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Pompeo Reaches Out To Iranian-Americans Amid Hard-Line On Iran

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Kabul on July 9

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will reach out to a divided Iranian-American community -- some of whom are dismayed by Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and the reimposition of sanctions as well as a travel ban that prevents many Iranians from entering the United States -- in a July 22 speech near Los Angeles.

The speech -- which will highlight issues such as “corruption of the regime,” “brutal repression at home,” and “religious persecution,” according to a senior State Department official -- comes amid a renewed hard-line by Washington toward the Islamic republic first made public in May with Pompeo’s 12 demands for Tehran, which have been interpreted as regime-change policy despite denials by U.S. officials who say Washington only wants to change Iran’s behavior.

The State Department has not issued a list of invitees to the speech in Simi Valley.

Some members of Congress, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (Republican-California) and Senator Tom Cotton (Republican-Arkansas), who has specifically called for regime change in Tehran, will also be attending the speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the State Department said.

Among Iranian-Americans attending is Mariam Memarsadeghi, the co-founder of Tavaana E-learning Institute for Iranian Civil Society, who tells RFE/RL she’s “deeply appreciative of a U.S. strategy that puts maximum pressure on [Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei to fundamentally alter the regime’s behavior.”

U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (file photo)
U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (file photo)

“We should welcome international support and solidarity, and we should be especially grateful for a policy that limits the lifespan of a regime that is suffocating Iranian society,” Memarsadeghi said.

Other activists and intellectuals have spoken against the increased U.S pressure that they believe is likely to strengthen the hard-liners within the Iranian establishment and hurt those pushing for gradual change in the country.

“Democracy will come to Iran when the people of Iran have their reckoning with their ruthless and incompetent rulers. Tragically, the new Trump strategy delays that reckoning,” Iranian-American author and historian Abbas Milani wrote in The Washington Post on May 30 in a piece co-authored with Michael McFaul.

Former student leader Ali Afshari, who was jailed and tortured in Iran, has not been invited to the speech, and he says he wouldn’t attend the event even if he was invited.

“I think this is more like a propaganda move than an attempt at bringing the two nations close,” Afshari told RFE/RL.

“Currently the U.S. administration has a tough line, which has affected not only the establishment but also the people. In addition, the travel limitations imposed by the administration have created problems for the Iranian-American community,” Afshari added.

Afshari, an analyst and commentator on Iranian affairs, says those attending “are likely to be suspected of being supported by the U.S. as an alternative to the current Iranian establishment.”

Ali Vaez
Ali Vaez

Ali Vaez, the director of Iran Project at the International Crisis Group (ICG), says Pompeo’s outreach effort is “an exercise in futility.”

“Iranian opposition in exile is too fractured, too disconnected from the country's realities, and basically beyond repair. Any alternative to the Islamic republic should be homegrown, not engineered in the Golden State (California),” Vaez said in an e-mail to RFE/RL.

“If the Trump administration had a smidgen of goodwill, it would abolish the travel ban against the people of Iran who have never engaged in any acts of terrorism on U.S. soil,” Vaez added.

The National Iranian-American Council (NIAC), which actively supported the nuclear deal with Iran, accused Washington of trying "to exploit Iranian Americans and co-opt the Iranian people to provide legitimacy for the Trump Administration’s Iraq War redux for Iran.”

“Just as the [George W.] Bush administration cultivated a few Iraqi exiles and talked about human rights to provide legitimacy for a disastrous invasion of Iraq, the Trump Administration appears intent on using Iranian exiles to advance dangerous policies that will leave the Iranian people as its primary victims,” the NIAC said in a statement posted on its website.

It is not clear if the opposition Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), which was removed from the State Department list of terrorist groups in 2012, has been invited. Some of President Donald Trump’s aides and allies have been regular speakers at the group’s events, including White House national security adviser John Bolton and legal adviser Rudy Giuliani.

The group is despised by many Iranians for collaborating with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during the bloody 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.

“I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t believe that they are,” a senior State Department official said at a July 19 conference call focused on Pompeo’s speech in response to a question about whether the MKO is among the invitees to the speech.

In past months, the Iranian establishment has faced a range of challenges, including the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear accord under which Tehran has limited its sensitive nuclear work in exchange for relief from economic sanctions; protests over the worsening economy, water scarcity, and pollution; and unprecedented public protests by women against forced veiling.

Pompeo has expressed support for the protesters on several occasions, including in a June 21 tweet.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.