During his recent trip to New York, President Rouhani met with dozens of Iranian expatriates. Although he is unable to promise them protection from Iran’s security apparatus or offer any improvement in human rights in Iran, he asked them for their support in the name of Iran.
Visiting New York City and participation in the United Nations General Assembly have become annual rituals for Iranian presidents, partly thanks to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who loved New York City and the media attention he got there. Whereas Ahmadinejad was set on giving disturbing interviews on the Holocaust or denying that there were any homosexuals in Iran, Rouhani’s main interest is in being a politician. He spends more time than his predecessor did explaining and defending Iran’s foreign policies, while at the same time reaching out to Iranian expatriates for their support. And the Iranian delegation was chosen with this purpose in mind.
The Iranian president was accompanied by his foreign affairs minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and other Iranian officials who had played a role in nuclear negotiations. Other members of team included: Mohammad Nahavandian, Chief of Staff and former head of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce; Sourena Sattari, Rouhani’s vice president for Science and Technology; Amir Hussein Zamani Nia, the deputy head of the oil ministry for international affairs; and officials from the telecommunications ministry. Many of the delegation had lived in the United States at one time, or enjoy the respect of Iranian expatriates because of their academic and scientific achievements. This made it possible for Rouhani to reach out to as many Iranian expatriates as possible, many of them who shared interests and professional experience with many of the Iran delegates.
Although in his speeches and interviews Rouhani defended Iran’s support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, or criticized Saudi Arabia, when he addressed Iranian-Americans, his focus was totally different. During a reception on September 26, he talked to them of a mutual love for Iran and the significance of their common motherland. He also let them know that his government is trying to attract major investments of up to US$270 billion in the energy and petrochemical sectors, $200 billion for the energy sector, and $70 billion for petrochemicals. He told them that Iran needs anywhere from $120 billion to $150 billion in foreign investment to have an economic growth rate of eight percent. His focus was firmly on the economy, and not on international relations.
One of the expats Rouhani met with spoke to IranWire on condition of anonymity. “President Rouhani focused on his audience’s love of Iran and appealed to us on that basis,” he said. According to him, Rouhani thanked the audience for its support of the negotiation process, citing it as evidence that all Iranians and Iran expatriates love their country and support it. This had the effect of making his guests think: “He is using our support to say implicitly that the regime of the Islamic Republic does not face serious opposition from Iranian expats and that its international policies have wide support”. In other words, the Iranian president was using the recent nuclear agreement with world powers to send a message that the Islamic Republic is now internationally accepted. This also implies that regime change in Iran is not a possibility any more.
During his recent trip, Rouhani did his best to transform his recent diplomatic success into an economic one. When speaking to the Iranian expat community, he spoke of contracts drawn up with European businesses, ready to be signed. By doing this, he warned US businesses and Iranian Americans that they were losing out on a great opportunity. He and his team emphasized the fact that American businesses already had avenues for engaging with the Iranian economy via subsidiary banks and businesses. He made it clear that the Iranian government wants US business in Iran.
But some Iranian expatriates have a hard time believing Rouhani. Their personal experiences living and working in Iran have been far from encouraging, and they are wary of accepting his invitation. Also, Iran is not the only country asking for foreign investment and economic collaboration.
“Those in attendance did not represent the Iranian-American business community,” said one Iranian academician who attended the expat reception. He told IranWire that most of the Iranian entrepreneurs and investors living in the US are people who escaped from the horrors of 1980s Iran. Others had moved to the States in the 1970s and are simply not aware of Iran’s socio-economic scene any more. These individuals are not necessarily interested in helping the Islamic Republic. To them, Rouhani’s emphatic statement “We all are Iranians and love our dear Iran” was an appeal from a insolvent regime trying to avoid a crisis.
Iran is one of many countries in the international investment market. For Iranian expatriates, investing in Iran is one of many options. It is unlikely they will choose to invest in Iran when they remember and consider the level of corruption and the unreliability of the judiciary, both of which continue to overshadow the appeal of new investments in the country. They also remember that while Rouhani is inviting them to invest millions of dollars in the mother country, he can neither promise nor guarantee their security and safety. The Iranian academician who spoke to IranWire believes the fate of individuals such as Omid Kokabee, a brilliant physicist incarcerated in Iran on trumped-up charges, will make Iranian expatriates over-cautious when answering Rouhani’s call. They ask themselves: Why they should risk investing in Iran, while other countries promise more protection and support?
To Iranian expatriates, it seems as though President Rouhani is asking them to walk through a minefield out of love for Iran — so he can claim victory. The image of President Rouhani boasting about his administration’s economic success while Iranian expatriates perish in the labyrinth of Iran’s security organizations and judiciary establishment is not an appealing one to them. Someone must remind the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran that Iranians indeed love their country — but abuse of that love is not a becoming trait in a statesman.
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