanks to Dr. Alidad Mafinezam (founder of the West Asia Council) for his efforts organizing this event.
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