On the occasion of the Persian New Year, President Obama delivered a recorded video message to the Iranian people. He highlighted the many ways the Iranian government denies its citizens access to information, including censoring media outlets and filtering the Internet. He declared his administration committed to communicating with the Iranian people over the objections of their government “by making it easier for Iranian citizens to get the software and services they need to connect with the rest of the world through modern communications methods.”
As a candidate, Obama insisted—despite harsh criticism by other presidential candidates—that he would reach out to Iranian leaders to end the 30-year cold war between the United States and Iran. But as his first term in office ends, having failed to start any significant dialogue with the Iranian regime, the president has outlined a new strategy designed to bypass the government and talk to the Iranian people directly. It is unlikely that this strategy will succeed.
Besides the fact that the video message is representative of the paternalistic U.S. attitude toward people of the third world, it also underscores the casual approach to solving one of the most critical international relations problems of the century — a problem that has far-reaching economic, military, and political ramifications for the entire world.
First, it is neither diplomatic nor constructive to tell citizens of another sovereign nation who their leaders ought to be. Even if it were, the Obama administration would be well advised to develop a consistent standard by which it decides how to judge foreign governments. If the United States is going to declare the Iranian government illegitimate, it should do the same for the Saudi and Bahraini governments.
Second, although people-to-people interactions build stronger and more durable friendships between countries, the Obama administration is instead employing a problematic, top-down, government-to-people approach. For citizen diplomacy to succeed, the administration should enable American citizens, especially Iranian and Muslim Americans, to engage their counterparts in Iran. Like the Bush administration before it, the Obama administration’s inability to integrate Muslims into its foreign policy has alienated the Muslim community and diminished U.S. credibility abroad.
This failure also hits much closer to home.
A Case Study
A recent federal case against an American charitable organization reveals the unfortunate state of affairs for Muslim Americans, the squandered potential of citizen diplomacy, and the legal and practical problems posed by economic sanctions.
In the mid-1990s, Mehrdad Yasrebi, a passionate philanthropist, read a profile of an Afghan refugee in Iran — Zahra, a girl who lost her father at a young age. The girl’s young mother had abandoned her, and Zahra, then 7 years old, was living with her grandparents. Her grandmother was disabled, and her old grandfather could not find a job. He would hang around construction sites every day collecting nails, which he would straighten and resell for enough money to feed his wife and granddaughter. The three lived in a cardboard box the size of a minivan. This story and others like it moved Yasrebi to act.
He founded the Child Foundation (CF), a U.S.-based charitable organization dedicated to helping needy children in Iran, Afghanistan, and other countries where he had reliable contacts. He built the organization from nothing. First, he asked friends to donate $20 a month, all of which he promised would go to providing food, shelter, clothes, books, and healthcare to needy children. He and his wife covered the overhead cost of the organization out of their own pockets, even running the charity out of their own home in the beginning. Yasrebi placed small donation boxes in retail stores and asked long-distance phone companies to donate a percentage of their revenues from international calls. He reached out to the Iranian-American community and asked them to support his cause. After a decade of hard work, the CF became a large and reputable U.S. charity providing critical services to thousands of extremely needy but talented children from Iran and several other countries. Yasrebi still recalls the joy he felt after receiving letters from the many children he helped who are now lawyers, professors, teachers, doctors, and successful laborers enjoying a dignified life.
Since he insisted that the CF remain independent of any political faction or religious denomination, the CF faced difficulties operating inside Iran and even collecting donations from Shiite Muslims. Yasrebi spent considerable time writing letters explaining the nature of the charity’s work and asking religious leaders to issue fatwas allowing their followers to donate part of their alms to the CF. The Iranian government subjected the CF to additional scrutiny and limitations because it is an American organization. But none of these obstacles measures up to what the CF and Yasrebi have faced here in the United States.
Because of U.S. sanctions against Iran that date back to the 1980s, the CF had great difficulty transferring funds and services to children in Iran. The scrutiny intensified after 9/11, and the U.S. government subjected CF and Yasrebi to secret monitoring, wiretapping, and FBI profiling. Then, in 2008, federal agents conducted a synchronized raid at 6 am on Yasrebi’s residence and workplace, along with the CF office and the residences of several major contributors. The raid traumatized Yasrebi’s children, and the negative media coverage stigmatized his family.
After nearly seven years of intense investigation, the government offered Mehrdad Yasrebi two options: a trial in federal court, where he—and his wife—could face 20-25 years in prison for myriad charges, including “cooperating with a terrorist organization,” or a plea under which Yasrebi would admit to minor violations and no charges would be brought against his wife. On the advice of his attorney, Yasrebi, fearing for his liberty and the well-being of his family, opted to take the plea. The government’s sentencing recommendation was a 30-month prison term and a fine of $50,000.
During sentencing, the defense attorneys argued that, even after a decade-long investigation, the government had failed to prove any of the charges against the CF and Yasrebi. They added that the minor infractions to which Yasrebi had admitted did not warrant such a harsh punishment for a well-respected member of the community. They explained that the U.S. government has repeatedly stated that sanctions are not intended to punish the Iranian people, and therefore food and medicine are exempted. The attorneys asked the judge to reject the prosecutor’s sentencing recommendation and only impose a fine of $10,000.
