Local Iranians Counsel Congress

As Iran’s fundamentalist regime has increased its persecution of Jews and become a major sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East, local Iranian Jewish leaders have stepped up efforts to inform U.S. officials of the increasing danger posed by the Islamic nation.

"We’re at the forefront of keeping the people in the U.S. government aware of what Iran is doing and trying to highlight alternative types of government to the current regime there," said Pooya Dayanim, president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee, a nonprofit organization working on behalf of Iranian Jews outside Iran.

Both Dayanim and Frank Nikbakht, public affairs director of the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations (CIAJO), have been the primary forces in educating lawmakers on Capitol Hill about Iran, facilitating meetings between several pro-democracy Iranian opposition groups and U.S. officials.

"In April 2003, I helped coordinate informal meetings between Reza Pahlavi and members of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nuclear Nonproliferation and Human Rights," Dayanim said.

Aside from informally advising the Constitutionalist Party of Iran (supporters of a constitutional monarchy), Dayanim said he has also educated other pro-democracy Iranian opposition groups, such as the Marse Porgohar Party (supporters of a secular government), on how seek assistance from key U.S. policymakers.

Last May, Dayanim said he collaborated with Rep. Brad Sherman’s (D-Sherman Oaks) staff in drafting the Iran Democracy Support Act of 2003, a bill calling for an international referendum on regime change in Iran.

"The bill passed in the House. It was supposed to provide $50 million to dissident political parties, people supporting regime change in Iran and opposition media," Dayanim said. "At the last minute, the Rules Committee stripped this funding at the request of the White House, which really took the muscle out of the legislation."

Despite U.S. lawmakers’ and officials’ support for regime change in Iran last year, the current mood for action against the Iranian government has dramatically changed as the U.S. war in Iraq has continued, Dayanim said.

"Iraq didn’t turn out the way the administration wanted it to. They wasted their political capital there, and by this fall everything fell apart," Dayanim said. "Iran is the real hub of terror and is keeping the U.S. tied up in Iraq by supporting [Moqtada] al-Sadr, so the U.S. wouldn’t go after Iran next."

Dayanim also said key U.S. government departments are split on whether to endorse a policy of regime change in Iran or to engage Tehran in dialogue and ease U.S. sanctions. As a result of this division and the war in Iraq, President Bush has yet to take a stronger stance again Iran, Dayanim said.

"The president has always been steady in voicing his support for the freedom of the people of Iran, and actuality it has been a moral support, but we need more action, because Iran could become a nuclear power very soon and destabilize the region," Dayanim said.

Even though Iran’s terrorist activities have taken a back seat as the conflict in Iraq continues, Congress has not totally ignored the country. Recently the House passed a unanimous resolution calling for U.S. action to stop Iran’s nuclear proliferation efforts, Dayanim said. Likewise, a Senate bill has been drafted, calling for regime change in Iran, Dayanim pointed out.

"Two weeks ago, Sen. [Rick] Santorum and Sen. [John] Cornyn introduced a new bill which is more explicit in its terms and will make it the policy of the U.S. government to have regime change in Iran," Dayanim said. "At this time, I’m trying to get other senators to support this legislation."

Iranian government officials are monitoring the U.S. elections closely this year, because they believe that a Kerry administration would be more willing to negotiate with Iran without making any demands on its nuclear and terrorist-sponsoring activities, Dayanim said.

Both Dayanim and Nikbakht broke the historical taboo in the Iranian Jewish community of voicing opposition to mistreatment of Jews in Iran, when in 1999, they, along with numerous other Jewish organization, launched a campaign to publicize the plight of 13 Jews from Shiraz facing execution on false charges of spying for Israel and the United States.

"Generally the Iranian Jewish leaders have had a ghetto mentality by trying to keep everyone silent, because they’re afraid it will make the situation worse," Nikbakht said. "In 1999, we broke that silence with our campaign for the Shiraz 13, and that vocal pressure saved those Jews’ lives."

Nikbakht, who is also director of the Committee for Religious Minority Rights in Iran — an informal local group consisting of Iranian Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians and Baha’is — said that after the international community condemned Iran’s treatment of the Shiraz Jews in 1999, the Iranian government halted its campaign of systematically executing Jews.

"For the five years before the Shiraz 13 incident, the Iranian government was executing one Jew per year to keep the Jews in line," Nikbakht said. "But now all this exposure has caused changes in Iran, and Jewish leaders there have been able to openly write letters to Iranian officials to voice their disagreement with anti-Semitic legislation and Nazi-like propaganda from the regime, which they couldn’t do before."

Nikbakht said that for the past five years, the U.S. State Department has been incorporating his detailed reports about widespread discrimination against religious minorities in Iran into its annual report on Iran.

"We’re demanding equal rights for all Iranians, regardless of their religion," Nikbakht said. "We’re basically asking people in the U.S. government to put any pressure they can on Iran, including intensifying sanctions until they improve human rights in Iran for these minority groups."

Dayanim said his recent request for funding on a project to extensively document the large-scale persecution of religious minorities in Iran was rejected by the State Department, despite federal funds available for such research.

"We can only do this through federal funding, and its obvious that the issue of religious freedom for minorities was not important to them," Dayanim said.

George Harounian, CIAJO president, said the situation for Jews in Iran has deteriorated over the last 10 years. Between 1994 and 1997, 12 Iranian Jews were imprisoned and their fates are currently unknown, Harounian noted. He said they had attempted to flee the country by crossing the border into Pakistan.

Many Iranian Jewish leaders who are in contact with U.S. policymakers said they were optimistic about the U.S. government’s future actions with regards to Iran. They said they will continue to keep the light on Iran’s activities, as long as it continues to threaten the world with terrorism and potential nuclear war.

"I think the [Bush] administration wants to help, but the election has to pass and things in Iraq have to settle," Dayanim said. "I’m also meeting with foreign policy advisers to Kerry to argue that support [for] true democracy in Iran should be their policy as well."