Iran expatriates get chilly reception

Over the past year,
conservatives in Tehran have often fulminated against the role played by
Iranian exiles, who helped organize protests against the disputed 2009
presidential election across the globe.

But last week, the Iranian
government paid for several hundred “highly placed” Iranians living abroad to
come back for a three-day, all-expenses-paid trip. They were invited as part of
a high-profile effort to repair Iran’s pariah image, win over some of the
expatriates and, not least, draw some much-needed foreign capital to Iran’s
troubled economy.

The guests were treated to a
musical performance, a fawning speech by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad —
complete with oddly inappropriate wisecracks — and a trip to the tourist
destination of their choice.

The event did not exactly go
as planned.

The gathering, officially
known as the Grand Conference of Iranians Living Abroad, is based on the idea
that “lying media organizations outside the country with the aim of painting a
black picture of the situation in Iran have created an incorrect impression
such that some of our countrymen do not have a bright and clear picture of
Iran,” as the conference organizer, Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh, said in April.

‘Traitors’

But no sooner had the
visitors arrived in Tehran than hard-liners condemned them as traitors. Some
clerics were offended by the musical event, which featured women playing
traditional music alongside men. The visit aroused such a storm in the media
that the Tehran City Council removed all banners and billboards advertising it,
said Khabar Online, an Iranian Web site.

In short, the conference
underscored an ambivalence that had been part of Iranian political culture ever
since the Islamic Revolution in 1979: an evangelizing impulse coupled with a
deep distrust of those who ventured outside the fold. As a result, an event
that was aimed at polishing Iran’s image ended up showcasing many of the
country’s bitter internal divisions.

To some of the visitors, the
trip was nothing more than a junket to visit relatives, paid for by a
government they despised. One attendee grinned when asked about the conference.
“They brought a couple of hundred of us here, all with PhD’s and MD’s, just to
listen to their propaganda,” said the man, an engineering professor who left
Iran 30 years ago and now lives in the United States. “Lots of us just wanted
to see our families.”

Hard-liners criticized the
first conference last year, but this year they were especially vitriolic.

Outrage from conservatives

The expatriates “consider
the Islamic Republic to be ‘undeveloped’ and ‘bloodthirsty,’ they think the
Islamic nature of the regime is ‘problematic’ and they wish to remove the role
of the Supreme Leader from the Constitution,” said one editorial in the
far-right newspaper Kayhan, which is widely considered a mouthpiece for Iran’s
supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Photographs of the musical
performance, in which women could be seen wearing head scarves much looser than
those usually required at government events, were published on hard-line Web
sites and drew outrage. When female musicians played for the crowd, two clerics
left the hall in protest, said a report on the Tabnak Web site.

Perhaps oddest of all was
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s speech, which at times resembled a stand-up comedy routine,
and included jokes with lewd references. At one point, saying that blaming Iran
for the world’s problems was futile, he used a Persian expression that can be
loosely translated as “that breast has gone away with the bogeyman,” but with a
vulgarism for the body part.

Reformists deplored the
conference as an empty gesture by a government whose policies have
unnecessarily alienated Iranians living abroad.

“While the government has
driven away domestic investors with incorrect policies, a conference for
expatriate Iranians is held with the aim of attracting investors,” Dariush
Ghanbari, a reformist member of Parliament, said Tuesday, according to the news
agency ILNA. “This is a clear contradiction.” Mr. Ghanbari added that a large
number of professionals had fled Iran in the past year, after the election and
the brutal government crackdown that followed it.

Some critics of the
government claim that as many as 200,000 educated Iranians leave every year,
though estimates vary. In 2007, the International Monetary Fund said Iran had
the worst “brain drain” of 90 nations it surveyed.

The expatriates’ visit also
highlighted divisions among Iran’s conservatives. The visit was also an effort
to draw investment to Iran’s ailing economy. The guests were invited to invest
in the Currency Fund for Iranian Expatriates, based on Kish, a free-trade zone
in the Persian Gulf. (It is not clear whether such investments would violate
the recent sanctions on Iran.) Earlier efforts to bring in money from Iranian
expatriates have had little success.

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