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Comment | Through the Front Door: White House Hosts Iranian Americans


23 Jul 2012 21:51Comments

Watershed event symbolizes community's remarkable progress.

Amir Bagherpour is the first Iranian-born graduate of West Point. He recently completed his Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University in political science with a focus in international relations.
[ comment ] On July 18, the White House held a roundtable for Iranian American community leaders. Organized by the Office of Public Engagement, this event was part of President Obama's ongoing effort to create a dialogue between the administration and the various communities that constitute the American public.

Looking around the room, I could not help but notice the numerous community leaders who had served the United States in public service. In fact, more than one quarter of those who attended the meeting serve or had served in government. Some of the notable figures included Lieutenant Colonel Milad Pooran, U.S. Air Force flight surgeon and Iraq War veteran; the Honorable Bijan Kian, former board member of the U.S. Import-Export Bank and member of the White House Business Council; Dr. Firouz Naderi, director of solar system exploration at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There was also an Iranian American representative from the administration, Dr. Cyrus Amir-Mokri, who currently serves as assistant treasury secretary for financial institutions.

The all-day event comprised briefings and dialogue among administration officials and the Iranian American community leaders. The topics of discussion ranged from domestic issues such as healthcare reform and the state of the U.S. economy to foreign policy matters regarding Iran. Among the various groups represented at the event were the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB), Iranian American Bar Association, Iranian American Muslim Association of North America, National Iranian American Council, and Progressive Jewish Alliance. There were also distinguished Iranian American individuals present from the business community, academia, non-profit sector, legal profession, and scientific community.

While many of the briefings focused on domestic policies relevant to the community, the issue that dominated the discussions was the promotion of human of rights and democracy in Iran. Administration officials responded to the community's concerns by recapping President Obama's efforts in those areas, highlighted by his Nowruz message to the Iranian people. The sentiments expressed by community leaders at the meeting reflected PAAIA's Zogby-commissioned National Public Survey of Iranian Americans, which indicates that two thirds of Iranian Americans believe the most important issue when it comes to U.S.-Iranian relations is the promotion of human rights and democracy in Iran; there is also a clear preference for a secular democratic Iran.

Separate from the human rights issue, White House officials reiterated that the president's most urgent priority in regard to Iran is to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons technology. Community leaders meanwhile expressed their concerns over the prospect of a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities and its potential impact on the people of Iran. PAAIA's 2012 survey shows that 53 percent of Iranian Americans believe that a military strike could actually strengthen the Iranian government. Participants also discussed ways to facilitate greater humanitarian assistance to the Iranian people without undermining the intended effect of the sanctions regime.

The July 18 roundtable was a watershed event, marking the first time the Iranian American community was invited to the White House to transparently discuss issues of interest beyond U.S. policy toward Iran. To quote the administration, it was "an open front door to the White House." More than 30 years after a revolution that spurred millions of Iranians to flee their ancestral homeland, the United States is now home to more than one million Iranian Americans who contribute to the tapestry of American society. Although issues regarding Iran remain a dominant concern for the Iranian American community, they also place importance on matters of domestic relevance such as civic participation, healthcare, and the economy.

The fact that the White House dedicated a good portion of the roundtable to domestic issues is a signal that Iranian Americans are being acknowledged as an integral part of the broader American public. Certainly, the journey to integration is a long and at times difficult process. Instances of discrimination still arise, such as the recent case in which an Apple retail store clerk allegedly barred an Iranian American from purchasing an iPad based primarily on the fact that she spoke Farsi. However, if we look at the big picture, America is a land where Iranian emigrés and succeeding generations have prospered in exceptional ways, not seen in other countries with substantial Iranian populations. The White House roundtable was a powerful symbol not only of the community's progress, but also of the extraordinarily inclusive and tolerant nature of American democracy at its best.

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Homepage photo: Valerie Jarrett was among the senior U.S. administration officials who spoke to Iranian American leaders at the White House. Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama, was born in Shiraz, Iran to American parents. Her father, a pathologist and geneticist, ran a hospital for children in Shiraz as part of a program where American doctors and agricultural experts sought to help jump-start developing countries' health and farming efforts.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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