HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — Iranian diaspora leaders clashed over how best to support the protest movement in Iran during a high-profile public forum on Saturday, with some leveling accusations that others were essentially lobbyists for the Islamist regime in Tehran.
The claims, which emerged during the Halifax International Security Forum, laid bare some of the tensions among Iranian activists at a time when protesters are openly calling for the end of the regime. While most diaspora activists say they fully support the protesters, they often criticize each other’s tactics and motives.
The verbal attacks raised questions about the solidarity of Iranians outside Iran more than 40 years after a revolution swept Islamists to power in the country. And in the long run, it could complicate decisions made by the Biden administration and other governments as they calibrate their responses to the developments in Iran.
During a morning panel discussion, Nazanin Afshin-Jam MacKay, a prominent Iranian-Canadian activist, called on the international community to “stop their trade ties, stop their diplomatic ties” and expel Iran’s ambassadors to isolate and weaken the regime.
Audience member Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, another activist with Iranian roots who founded the International Civil Society Action Network, argued that Iran would reciprocate, closing foreign embassies among other moves, and she questioned why such an approach would work.
In response, MacKay insisted that the Iranian people “are asking for this.” She then took the moment to point out that Naraghi-Anderlini has had links to the National Iranian American Council, a group that some in the diaspora allege is a front for the Iranian regime — a claim NIAC denies.
“NIAC had the ear of Washington for a long time, and they have been expressing the wrong ideals of the Iranian people,” a visibly agitated MacKay said. “Now the Biden administration also has the ear of some NIAC members who are wrongly expressing the opinions of the Iranian people.”
During an on-stage interview following MacKay’s panel, Masih Alinejad, an Iranian-American activist whose life has been threatened by the regime in Tehran, also brought up NIAC, accusing it of acting as a lobbyist for the regime. “Of course, this is the time for the Western countries to close their embassies and cut off ties with these murderers,” Alinejad said of the clerical leaders in Tehran.
After the panels, Naraghi Anderlini expressed shock at the accusations, saying she was raising legitimate questions about strategy. “Of course, I’m not a lobbyist for the regime,” she said. “My entire family has been devastated, expropriated, jailed for 43 years.”
She said she had been on NIAC’s board for about three years, up to 2018. She also said the group’s finances were always transparent. Furthermore, she added, that, given the situation today, she opposes moves that would appear to grant any favors to the Islamist regime.
“This is not the time to sit and negotiate with the regime because they want normalcy, and they want legitimacy from the outside,” she said.
Protests have roiled Iran since mid-September, with many Iranians demanding not just more personal freedoms but also an end to regime.
The demonstrations were sparked after a young woman, Mahsa Amini, died after being taken into custody by Iran’s morality police, who are alleged to have badly beaten her after accusing her of not properly wearing a headscarf.
The protests have often been led by young women, many of whom take off their headscarves in public to defy the regime’s rules. The regime has responded with violence, killing hundreds, including dozens of children, and detaining thousands, some of whom face potential execution.
The movement has electrified much of the Iranian diaspora, with many, including some in Halifax on Saturday, describing what’s happening as a revolution. But within Iran, the movement still appears largely leaderless and without a formal, unified agenda. Many opposition leaders inside Iran are imprisoned or otherwise detained by the regime.
Outside the country, what appears to be a growing section of the Iranian diaspora is calling for the toppling of the regime — as opposed to reforming it. But there are significant differences over tactics and strategy — particularly around sanctions and how effective isolating Tehran would be. The differences have emerged bitterly in protests, on social media, and functions like the Halifax forum.
At the conference, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) downplayed the confrontation between the factions of the Iranian diaspora. “I didn’t take them as reflecting anything more than a passionate and robust diaspora under a lot of pressure from a repressive regime and the challenges of speaking effectively to the moment sometimes have differences in strategy,” he said in an interview. “I encounter similar differences in representatives in exile of oppressed peoples all the time. So it did not surprise me or strike me as representing some fundamental disagreement over the objective.”
On Iran policy, Coons said the United States should continue “providing as much support as we possibly can: encouragement, recognition, further sanctions.” He added that, although the United States hasn’t had diplomatic ties with Iran in decades, he understood the argument that European countries who still host Iranian embassies should reconsider them.
NIAC has long been a target for some opposition activists because it advocates for lifting many U.S. sanctions on Iran and has supported now-paused U.S. efforts to strike a nuclear agreement with Tehran.
NIAC describes itself as an American civil society group, not an opposition organization; it has a separate lobbying arm, NIAC Action. It says it is funded “by the Iranian-American community and prominent American foundations,” and that it does not receive funds from either the Iranian or U.S. governments.
NIAC’s president, Jamal Abdi, said one reason the group wants “broad-based” sanctions on Iran lifted is to lessen the financial misery of ordinary Iranians, giving them more economic leverage to stand up to the regime. The group supports sanctions that target individual Iranian regime members, Abdi said, and it backs the current protests.
“We have zero aspirations for power inside Iran,” Abdi said in an email on Saturday. “We are Americans who believe in self-determination for Iranians, and see little value in bickering and settling old political scores in the diaspora when we all should be focusing 100 percent of our collective energy on supporting the Iranian people’s demands for freedom.”
But many other diaspora activists echo the Halifax panelists’ assertions that the group is effectively a lobbying arm of the Iranian regime.
Its support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — an agreement that is all but dead now — gave the regime a way to recoup billions of dollars that empowered it, these activists say. Some activists argue that the U.S. and other countries should use more sanctions and other means to further isolate and weaken the regime.
The arguments can get complicated in part because although Iran’s ultimate ruler is an Islamist cleric, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it has a semi-elected arm, too. At times, Iran’s highly curated elections have led to Iranian presidents who — on the Iranian political spectrum — have been viewed by the international community as moderates or reformists worth engaging. At other times, such as now, they’ve resulted in the election of hardliners.
Some in the Iranian diaspora who face attacks argue that they’re being upbraided for positions they held in the past, or actions they took, even though they’ve changed their minds as conditions in Iran have evolved.
Biden administration officials and U.S. lawmakers are well aware of the divisions in the Iranian community, but, in private conversations, they stress that they must do what they believe is in the U.S. national interest.
For now, that includes trying to put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program, while also finding ways to support the protesters in the country. That support so far has included lifting some sanctions so that Iranians can better access technology and organize.
At Halifax, some of the Iranian diaspora leaders expressed confidence that the broader community would ultimately unite, helping the protesters inside Iran achieve an end to the regime.
“The opposition is not on the same page just yet, but I think a lot of the credible opposition agrees probably on 95 percent of the issues,” said Kaveh Shahrooz, an Iranian-Canadian lawyer. “It’s just a matter of working through diaspora differences and coming together eventually.”
Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.