Watching the Iranian Protests through U.S.-Iranian Nonprofit Lenses

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What is happening in Iran right now that Iranian-U.S. nonprofits can signal us to notice, help us understand, and mobilize us into appropriate action?

Take a look at Persepolis, either the graphic book or the movie by Marjane Satrapi, to understand the mix of hope and hopelessness, desire and dismay underlying the protests by so many young people in Tehran against the rigged election that apparently has reinstalled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s troublesome leader.

President Barack Obama has adopted a cautious, pragmatic response to the protests, not giving the mullahs the opportunity to blame the U.S. and its new young president for instigating the protests (so, of course, Ayatollah Khamenei has pinned the responsibility on the Brits led by the hapless, likely outgoing Labor leader, Gordon Brown).

Obama’s cautious response has garnered widespread support except in Congress where make-a-show resolutions have passed both houses demanding the president speak out in favor of the protests and against the Ahmadenijad/Khamenei sham vote count.

Shiites have good reason to be wary of U.S. verbal encouragement.  Remember the predicament of the Shiites in southern Iraq encouraged by President George H.W. Bush to rise up against Saddam Hussein only to be hung out to dry with no support.

Lots of non-Iranian pundits in the U.S. from the left and right are talking about the protests in Iran.  But what are Iranians in the U.S. saying about conditions in their home country?

Nonprofits Speaking out by and for Iranians

Although the 2000 Census put the number of Iranians in the U.S. at about 338,000, some authorities estimate the number of Iranians at more than twice that, with perhaps as many as 500,000 living in California.  Other concentrations of Iranians may be found in the metropolitan DC/Maryland/Virginia area, New York City, and Texas.  Iranians in the U.S. may be the highest educated immigrant group in the U.S., with half of adult Iranians possessing bachelor degrees and one-fourth with master’s or doctorates.

With that demographic, Iranians in the U.S. have to have their own array of nonprofits that are weighing in on the election crisis.  What are they saying?  We have counted dozens of obviously Iranian-American nonprofits (through searches on  While we cannot attest to the probity of the specific organizations, some have spoken out on their websites:

  • On June 20th, the National Iranian American Council condemned the Ahmadenijad government’s use of violence against protesters and called for new elections with international monitors (a similar position was voiced by the Utah-based chairman of an Iranian nonprofit called Omid).   The NIAC president charged that the government’s actions were a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a position shared by Amnesty International which condemned Khamenei’s “green light to security forces to violently handle protesters.”  NIAC has a blog (niacINsight) which appears to be doing a solid job in tracking events from Iran with a detail not seen in many other venues.  
  • The Iranian Association of Boston issued a statement typical of many immigrant and refugee organizations when monitoring civil strife in their home countries, “encourag(ing) all members of our community to reach out to one another, and to help each other cope during these difficult times…This crisis provides an opportunity for all of us to demonstrate our compassion and concern for one another, while we traverse these trying times.” (IAB says that its bylaws prohibit any kind of political action by the group).
  • The Bloggers Unite for a Free Iran campaign is encouraging activists to use social networking to elevate public awareness of the elections and advocate for greater freedom in Iran.
  • SOS Iran and other groups have organized protests, not surprisingly in Iranian-populated Los Angeles, with protesters chanting “death to the dictator”.
  • The Miami Herald wrote about Iranian emigrant enclaves in South Florida and mentioned the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans expressing concern for the young people protesting in Tehran.
  • The issues aren’t simply questions of Khamenei’s and Ahmadenijad’s vote-rigging (with some districts having turnouts of greater than 100 percent, difficult to obtain even with graveyard voter mobilizations).  There are still fundamental questions of human rights in Iran, especially for woman, as the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center reminded the U.S. public as the election was underway (think of the “honor killings” of Iranian women, and that’s enough to tell all observers that whether it is Ahmadenijad or alternatives, the rights of women under the mullahs have been abused and suppressed).

One gets a sense that Iranians in the U.S. are being as cautious as President Obama, as they watch the increasing government-directed violence against the protesters and government closures of web sites, online social networking, and foreign press correspondents.  The friends and relatives of the people in these nonprofits are at risk in Tehran, subject to arbitrary arrests and disappearances (again, please read Persepolis for a graphic guided tour of how this nation deals with dissidents).  But, as events unfold, nonprofits will continue to speak out, by virtue of a deTocquevillian centrifugal force that compels 501(c)(3)s to bear witness against injustice and mobilize public opinion to see what is happening in the public squares of Iran’s capital city.

What the Nonprofit Sector Might Do

Those of us old enough to remember the fall of the Shah after his ginormous party connecting himself to Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, or the Islamic revolution that installed the rule of the Ayatollahs several years later, or in other countries, the slow fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines or the still unresolved legacy of the democracy protests in China’s Tianamen Square, realize that it is difficult to gauge exactly what may be happening in protests such as these and what trajectory and timeline they may follow.

Even if the end result of the current election protests is the dislodging Ahmadenijad and the weakening the mullahs, the history of Mir Hussein Moussavi is that he may be an unlikely candidate to remake the Iranian theocracy into a full-fledged democracy.  However, strange changes in character have been known to occur on the international stage (look at the late Community Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang’s posthumous journal/memoir, Prisoner of  the State, about the Tianamen protests, or Mikhail Gorbachev’s transformation from General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to architect of perestroika and glasnost to contemporary Russian social democrat).  Iran is not a sideshow to be dismissed as irrelevant or beyond all hope.  What happens in Tehran will be important in the Middle East regarding political stability, important to human rights regarding how political dissent and women’s rights are addressed and protected (or not), and certainly personally important to upwards of a half million people in the U.S. with roots in Iran.

But the immigrant Iranian community in the U.S. will not be a silent actor in the future of Iran.  If it takes months or years, change will occur in Iran, and Iranian civil society organizations in the U.S. will be participants in shaping the future contours of Iranian society.  To the extent that the entire nonprofit sector in this nation is connected by mission and origin to human rights, U.S. nonprofits of all stripes have a stake in this issue.