The case for peoples’ diplomacy
On the occasion of the start of the Persian New Year (Nowrūz), President Obama delivered a recorded video message to the Iranian people. In it, he highlighted the many ways the Iranian government denies its citizens access to information, including censoring media outlets and filtering the Internet. He declared that his administration is committed to communicating with the Iranian people despite 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 from other presidential candidates— that he would reach out to the Iranian leaders and talk to them in order to end the 30 year cold war. During his first year in office, President Obama offered to start a conversation with the Iranian leadership based on mutual respect. He then sent a letter, whose content was not disclosed, to the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei. As his first term in office ends, having failed to start any significant dialogue with the Iranian regime, the President outlined a new strategy designed to bypass the Iranian government and religious leaders and talk to the Iranian people directly. Will this strategy succeed? Unlikely; and here are several compelling reasons.
Besides the fact that the video message is representative of the predictable paternalistic attitude towards 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 on the entire world.
First, it is neither diplomatic nor constructive to tell citizens of another sovereign nation who their leaders ought to be. If that was the norm as a matter of foreign policy, the Obama administration ought to develop a consistent standard by which it decides how to judge foreign governments. In that case, the U.S. administration would also tell the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, and the Bahrainis and many other U.S. allies that their governments are beneath the U.S. standards.
Second, although people-to-people (or people’s diplomacy) interactions build stronger and more lasting friendships between countries, the Obama administration is instead employing a government-to-people interaction, which is a flawed and problematic approach. For peoples’ diplomacy to succeed, the administration should enable and facilitate American citizens, especially Iranian-Americans and Muslim-Americans, to engage their counterparts in Iran. This and the previous administration have failed to rely on Muslim-Americans and call on them to serve their country. Instead, the administrations’ inability to integrate Muslims alienated many of them, and diminished the U.S.’s credibility abroad.
A recent federal case against an American charitable organization, (United States of America v. Mehrdad Yasrebi and Child Foundation, 05-CR-413 KI (Oregon)), reveals the unfortunate state of Muslim-Americans, the potential of peoples’ diplomacy, and the legal and practical problems with economic sanctions.
|Zahra, one of thousands
sponsored by the Child Foundation.
In the mid-1990s, Dr. Yasrebi, a passionate philanthropist, read a profile of an Afghan refugee in Iran, Zahra, a girl who lost her father at a young age. Her young mother abandoned her to make a new life for herself. 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 and similar real life stories moved Dr. Yasrebi to act.
He founded the Child Foundation (CF), a U.S.-based charitable organization dedicated to helping needy children in Iran (his ancestral home), Afghanistan, and other countries where he had reliable, trustworthy contacts. He and his wife initially ran the organization from his residence. 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. He also placed small donation boxes in retail stores. He asked long-distance phone companies to donate a percentage of the bill for international calls placed by individuals who purchased a calling plan with the companies. 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. Dr. 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, unaffiliated with any political faction or religious denomination, the CF faced difficulties operating in Iran and even collecting donations from Shiite Muslims. Dr. 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. Because it is an American organization, the Iranian government, too, subjected the CF to additional scrutiny and limitations. But none of these obstacles measure up to what the CF, some donors, and Dr. Yasrebi have faced here in the United States.
Because of the U.S. sanctions against Iran that date back to the 1980s, the CF had great difficulty transferring funding and services to children in Iran. The scrutiny intensified after 9-11, and the CF and Dr. Yasrebi were subjected to secret monitoring, wiretapping, and FBI-led profiling. Then in 2008, federal agents conducted a synchronized raid at 6:00am on Dr. Yasrebi’s residence, his workplace, the office of the CF, and the residences of several other major contributors to the organization. The harsh raid traumatized Dr. Yasrebi’s children and the negative media coverage stigmatized his family.
After nearly seven years of intense investigation, the government offered Dr. Yasrebi two options: a trial in federal court, where he—and his wife—could face 20 to 25 years in prison for a myriad of charges including “cooperating with a terrorist organization,” or a plea under which Dr. Yasrebi would admit to minor violations and no charges would be brought against his wife. On the advice of his attorney, Dr. 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 Dr Yasrebi. They added that the minor infractions to which Dr Yasrebi had admitted did not warrant such a harsh punishment for a well-respected member of the community. They explained that the U.S. administrations have repeatedly stated that the sanctions were not intended to punish the Iranian people, and therefore food and medicine were 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 Dr. Yasrebi be imprisoned and heavily fined. The prosecutors advanced shockingly troubling arguments to justify their sentencing guidelines. They contended that while 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 is making it possible for the Iranian government to spend money on more sinister projects.
