This article was written by Nazenin Ansari and Jonathan Paris
The New York Sun— The current buzz phrase echoing in the political corridors of America and Europe is engagement with Iran for advancing peace and stability in Iraq and the wider Middle East. The question is which Iran? Should Western engagement be solely with Ahmadinejad-led fundamentalist radicals and Khatemi-led status-quo reformists? While the West has focused on the Iranian regime in one way or another in the last two decades, little effort has been made to engage or promote the potential of Iranians living abroad to play a constructive role in the peaceful social, economic, and political transformation and development of Iran into a modern progressive state.
A glimpse of this potential can be seen today in London and Paris. Diverse in gender, language, religion, ethnicity, education, social and legal status, prosperity, and political affiliation, Iranians in these cities have thrived in academia, medicine, finance and banking, publishing, engineering, fashion design, computer design, and technology. Moreover, given the proximity of these two cities to the motherland, which facilitates travel back and forth, and the easy availability of Internet and satellite television broadcasts, Iranians in London and Paris have become role models for the young Iranian population at home: successful, confident, and proud about being Iranian.
To appreciate this potential, one has to go back 28 years to the aftermath of the revolution in Iran, when many Iranian students studying abroad chose to remain in the West rather than return to the revolutionary upheaval back home. They were soon joined by the first exodus from Iran consisting mainly of supporters of the monarchy, including technocrats, military officers, entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers, artists, writers, and bankers.
As a respected center for culture, art, and literature in the Iranian psyche, France in particular attracted a fair share of intellectuals, physicians, artists, and writers. Moreover, given its stance on such issues as liberty and fraternity, many prominent politicians like Ali Amini and Shahpour Bakhtiar, who were prime ministers under the shah, set up political bases in Paris. Although, unlike in most other states, the government of Francois Mitterrand allowed them a large measure of freedom for their operations, Paris proved to be a deadly choice for Bakhtiar and several others who were assassinated allegedly at the behest of the Islamist regime in Tehran.
The initial wave of exiles was soon joined by a second when the revolution turned against its own children in the early 1980s. Their numbers grew after the start of the Iran-Iraq war. Socialist and liberal elements comprising large numbers of professionals and intellectuals were forced to leave Iran. During this period, Abolhassan Bani Sadr, the first president of Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini, and Massoud Rajavi, the head of the Mojahedin Khalq Organisation, took refuge in Paris.
In the salons of London and Paris, the old-guard “progressive centre right” intellectuals, former statesmen, and technocrats who withstood the wave of assassinations, began to engage the new “left of center” exiles and their counterparts inside the country. Newspapers such as Kayhan (London) and Nimrooz, and political journals such as Iran File and Lettre Persan, also played an instrumental role in promoting a common agenda that eventually formed the basis of an alternative vision for the country based on popular sovereignty, the universality of human rights, good governance, freedom of expression, and the separation of state from mosque.
During this period, nonpolitical entrepreneurial and professional, or Yuppie-type, members of the community began to nurture their sense of belonging to Iran by establishing Farsi schools, business associations, cultural foundations, and centers for Iranian studies in universities. When Britain began engaging the regime in Tehran and Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s former president, launched his Dialogue of Civilizations in the late 1990s, organizations such as the Iran Heritage Foundation and the Association of Iranian Scholars became bridges between these exiles and Iran. The organizations sought to promote a modern Iranian identity abroad and at home.
A worsening economic situation and dwindling political space inside Iran today spurs a new wave of highly skilled university graduates and working-class Iranians to come to London and Paris. Frustrated with the shortcomings of those in power in Tehran, the new wave and the existing Yuppie professionals and older political elite are coming together behind this alternative vision for Iran. Their counterparts inside Iran are listening.
For the first time ever, monarchists, communists, republicans, fedayeen, former regime reformists, members of the student movement, ethnic and religious minorities, and Mojahedin Khalq supporters stood together to protest the visit to London in early November by Mr. Khatami, the former president. The only other times that Iranians abroad came together was in support of the Iranian National Football team during the World Cup in 2002 and 2006.
We have seen this transcendental awakening before in Persian literature. In the “Conference of the Birds” by Attar, a 12th-century Iranian mystical poet, a group of birds embarks on a tumultuous voyage in search of the infinitely wise “Simorgh.” When 30 remaining birds reach their destination, they see their reflection in the lake and realize that the wise Simorgh, which means 30 birds in Farsi, is none other than their own selves. The Simorgh spirit is awakening among members of the vibrant Iranian community and their counterparts inside Iran.
In the last 28 years, Iranians with different orientations and prejudices were forced out of their country. Dialogue among them was not easy, and years of mutual distrust and animosity prevented any union, let alone any capacity for collective action against the theocracy in Iran.
But the experience of living in democratic societies for nearly three decades has taught these Iranians the merits of tolerance and the benefits of interdependence. Iranians of all persuasions are increasingly ready to forgo their own preferred ideologies and preferences and embrace principles that will allow them to live freely side by side with their integrity intact.
While engaging the regime in Tehran for pragmatic reasons, it is important for the West not to lose sight of the real assets they need to work with if Iran is ever to be a partner in the real sense of the word.