An elegant Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park provided warmth and safety for American reporters representing four news agencies to speak directly via Internet with four Iranians facing drastically different circumstances. “If we get caught talking to foreign reporters, they’ll take us to Evin prison and hang us,” said “Mobarez Naftooh,” hiding behind a screen name and speaking through a phone-line encrypted VOIP operation.
Yet, for two hours, the quartet, sitting in cities across Iran, defied authorities in order to take turns answering an array of questions ranging from life in the Islamic Republic to the intricacies of hearing news and alerting the outside world to the realities of the situation they face. Unspoken among their audience was the reflexive ear listening for the knock on the door that, thankfully, never came.
The force behind “The New Iran,” a U.S.-based, grass-roots organization established in mid-2010, is Iman Foroutan, an Iranian-American computer and electrical engineer with a long history of creating resistance groups; his avowed mission is to use nonviolent means to topple the Iranian regime and establish a secular democracy.
Acting as interpreter, Foroutan explained to us that at the other end of the Internet hookup were a woman described only as a “technocrat”; an attorney; a student; and a building contractor. Each, in turn, added pieces to the tapestry that became a reality check on the present situation and a view to a future that all agreed is heading toward the critical mass that would overthrow the Khamenei regime. The consensus was that external assistance is needed and that a short window of opportunity exists for it to happen.
That set the scene for a plea that echoed comments we’ve heard from Syrians during the past nine months. “Why,” they asked, “was America willing to help even with military might to oust Libya’s Gadhafi, and provide moral support for the toppling of Egypt’s Mubarak despite his long standing as a friend of the United States, but not help Iranians reach the tipping point for ousting the oppressive yet shaky government that presents a greater threat to the region and the world than Libya and Egypt combined?”
Iranians seem surprised that American leadership hasn’t caught on to the reality that help comes in many forms and doesn’t necessarily mean a beachfront assault by the Marines or sending in waves of cruise missiles. “The U.S. seems always to be two steps behind,” “Damovand,” the contractor, charged. “There was a window of opportunity following the elections when rioting filled the streets. We hoped for help, but it never came.” They’re not asking for military intervention. “Where,” for instance, “will electricity come from if nuclear facilities are attacked?”
The Iranians said a second opportunity is now being ignored as the Arab Spring spreads throughout the region and the populace is primed for a move.
What, then, is powerful enough to bring down an oppressive regime but that doesn’t include military force? The sanctions could work, but won’t unless applied effectively. To “Mobarez Naftooh,” that means targeting the Central Bank and petroleum companies.
And information. All four of the distant voices were disheartened by the failure of the Voice of America radio to step up to the plate. “VOA might as well be staffed by agents of the Iranian government,” they all agreed. Although communicating with foreign journalists can cost one his or her life, it will not come as a surprise that the flow of reliable information remains atop the list of “must haves.” Hence, the profound disappointment with VOA. But it will no doubt surprise many that all of the Iranians named Israel Radio’s Farsi channel as the “best radio in Iran.”
In fact, if anything surprising came of the interview it was the unequivocal dispelling of the uncompromising rejection of the Jewish state that has become the signature of the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime. Imagine, instead of being told that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the mother of all Mideast conflicts and fuels all unrest found there, we’re hearing that once the Islamic Republic goes, the tinderbox the center of which is Israel disappears. “We have no borders with Israel and no relationship with Israel,” the contractor told us. “Yalda,” the sole woman of the group, echoed that “the Iranian people have no fight with Israel,” and, as if to offer proof that Ahmadinejad doesn’t speak for the people, added that “we do believe the Holocaust happened.”
So what did we learn from the Iranians who risked life and limb to make their case to four American reporters who would in turn take it to the American people? The story of the decade is unfolding and we’re remarkably ignorant of what is happening. For all of its sanctions and threats, the West has virtually allowed the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime to shut off the flow of real-time information that ultimately links the Iranian people to the world community.
The courageous lawyer known to us only as “Shahab Shahaban,” whom we are told has written the first draft of a constitution for a secular Iranian government, speaks to us in English with clarity and conviction of the possibilities of democratic changes ahead.
The will-be heroes of Iran are not attacking military convoys and blowing up government installations. Rather, they are working hard to keep open the paucity of channels through which information flows and to utilize newly breaking technology to increase the number of Iranians able to communicate with the outside world. The clear message is that the West can help a great deal more and do so with very little cost.
Once again we see that with greater attention paid to a more careful reading, the Iranian street can help us better understand what is needed and what is not, and how we can finally live up to the belief the Iranian people have in the free world.
Felice Friedson, president and CEO of The Media Line news agency, is founder of The Mideast Press Club. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.