Responding to the defense memo, the government insisted that Yasrebi be imprisoned and heavily fined, advancing troubling arguments to justify their sentencing guidelines. Prosecutors contended that although food and other necessary goods are exempted from the sanctions, providers must not buy them inside Iran. They also contended that the Child Foundation should not operate in Iran at all, because by providing for needy Iranian children, the CF was making it possible for the Iranian government to spend money on more sinister projects.
Their insistence that charities purchase food and clothes from outside Iran and then send them to beneficiaries inside rests on the idea that Iranian merchants and businesses are linked to the government (perhaps because they are paying taxes?). This line of reasoning is both fallacious and cruel.
A Chilling Effect
On March 6, 2012, Judge Garr King found the government’s claims about Mehrdad Yasrebi’s work unfounded. As reported in the Oregonian, Judge King concluded that the government hadn’t produced evidence that Yasrebi or the charity [was] involved in funding terrorism. He refused to approve the prison sentence sought by the prosecutors. Although the judge’s ruling more or less vindicates Yasrebi legally, the personal, mental, and financial damage he, his family, and the community have suffered is immeasurable.
First, his employer of nearly two decades, Precision Castparts, fired him. When he called a headhunter to look for another job, he was told that they cannot help him because he is a convicted felon. And after waiting 14 years to make a decision regarding Yasrebi’s application for citizenship, the government told Yasrebi that his application would be denied because of the case against him. They failed, however, to explain the 14-year delay, which has placed Yasrebi in a precarious position. Had he been convicted of actual crimes, he could have been deported and his American-born children would have been separated either from their father or their homeland.
Second, the case perpetuates a pervasive sense of fear and alienation among American Muslims. It cuts familial bonds between Americans and their relatives living in their ancestral homelands. It creates classes of citizenship, allowing naturalized U.S. citizens to be treated as second-class. It punishes Muslims in the United States for the sins of the regimes they left behind.
Third, this case proves once again that economic sanctions rarely harm regimes, but rather destroy the fabric of society by imposing more hardships on the poor, the needy, and the vulnerable. Importantly, this case has exposed the negative impact of sanctions on U.S. citizens, legal residents, and organizations.
The prosecution of Yasrebi has had a chilling effect on U.S. residents with contacts in other countries. A naturalized U.S. citizen will be fearful of sending money to an ailing mother in a country under U.S sanctions. Academics will hesitate to collaborate with colleagues in places like Iran and Cuba. Activists will be reluctant to assist political prisoners and human rights advocates in countries under sanctions. NGOs will be unwilling to engage their counterparts in places where their work on behalf of the poor and the voiceless is most needed.
A Time for Reflection
Consider the Yasrebi case in light of the Egyptian junta’s crackdown on U.S. NGO workers. If the American government continues to prosecute its own citizens and legal residents for providing aid to needy children in a Muslim country, what basis could the administration have to protest the targeting of American nonprofits abroad?
In fact, the U.S. prosecution of Merhdad Yasrebi pales in comparison to the charges he could face in Iran. After all, Yasrebi worked for nearly 20 years for a company that had significant business deals with the U.S. military. Given the recurring U.S. threats against Iran, the Iranian government could argue that Yasrebi is directly providing the U.S. armed forces with the technology and the tools that will be used to attack Iran. That is a far easier case to make than the one the U.S. government leveled against Dr. Yasrebi..
This case puts human faces on the victims of the sanctions that were supposed to punish a rogue government, not its people or the people of this country. The so-called targeted sanctions presume that the other side will not adapt. The reality is different and far more complex. A bank that is not under sanctions today could be tomorrow, and that complicates their business relations. A bank under sanctions today may simply change its name to escape them. Sanctions hardly work to change governments’ behavior. Citizen diplomacy is a powerful alternative to sanctions and military threats. It is effective, humane, empowering, and constructive.
President Obama’s declaration that he will use American resources to provide Iranians with access to the Internet while the U.S. government is prosecuting Iranian Americans for providing food, clothes, medicine, and educational materials to needy children flies in the face of logic and common sense. His recent overture to the Iranian people should start here in the United States by empowering Iranian Americans to speak on behalf of their adopted country, to highlight its virtues, and to build bridges between peoples.
If President Obama wants Muslim Americans to continue to speak out against brutal regimes in their ancestral homes, condemn extremism, and promote democracy in the Islamic world, then he must start by making sure that they are not second-class citizens at home. He can start by ordering a review of cases like Yasrebi’s to determine whether the government broke any laws or violated anyone’s civil rights. Furthermore, the delay in Yasrebi’s application for citizenship, and the subsequent denial of that application, should be investigated to ensure that his application was not denied because of his ethnicity, religion, or charitable work.
Unlike other indictments where terrorism charges were leveled, this particular case did not receive national media attention—possibly due to the extremely weak evidence the government presented. But the government’s treatment of the defendants, the nature of the charges, and the behavior of the prosecutors underscore the interconnectedness of domestic and foreign policy. It exposes an undercurrent of mistrust and prejudice towards Iranian Americans. It depicts instances of willful ignorance of Islamic cultures. It illustrates a stunning disregard for the rights of Muslim Americans.
Ahmed Souaiaia teaches at the University of Iowa and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.