Bravely on air

Iranian citizens chide the US on satellite TV for failing to back opposition.

Peace in Iran 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Peace in Iran 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
There is often a disconnect between what the people of the street are witnessing and feeling and the agendas of governments, media and advocates alike.
Despite the Western media’s fixation on Iran, for example, the lack of complete information becomes clear and often manifests in poor judgment, mixed messages, tardy reactions and an irresolvable endgame on the part of those charged with formulating policy and managing international relations. Sadly, the cornerstone values of freedom and democracy that the US and its Western allies espouse are sometimes missing from policy when decisions have been implemented on the ground.
A few months ago, I interviewed Iranians at home through encrypted phone lines as part of an ongoing effort by The New Iran, an opposition group established in 2010, that reaches an estimated millions of Iranians weekly via satellite television.
Iman Forouton, founder of the group, invited me back last week to co-host his program using simultaneous translation from English to Farsi. Although my audience was seeking a much-desired point of contact with an American entity, I was seeking answers to questions about the current crisis from the perspective of the Iranians themselves – not third-party references to residents across the country.
In my first interaction, I had been warned that if the Iranian government found out that our guests were speaking to the American media, they would be taken with no further warning to a notorious prison in Tehran. With that in mind, I sought answers to what motivated the opposition and what price the opponents of Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were willing to pay.
The most powerful message I took away from the first conversation was that the Iranian people are profoundly disappointed by what they say is the US failure, twice in the past three years, to help them overthrow the regime. The first time was during the street rioting that followed the 2009 presidential election, and the second time is right now. Yet they were vague on what kind of help they expected.
In my more recent conversation with Iman after the on-air interview was completed, I was told that US President Barack Obama had surprised many when he said he had no problem with a nuclear Iran as long as it didn’t include nuclear weapons. This position is apparently a popular one on the streets. But when I asked whether the US should accept Tehran’s claims that it is not seeking nuclear weapons, nothing convincing was forthcoming.
SOME OF the Iranians calling in to the talk show disguised their voices. Some expressed the belief that sanctions were working. Others were less optimistic, and many were adamant that despite their effect on the population, more sanctions should be invoked “sooner and stronger.” This, despite a consensus that the sanctions have increased the cost of daily necessities.
Forouton, an Iranian expatriate living on the US West Coast, introduced a woman he described as a fellow expat with a green card – an increasingly rare achievement for Iranians – who had just returned to the States from Tehran. She reported that in the last few weeks alone, the value of currency had depreciated by half and that regular food staples had become difficult to find. The cost of basic food items, she explained, had jumped significantly, as had the price of homes.
Traditionally during Nowruz, the Iranian new year, government employees receive bonuses. But a retired army friend told this woman that he had received less than half of last year’s bonus. He also reported that shelves in stores were bare several weeks before the new year and the explanation given was that preparations were under way for an attack by Israel or the US. In a further sign of the economic impact of sanctions, high-profile stores selling luxury items such as jewelry have closed, and many couples are scrambling to make ends meet by holding down two jobs.
Forouton pointed out that because the Revolutionary Guard controls large parts of Iran’s industry and is a major importer of food, the sanctions are affecting the government.
People are angry now – angry at their government. The woman with the green card predicted that if shortages were to continue, pressure would explode into new street demonstrations despite the ban on congregating in public.
“But,” she said, “if it becomes life and death.... When you have so many poor people and five-year-olds begging in the streets for bread, why would you want your government to be paying for atomic energy? The people can live without it and know that Iran has been paying the Russians for [power].”
Forouton said the sanctions should have been put into place long ago. “The generals and US government [policy makers] can’t point to any slowing of atomic activities due to the sanctions,” he said. “This Islamic Republic is an ideological country, an apocalyptic country, and they see the American reactions to other nuclear countries like North Korea and Pakistan, so they won’t be persuaded by sanctions.”
The New Iran – which Forouton and his colleagues founded in September 2010 and which has a $500,000 annual budget – opposes military action against the country, favoring instead a multi-tier platform that includes encouraging support for the opposition from foreign governments and industry. The group is one of a number of organizations looking toward the establishment of a new government structure for a post-ayatollah Iran, including the drafting of a constitution that would support a replacement regime of educated, secular leaders who embrace a separation of religion and state.
While eschewing violence, Forouton’s suggestions for ways in which the US can help includes the powerful symbolism of an invitation to the White House for his group. This, he says, “would put fear into the [present] government. We would see the generals flee Iran and the information now lacking – from the status of nuclear development to the locations of mass graves – would become known.”
He says an embrace beneath the White House portico would generate a moral imperative that would enable the opposition to mobilize the Iranian street and shut down refineries and critical government services. While he says he doesn’t believe Israel or the US will attack Iran, he does believe that economic sanctions will get the job done, along with bribing the appropriate generals, providing safe havens for opposition leaders and creating what he calls “a catalyst for a Tahrir Square.”
The same sense of frustration that emanates from the anonymous Iranian callers is visible in Forouton. Having failed to alter its official policy of not calling for regime change, the American administration will not meet with Forouton or allow his colleagues air time on Voice of America because it’s funded with American tax dollars. The Iranians we heard from believe the US should be embarrassed.
“The US is using delay tactics rather than standing for the principles of freedom and democracy,” he admonished. “And it’s a mockery.”
As the broadcast wound down, discontent and disappointment with American policy came through loud and clear, the final voice predicting sadly that “the US will cut a deal with the Iranians in the end.”