Some in Congress Get Smart on Iran

Cross-posted from the HuffingtonPost:

For more than two decades now, US policy on Iran has depended almost entirely on sanctions. Even now, Congress is set to pass the latest in a long line of “crippling” pressures: a gasoline embargo that both Republicans and Democrats believe is unlikely to alter Iran’s behavior in the slightest, but which some hope will cause enough pain for the Iranian people that they will protest a little harder than they already are.

But the yardstick for an effective Iran policy is not how much pain and suffering it will cause among innocent Iranians. Rather, changing the policies and behavior of Tehran’s repressive government should be our ultimate goal. This means that when it comes to sanctions, bigger is not always better. If Washington wants to do something on Iran, it should first stop helping the Ahmadinejad government repress its people.

Luckily, there is a chance that things are about to change. Just as most of Congress is stuck in the narrow mindset of draconian sanctions, two new bills have been introduced that offer a new way forward on Iran. The Stand with the Iranian People Act (SWIPA), led by Rep. Keith Ellison, and the Iranian Digital Empowerment Act (IDEA), led by Rep. Jim Moran, both seek to redefine how Congress approaches the Iran issue, in favor of a smarter, more holistic strategy.

SWIPA removes damaging barriers in existing US law that blocks Americans and Iranians from working together on projects like building hospitals and schools in Iran or promoting human rights. It also places tough, targeted sanctions on human rights abusers within the Iranian government as well as on companies that provide the government with tools of repression.

Similarly, IDEA will enable Iranians to access instant messaging programs like Google Chat and Microsoft Messenger that the companies themselves have shut down in Iran due to US sanctions. It also clarifies that sanctions do not prohibit anti-censorship and anti-spying software to be sent out of the US to Iranians.

A good starting point for lawmakers seeking to find a new course on Iran is to first do no harm. The growing movement for change in Iran is historic, and it represents a tectonic shift in the political dynamic there. When Washington feels the need to take a page out of the sanctions playbook, more than anything else it should discriminate between the government and the people. Holding human rights abusers accountable for their crimes by freezing their bank accounts and denying them travel visas is a perfectly valid form of international pressure–and it doesn’t risk stifling civil society the way blanket sanctions would.

Beyond smarter sanctions, though, the US needs to start exercising smart power in Iran. This means identifying areas in which our current policies are counterproductive–and getting out of our own way. For example, the world recognized what a crucial role social media services like Twitter and Facebook played in the events in Iran thus summer, yet current US sanctions actually prohibit Americans from providing Internet communications software to the Iranian people. Microsoft and Google have both shut down instant messenger services because their programs are enabled by a download not authorized for export to Iran under US law. The same can be said for anti-surveillance software that allows Iranian users to surf the web free of government spying.

Just this summer, the Senate authorized $20 million for the development of software and other programs that allow users in Iran to bypass government censorship and monitoring efforts. But current laws still prohibit an American from sending these programs to Iran!

Did you know that after one of Iran’s most terrible natural disasters–the 2003 earthquake in Bam that killed over 25,000 people–the Iranian government sought advice from American engineers to renovate thousands of primary schools around the country to make them more earthquake-proof? Sadly, that type of assistance was deemed “dual-use” under US sanctions, and the Americans were barred from making the trip.

These and countless other examples reinforce the conclusion that America’s approach to Iran over the past three decades has been shockingly myopic. Many avenues exist for the US to foster goodwill among the Iranian population, and even to provide them with the tools they need to bring about positive change in their political system, yet we continue to put up barriers to greater cooperation.

As policymakers consider next steps on Iran, the Iranian people are sure to continue their struggle to have their voices heard. For the future of US-Iran cooperation and for the security of the region, US lawmakers should stand with the Iranian people, rather than continuing to stand on their backs.

Posted By Patrick Disney

    2 Responses to “Some in Congress Get Smart on Iran”

  1. Pirouz says:

    Well written piece, Patrick. For the most part, I agree with you.

  2. Iranian-American says:

    Thanks Patrick. Good article.

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Sign the Petition

 

7,349 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.

Sincerely,

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