Experts Kenneth Ballen (left), Karim Sadjadpour (center) and Kenneth Katzman (right) testified before Congress. Sadjadpour described Ahmadinejad’s regime as a “weed which only grows in the dark.”
Observer photo by Lisa Tanger
by LISA TANGER
Experts told Congress Tuesday that a majority of Iranians reject President Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric and support normal relations with the United States. Recent statements from President Bush prompted the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to schedule a series of hearings on Iran. In a press conference on Oct. 17, Bush said that anyone who is interested in avoiding World War III should be interested in preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
“The Iranian street is the most pro-American street in the Middle East. Despite this fact, Iranian popular opinion has little impact on Iranian foreign policy,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He said discontent is deep and widespread in Iran, but the population is generally adverse to tumult due in large part to its experience during the Iran-Iraq War.
He described the hard-liners in Tehran as “weeds which can only grow in the dark,” saying they thrive in isolation.
“Iranians look next door and say if the choice is between what we see in Iraq–democracy and carnage–and what we have now–authoritarianism and security–we will choose the latter,” Sadjadpour said.
Kenneth Ballen is president of Terror Free Tomorrow, a non-profit international polling organization. Terror Free Tomorrow recently conducted the first uncensored nation-wide poll inside Iran since 2002. Ballen said the poll found 79 percent of Iranians want free elections and 68 percent want normal relations with the United States.
“If the rest of the world…spoke to the priorities of the Iranian people – their economic desires, their desires for trade, peaceful coexistence, and, yes, respect from other nations – and delivered positive messages to the people, we would find our most receptive audience inside Iran itself,” Ballen said.
Ballen referred to former President Reagan’s Cold War relationship with the Soviet Union when testifying about Iran. He said the United States should find ‘Citizen Ivans’ within Iran; a historical reference to ideological sympathizers of the United States.
Fifty-one percent of the Iranian population is under the age of 34, according to Terror Free Tomorrow figures.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said the youth in Iran may not even understand why their country’s diplomatic relations have been severed with the United States.
“When the number of youth far exceeds that of elders in a country, they have a different time reference; many of them do not remember or understand how many Americans continue to struggle with the kidnapping,” McCollum said; referring to 1979, when Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held American diplomats hostage for 444 days.
Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, said the political climate in Iran does not favor Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric.
“Ahmadinejad is widely perceived as provoking confrontation with the international community on the nuclear issue,” Katzman said. He said increased sanctions could prompt the Iranian people to revolt against Ahmadinejad.
Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., is chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs. He compared recent statements made by Vice President Cheney about Iran to those he made in the run-up to the war in Iraq.
“‘Trust us’ should never be good enough under our Constitutional separation of powers,” Tierney said.
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. and the ranking minority leader on the subcommittee agreed.
“While we must not have 535 Secretaries of State, Congress should take a stronger role in pressing the Administration for diplomatic dialogue and discourse with Iran,” Shays said.
Iran is the only country in the world aside from Cuba with which the United States has no sustained contact. The U.S.-Iranian diplomatic relationship has been severed since the 1979 hostage crisis.