By Tala Dowlatshahi
I have been living in neutral Switzerland for a few months now. I must say I am fairly pleased that I am far away from the current media mayhem in the United States and the endlessly repeated claims that war with my country is imminent. This separation, which so far has been far more salutary than the one depicted in the recent Iranian film by the same name, has given me the chance to think about my life in the United States as an Iranian-American and whether I want to carry on with this very tiring relationship. Year after year, I have been asked the same questions by my fellow Americans: "Will there be war? Do you think Israel will attack first?"
I hesitate to reply, since an affirmative response means devastation for my people and for Middle Eastern diplomacy as we know it. What I know is that it doesn't help ease the nuclear debate when Netanyahu refers to us as ducks. But perhaps he is right that Iranians are just sitting ducks--if we fail to resist Ahmadinejad's regime and the abuses it has committed against its own citizens.
To do my part, I joined in on the debate this week in Geneva focused on human rights around the globe. I was deeply overwhelmed by a speech delivered by Ebrahim Mehtari, who offered a tale of rape, torture and near murder at the hands of the Iranian authorities during the 2009 protests.
"My oppression is a sign of the Iranian regime's weakness," he tells the international community as the UN Human Rights Council this week holds the first ever debate on the horrendous human rights violations being committed by Ahmadinejad's cronies.
A blogger from Egypt asks Mehtari if he is optimistic about life in Iran...five years from now. He replies : "The government will continue to speak to its people with guns, unless the opposition is allowed an inroad. I am hopeful there will be change for good in Iran, but my wishes do not match those of the regime."
The UN has failed time and time again to appoint a special rapporteur to investigate crimes committed against youth, bloggers, journalists, protesters and activists on the streets of Iran. It is like the crimes have never occurred.
The Iranian election results last Friday showed the world that the regime is unlikely to change. The conservative parties beat out all others. It was expected. On the eve of the elections, Reporters Without Borders claimed Iran's 48 million voters were denied access to information necessary to make a democratic choice. And 48 journalists and netizens are currently being detained, making Iran the world's third biggest prison for the media.
"The governmental media are free to organize the regime's propaganda for this election 'among friends' but the authorities have imposed all-out censorship on the media, even the ones that support the regime, and oversee their work closely," the Organization said.
As the crackdown goes on, Iranians from all over the world are now speaking with one voice: President Obama must not leave Iranians isolated and alone with the regime.
Things can only get worse. Mehtari underscored this message during his speech this week and so does Trita Parsi when he argues in his new book "A Single Roll of the Dice" that the Obama administration has failed in a number of ways to reach out to the Iranian regime in order to prevent an escalation of tensions. For one, he could have had his team meet with the Iranians way back in May 2010 when Turkey and Brazil led the negotiations during the Security Council debate on whether to impose sanctions due to Iran's growing nuclear program. I was covering the UN back then, and it seemed like the only necessary step was US agreement on this extraordinary diplomatic deal to ship enriched uranium to Russia and France in exchange for fuel--but the US refused to sign on. And in 2009, the Iranians looked to Obama to provide some kind of vocal support for protests throughout the country, but they only heard him say he would not be taking sides.
At this fraught moment, Bravo has decided to bring us what the network presents as an intimate portrait of a typical day in the life of Iranian-Americans with the ridiculous and preposterously titled show The Shahs of Sunset. As a Dowlat-shahi, I am frustrated that during a time of political crisis between the two countries, the closest look at Iranians on American television is an Iranian woman fighting with another Iranian about the thousands she spends on her clothes and how she can "holla" louder than anyone. The "deeper" side story is about another Iranian whose mother always criticizes her outfits. How terribly cute it all us. And yet this may be the most humanizing portrayal of Iranians (or at least Iranian-Americans) available for the American public. Sad that we have to look to reality TV to make up for the inadequacies of our mainstream news services. Even sadder that the closest thing we have to a positive portrayal of Iranians centers around a loud-mouthed diva who get blinged out in diamonds and furs at 7AM before getting into her Mercedes.
Iranians in the mainstream media are either depraved hedonists (in the U.S.) or ruthless mullahs building secret weapons factories (in Iran).
There needs to be more of balance in the coverage on Iran. America should be talking to Iranians from the middle class. We need to promote the grassroots conversations that go online through social media networks set up by Iranians in order to break stereotypes. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran has launched several online sites to promote global dialogue and to reduce the fear and disgust associated with all things Iranian.
How terribly tiring it is to watch shows like the Shahs of Sunset, especially for those of us who actually hope to promote true cultural awareness and understanding between the nations. Clothes, "holla", money, shahs, bombs, nuclear weapons and terrorists.
No wonder Americans are confused.