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Havaar: Shedding Light on the Ordeals of Iranian Diaspora in the Midst of Political Tensions

Havaar: Iranian Initiative Against War, Sanctions And State Repression

A Grassroots Group of Iranians, Iranian-Americans and Allies Opposing Military Action and Sanctions Against Iran

The recent tightening of the sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) as a way to deter the country’s nuclear program continues to be among news headlines. Yet, the US sanction regime against Iran is nothing new and is more than three decades old. In addition to the US sanction regime, there have been also the European Union (EU) and the United Nation (UN) rounds of sanctions against IRI’s nuclear endeavors.

The first round of US sanction regime was implemented against the Islamic Republic of Iran as a reaction to the hostage crisis in 1979.  As Suzanne Maloney, a scholar at Brookings Institution, explains, “This shocking aggression precipitated ‘a virtual economic mini war’ over the course of the crisis, most notably involving freeze of the Iranian regime’s assets held by US individuals or entities and an eventual embargo on almost all US trade with Iran.” Some years later, during the reform era in Iran that began with the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, the Clinton administration decided to relax the sanctions against Iran. An example of this relaxation of economic sanctions was the removal of US embargo on some of the non-oil products such as carpets, caviar, and pistachios.

This all changed once again in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the US. In spite of expression of sympathy by ordinary Iranians in Iran with the victims of the terrorist attacks, the Bush administration did not think that IRI showed any significant sign of cooperation with the US. Consequently, in June 2001 the US extended the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ISLA) for another five years. Moreover, President Bush included Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, in his categorization of the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address in January 2002. Iran’s unwillingness to terminate its nuclear program gave the US yet another reason to maintain the sanction regime on Iran. One of the new dimensions of US sanctions was to limit IRI’s ability to interact with the international financial system.

Tensions between the US and IRI further escalated with the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his aggressive rhetoric against the US and Israel. Despite tensions, President Obama began a series of diplomatic efforts to initiate talks with the authorities of the IRI with the hope of convincing Iran to stop its uranium enrichment. The tensions further soured as the two nations were unable to even initiate talks. Moreover, the animosity between the US and Iran worsened further following the 2009 post-election unrest in light of the allegedly fraudulent elections that led to the reelection of President Ahmadinejad in 2009 and the IRI’s repressive tactics against demonstrators.

Today, Iran is at a difficult crossroad. There was some hope that the Iran and world power talks could facilitate a workable consensus among the relevant stakeholders. However, the world power talks (p5+1) that took place with Iran in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow in 2012 did not produce any significant outcome. During these talks IRI, perceived to be only steps away from developing nuclear weapons, was urged to stop enriching Uranium. In return, the West would not guarantee that sanctions would be immediately lifted in the case of Iran’s cooperation. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated during her visit to Jerusalem on July 16, 2012 that Iran’s proposals made during these talks were “non-starters.”

As such, the tightening US-EU sanctions will remain. Currently, there is a total oil embargo imposed by the EU and banking sanctions imposed by the US against the Iranian uranium enrichment.

In the meantime, calling the new round of sanctions a “heavy battle” by the West against Iran, the IRI insists on its uranium enrichment and anti-Western policies while it continues its domestic crackdown on opposition. Internationally, the Islamic Revolutionary Gauds Corps (IRGC) have responded to the new sanctions by threats such as disruption of traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. Domestically, Ahmadinejad’s government continues with its hardline policies against prisoners of conscious, minorities and ordinary citizens who fail to fully abide by the government’s strict social and political code of behavior.

These circumstances have left many Iranians expatriates in despair, particularly for those who are against the repressive policies of the IRI, yet not in favor of the West’s harsh economic sanctions. This group worries that the West’s policies such as sanctions and war will weaken Iran’s civil society, citizens’ quality of life and prospects for peaceful political transition in Iran.

The following is an exclusive FPA interview with Ali Abdi, a graduate student at Yale University and a founding member of Havaar: Iranian Initiative Against War, Sanctions and State Repression. This initiative was recently founded by a number of Iranians, Iranian-Americans and others residing in NYC and beyond. This interview demonstrates the goals, controversies, challenges, and endeavors of those Iranians abroad who are both against the Islamic government’s repression at home and the West’s harsh anti-Iranian stance, which, in their view, ultimately harms ordinary citizens and the prospects of an eventual peaceful and organic political transformation.

How did you launch Havaar?

