Our June 2 salon, The Persian Paradox: Understanding Iran and its People, proved a bustling, gregarious evening with leading pundits and professionals from across the Iranian American community– and well beyond. Early evening light streamed through the Victorian-era windows of New York’s Norwood Club, as guests milled about with glasses of wine and champagne.
Hossein Khiabanian, a scientist completing his post-doc work in genetics at Columbia, leaned against a wall with his friend and fellow Iranian-born brain Huss Banai, a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Brown University. Not far away, Atossa Leoni, the lead actress in The Kite Runner and dear friend of Shohreh Aghdashloo, sipped a glass with Sudhir Kandula, a software entrepreneur and restaurant investor. Leoni recounted some of her recent projects.
“I read for Three Cups of Tea and A Thousand Splendid Suns,” the actress said, referring to her recently completed audio book projects. “I define myself as a global nomad,” Leoni continued, tipping back her glass. “This is a great way to connect with other like-minded people.”
Newsweek foreign editor Nisid Hajari called the evening to order, sitting down with Hooman Majd, author of the “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ” to discuss the current political landscape in Iran just ten days before the June 12th elections. “I don’t like hyphenated names,” opened Majd, still jetlagged from his Saturday flight back to the United States. “Over there I am Iranian, over here I am American.”
Majd wasted no time delving into Iran’s current political landscape. Most recent developments include the increasing power of candidate Hussein Moussavi’s once-wan campaign, which came to fill a stadium with 25,000 people just two days prior to his speech. The candidate, billed as the greatest threat to incumbent Ahmadinejad, has found strong support among the nation’s youth (75 percent of Iran’s 70 million people are under 30).
During elections, the Iranian government has typically eased social restrictions, leading to boisterous scenes of “partying” in the streets of Tehran: “Green fingernails and green-painted faces, dancing, shouting, signs for Moussavi… there are currently only two billboards advertising for Ahmadinejad, hundreds for the other candidates,” Majd said. “This time is extremely crucial to the elections in Iran.”
When asked how important normalizing relations with the U.S. is to Iranian citizens, Majd responded it is “second” priority given Iran’s having accustomed itself to thirty years of U.S. multilateral and unilateral sanctioning, which has given rise to a cash-only society void of foreign investment and a low 20% GDP from oil (compared to Saudi Arabia’s 80% GDP from oil). “Iran could save General Motors,” Majd joked. “But that’s not going to happen.”
As the floor opened up to more questions from the audience, talk of Iran’s human rights situation spurred brief reflection on journalist Roxana Saberi’s recent release, likely the result of “media and international pressures,” said Majd.
The turbulent issue on how much money Iran puts into nuclear and scientific research arose toward the end of the discussion. Majd denied that there was nuclear funding of any sort. “There are no 747’s or nuclear submarines but technologically speaking there is a lot of effort.” Iran is surprisingly the number one country for stem cell research and for conducting transsexual operations, he noted, continuing to emphasize the widespread access to satellite T.V, internet blogs and programming.
The night closed out with a brief performance by Iranian singer Haale, who delivered enchanting Farsi verses. My particular favorite was “Off-Duty Fortune Teller,” in which Haale sang: “When the fortune teller stops looking into the future, she breathes and checks out the river and realizes that’s where it’s at.”
As some started to depart, others returned to the bar for more champagne and cheese and to talk of the broader region. Blair Blackwell of International Crisis Group provided guests with ICG’s latest policy briefing on U.S.-Iran relations, while Maryam Ishani stood talking to Pakistani writer Abid Shah.
Ishani described her work as the founder of the Journalist Connection, an organization that seeks to train and support independent journalists in conflict situations. “I’ve worked in this field a lot in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Ishani said.
“They weren’t looking to become journalists but I found them,” she joked. “I went into their schools and classrooms and just said, ‘which one of you can speak English? Who knows how to work a computer?’ Sometimes, that’s what it takes.” When asked if she had set up shop in Iran yet, Ishani smiled. “That’s high on my list.”