Outside View: U.S. should help Iranian dissidents

By HAMID YAZDAN PANAH, UPI Outside View Commentator  |  Nov. 28, 2013 at 12:03 AM
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SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 28 (UPI) -- Growing up as an Iranian refugee in the United States was never easy. On the one hand I've had to battle against unfair stereotypes about the Middle East, while simultaneously working to expose the barbaric human rights situation in Iran.

People I have encountered either dismiss Iran as an uncivilized country or, conversely, believe that the United States should make peace with the ruling clerics in Iran.

I don't fit into either of these camps. Iranian activists like myself have become increasingly marginalized though we may hold the best hope for a long-term solution to the policy issues posed by Iran.

The narrative on Iran has become fixated solely around the supposed moderation of the new President Hassan Rouhani and undertaking a policy of appeasement toward Tehran. Despite emerging in full force during the 2009 protests, Iranian dissidents and freedom activists are all but forgotten.

A compelling example of the marginalization of Iranian dissidents can be seen in the global campaign to free seven Iranian dissidents abducted in Iraq and just how little attention it has attracted.

The seven Iranian dissidents were abducted by the Iraqi military following a raid on their refugee camp on Sept. 1. The attack killed 52 of the 100 refugees in the camp, yet it drew very little attention worldwide. The camp was home to Iran's principal opposition organization the People's Mujahedin of Iran for almost 30 years. The United States gave residents of the camp protected person status under the Fourth Geneva Convention, during the Iraq war but has since abandoned them.

Iranians from across the world have staged sit-ins and hunger strikes in front of U.S. embassies in Geneva, London, Berlin, Ottawa and Melbourne to demand that the United States live up to its obligations in protecting these refugees. Some have been on hunger strike for more than 80 days but have received little attention.

Sia Rajabi is a British citizen who has been on hunger strike for more than 80 days, and has lost one-third of his body weight. I met Sia in 2006 and remember his jolly laughter and portly demeanor. I was shocked to see how much he has deteriorated over the past few weeks.

The fact that the United States has done so little to protect these refugees or to secure the release of these seven hostages, is disturbing to me as an Iranian and as a U.S. citizen.

In 2009, the same year as the uprising in Iran, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Egypt promising a "New Beginning" for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Yet he has done little to protect Iranian dissidents who are fighting for freedom inside Iran and abroad.

Last week Amnesty International highlighted the plight of the seven abducted refugees and warned that they face certain death if they are handed over to Iran. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees also released a statement urging the government of Iraq to ensure the safety of the Iranian dissidents who remain in Iraq and calling for action in regards to the fate of the seven abducted individuals.

Despite the concern expressed by these organizations, no serious steps have been taken by the United States in regards to the release of the seven Iranians in Iraq.

The topic of Iranian dissidents and Iran's democracy movement has gained very little attention. The focus has remained negotiating with the clerics in Tehran, despite the brutal repression that has continued during Rouhani's presidency. Few pundits talk about the fact that Iran was recently condemned by the United Nations for its atrocious human rights record, which includes the execution of 724 people in the past 18 months.

Obama has continuously claimed he wanted to reach out the people of Iran. Instead he has gone out of his way to reach out to the ruling clerics -- the same clerics whose hands are soaked in the blood of the Iranian people.

Iran's nuclear program has continued to expand for more than a decade and despite rounds of negotiations and sanctions the regime has continued on its path toward nuclear weapons. I don't believe this round of negotiations will be any different. One of Rouhani's stated goals has been to secure temporary sanctions relief for the regime, while maintaining their long term strategic goals.

Make no mistake, Tehran hasn't lost sight of its ultimate nuclear objectives.

The real solution to the nuclear problem posed by Iran isn't a policy of appeasement nor is it a military conflict. The only true and lasting solution is a democratic change in Iran.

The United States should show that it stands with Iranians who want freedom and take concrete steps to protect Iranian dissidents in Iran and abroad.

I have no doubt that freedom will come to Iran one day. When it does, Iranians will remember those who supported them in their struggle and those who turned their backs on them.

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(Hamid Yazdan Panah is a human rights activist and attorney focused on immigration and asylum in the San Francisco Bay area.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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