Their insistence that charities must purchase food and clothes from outside Iran and then send them to beneficiaries inside Iran rest 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. These specious arguments and flawed logic put the lives and welfare of Americans at risk and give credence to arguments used by extremists and authoritarians to justify their indiscriminate acts of violence.
On March 6, 2012, Judge Garr King found all of the government’s claims that Dr. Yasrebi’s work was a risk to national security unfounded. Reportedly, Judge King concluded that “the government hadn’t produced evidence that Yasrebi or the charity were involved in funding terrorism.” He refused to approve the prison penalty recommendation proposed by the prosecutors. While the judge’s ruling more or less vindicates Dr. Yasrebi legally, the personal, mental, and financial damage he, his family, and the community have suffered is immeasurable. The case increased Muslim-Americans’ fears, anxiety, and alienation. It also exposes the ugly impact of economic sanctions on ordinary individuals abroad and at home.
First, Dr. Yasrebi’s employer, Precision Castparts, for whom he has worked for nearly two decades, fired him. When he called a headhunter to look for another job, he was told that they cannot help him because he is an admitted felon. After waiting 14 years to make a decision regarding Dr. Yasrebi’s application for citizenship, he was told that his application will be denied because of the case against him. They failed, however, to explain the 14-year delay, which has placed Dr. Yasrebi in a precarious position. Had Dr. Yasrebi been convicted of actual crimes, he could have been deported and his American-born U.S. citizen children would have been separated either from their father or their homeland.
Second, the U.S. v. Child Foundation case perpetuates a tormenting sense of fear and alienation among Muslim-Americans. 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 Muslim-Americans 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 Dr. Yasrebi has had chilling effects on U.S. residents and naturalized citizens, especially those with contacts in other countries. A naturalized U.S. citizen will be fearful of sending money to an ailing mother in a country that is or may in the future be under U.S sanctions. Academicians 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.
The United States v. Mehrdad Yasrebi and CF case ought to be considered in light of the case of American NGO workers arrested and charged in Egypt after the revolution there. If the American government continues to prosecute its own citizens and legal residents for providing aid to needy children in a Muslim country, what claim (and credibility) could the administration have now or in the future in helping Americans targeted by less democratic regimes in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries?
In fact, the prosecution of Dr. Yasrebi on charges of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran by providing charitable work in that country pales compared to the possibility of his facing charges in Iran for being an agent of the West. After all, Dr. Yasrebi worked for nearly 20 years for a company that had significant business deals with the U.S. military. Naturally, given the U.S.’s continuing military threats, the Iranian government could argue that Dr. 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 leveled against Dr. Yasrebi by the U.S. government.
This case exemplifies the risks and pain of unintended consequences and 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. Peoples’ diplomacy is the alternative to sanctions and military threats. It is effective, humane, powerful, 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, clothing and educational materials to needy children flies in the face of logic and common sense. His recent overture towards the Iranian people should start here in the U.S. by empowering Iranian-Americans to speak on behalf of the people 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 extremist expressions in Muslim societies, and promote civil society and citizen-centered governance in the Islamic world, then he must start by making sure that Muslim-Americans are not second-class citizens, that their citizenship is not a bargaining chip, and that their loyalty will not be questioned. President Obama can begin by ordering a review of this and similar cases to make sure that the government did not break any laws or violate any civil rights while investigating and prosecuting such cases. Furthermore, the delay in Dr. Yasrebi’s application for citizenship, and the subsequent denial of that application, should be investigated to ensure that the same standard applies to all applicants, and to establish 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 language used by the prosecutors in the case documents examined for this article underscore the interconnectedness of domestic and foreign policy and the impact of this connection on U.S. citizens and the country’s standing in the Islamic world. It exposes an undercurrent of mistrust and prejudice towards Iranian Muslims. It depicts instances of willful ignorance of Islamic cultures. It illustrates a stunning disregard of the civil and constitutional rights of Muslim-Americans.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. 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.