Ali Abdi:

We began the preliminary sessions of Havaar six or seven months ago with a few Iranians and Iranian-American friends in NYC. The threat of the war and the tightening sanctions worried many of us whose families live in Iran. After numerous hours and days of discussions on this topic and regarding our principals and statement of purpose, we managed to launch Havaar and bring non-Iranian experienced individuals onboard. We aim to work against war, sanctions, and state repression.

Overall, we are fortunate to have a strong, diverse, and experienced Iranian and non-Iranian experts and activists. Among Iranians, for instance, we have among us some of the experienced activists of the Green Movement who organized protests against Ahmadinejad and alike in 2009. We also enjoy the collaboration of our academic members who are connected with a wide range of Persian and English media.

What is the philosophy of Havaar? What exactly do you aim to achieve? How are you hoping to impact policymaking regarding sanctions?

Ali Abdi:

Our hope is to raise awareness within the existing anti-war movement in the US and beyond. We aim to encourage this movement to stand by the people of Iran who resist repression in Iran while work against sanction and war. There are two reasons for this goal:

  1. Many anti-war activists and individuals in the US have gone too far with their anti-imperialism. They have become the fans of Ahmadinejad and Chavez. We want to prevent this from happening. We want our voice to be a new one. Iranians have had the Green Movement and if nothing, this movement should continue working its way throughout the society and abroad. We are different from Iraqis of 2003. Our generation is fortunate to have experienced a social movement that, despite all the hurdles, has created a strong socially and politically active network of Iranians throughout the world.
  2. Some in the anti-war movement of the US are Iranians who act as the lobby of the IRI and work to take advantage of this movement in favor of the regime in Tehran. We prevent the representatives of the IRI-affiliated news agencies and TV stations to attend anti-war gatherings and street demonstrations and by doing so hope to make their job harder.

The first group (anti-war anti-imperialist Americans) has issued a statement against Havaar condemning its founding members to be the beneficiaries of those international organizations that are perceived as organizers of color revolutions and that support Zionism in the region. This group fails to see that we work against war and sanctions in Iran. They just see that we work against the IRI, a regime praised by them, for what they believe to be against the imperialist West and Israel.

Many who are against the repression of the Islamic Republic and are pro-democracy accuse Havaar of being pro-IRI, simply because we are against the sanctions. This group fails to see or believe that Havaar also works against repression in Iran.

How effective do you think your work is?

Ali Abdi:

We have to build our own dreams; whether in our daily life or through activism. We have to give embodiment to our imagination. Our work will eventually impact public opinion and the process of decision-making in Western countries. Even if we do not manage to impact the decision making, the awareness activities and advocacy that we currently do are by themselves a part of our goal.

Since democracy advocates of Iran do not enter the spaces in which Havaar works, the Islamic Republic lobby takes advantage of the vacuum that exists on topics such as sanction, war, and the Occupy Wall Street. Democracy advocates of Iran distance themselves from anti-West policies that the Islamic Republic hijacks to feed its own needs. We are happy to work within this space and glad to have the support of experienced activists in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Our challenge is that Havaar is seen by some as an initiative serving the interests of the IRI. Some of us at Havaar have lost good friendships because of these accusations and suspicions.

Regardless of these challenges, Havaar is here to stay. We hope to, raise awareness and shift public discourse. Many who work against repression in Iran naively think that the US has implemented these sanctions to promote human rights in Iran. We do not see the situation this way. We stand against war, sanction and repression in Iran as we believe they harm all the people of Iran and their hope to peacefully exit today’s socio-economic and political impediments.


Sources Used for Background Research:

Pourzand, Azadeh, MPP Final Project, The Impacts of US Sanctions on Women’s Quality of Life in Iran, May 2010:



Azadeh Pourzand

Currently a program manager at an international development institution focusing on the Middle East-North Africa region, Azadeh holds a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (HKS) and an MBA from the Nyenrode Business Universiteit.

The editor-in-chief of Women's Policy Journal at Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2009-2010, her writings have appeared in places such as International Herald Tribune, CNN International and the Huffington Post.

Born and raised in Iran, in the past years she has worked and studied in the US, Mexico, Argentina, Bangladesh, China and the Netherlands and India. While in India, she worked at a Mumbai-based foreign policy think-tank, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, where she co-authored a comprehensive policy paper that explored India's view of the Arab uprisings.

Azadeh is the founder and president of a start-up organization (The Siamak Pourzand Foundation), promoting freedom of expression for artists, writers, journalists and creative minds in Iran and beyond.