"Kabriat" is the pen name of an Iranian-American community activist residing in Washington, D.C.
In 2008, a group of individuals mostly composed of wealthy businessmen and lawyers came together and formed PAAIA, an organization which in its own words "serves the domestic interests of Iranian Americans and represents the community before U.S. policymakers and the American public at large." Four years later, its time to finally admit that not only is PAAIA a failure, but it has actually hurt the Iranian-American community by fostering divisions and disencouraging civic participation.
To begin with PAAIA is ineffective. If the goal of PAAIA is to serve the interests of Iranian-Americans, then it has to address the issues which the Iranian-American community is primarily concerned with. At the moment, that issue is U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran. In 2011, when PAAIA commissioned Zogby to conduct a survey of issues important to the Iranian-American community, 32% of respondents stressed that it was U.S. foreign policy. Only 13% said they were concerned with domestic Iranian-American issues. In 2012, PAAIA’s Zogby survey indicated that “two-thirds (66%) of Iranian Americans are worried that a U.S. or Israeli military attack against Iran is now more likely than ever before.” Despite this, PAAIA as an organization refuses to address U.S. foreign policy – in fact it has a policy against it. That means, no voice as to foreign policy. No voice as to economic sanctions which harm family members in Iran. No voice on the key issues which impact our community, which PAAIA claims to represent. And so what about that remaining 13%? What does PAAIA do there? It appears that the most time, funds and effort goes into PAAIA’s signature “Passing of the Torch” event series, which, as I describe below, is not only self-serving, but short-sighted and harmful. PAAIA offers no scholarship to the youth. No legal services to combat those suffering from discrimination. No social services to Iranian-Americans in desperate need of help. In fact, it does nothing to actually assist Iranians in the U.S. with needs. On its website, when you look at “PAAIA’s Accomplishments” the only actual service provided was the creation of a Census Coalition in 2010. A Coalition which likely could have, and would have, been formed without PAAIA and a Coalition which ultimately failed to get Iranians counted (reporting only 289,465 Iranian-Americans). Indeed, there is nothing which PAAIA does that can not or is not being handled by another Iranian-American organization that would necessitate the existence of the organization and the significant funds being provided to it.
The second issue with PAAIA is that it suffers from a transparency and credibility problem. For instance, while the organization as a whole refuses to take a formal position on foreign policy, some of its Board members outwardly call for regime change, some going so far as to openly support the Pahlavi family. For example, when Rudi Bakhtiar was employed at PAAIA as their Director of Public Relations she was also openly critical of the Iranian government and their human rights abuses. This isn’t to say that Rudi’s criticisms weren’t legitimate (or shouldn’t be encouraged), but its difficult to rectify her open criticisms with her organization’s explicit silence. And that’s the problem. Even though PAAIA as an organization refuses to take a position, its leaders openly (or in private sessions with decision-makers) take positions on U.S. foreign policy and on internal issues in Iran by using the platform of notoriety they achieved by being a leader within the organization. And the positions they take could be completely adverse to what their members actually want. There’s no transparency so there’s no accountability. At least we know where NIAC and its leaders stand – we may disagree with it, but we know what their position is. PAAIA, instead, uses its apolitical stance as a cloak to hide the overtly political positions taken by its leaders.
The third issue is that PAAIA has actually created divides in the community rather then resolve them. For instance, instead of working together with NIAC, PAAIA leaders have openly lambasted the organization and, in some occasions, supported conspiracy theories about NIAC's relationship with the Iranian government. In 2010, PAAIA's former Executive Director, Mahasti Afshar, was asked by a member why PAAIA and NIAC don't cooperate with one another. Instead of taking the matter head on and forming constructive bonds which could have furthered the Iranian-American community, Afshar wrote an exposehighlighting the differences between the organization and making no effort to address the author's underlying question. Instead of presenting a message of unity, PAAIA's former leader simply furthered the division that the author was concerned with. Some PAAIA Board Members go even further. PAAIA Board Member Nazie Eftekhari, for example, has often used her Facebook page to personally attack Trita Parsi and defame him by claiming he (and NIAC) have relations with the Iranian government. So while the organization as a whole talks about collaboration and unity, its leaders at the highest levels launch personal attacks against others.
Lastly, instead of encouraging civic participation, PAAIA has actually done more to discourage it. PAAIA does absolutely nothing to actually encourage individuals to join non-profit organizations which assist the Iranian-American community. It does the opposite. For instance, virtually every member of PAAIA’s Board of Directors is a wealthy businessman or attorney. Not one is an individual who has worked full-time for an Iranian-American organization or any other community organization for that matter. Because of this, PAAIA’s rubric for recognizing accomplishments by members of our community is deeply flawed. Instead of focusing on individuals who dedicate their lives to servicing the Iranian-American community, they highlight the achievement of millionaires working at some of the most notorious corporations. They highlight themselves. It's not surprising that PAAIA's signature event, the "Passing of the Torch" series, is really just a platform for its Board members and large donors to exhibit their own profiles. Take the following: at the Los Angeles Passing of the Torch event 3 of the 6 speakers were major donors or PAAIA Board Members. At the New York version, 4 of the 6 were PAAIA Directors or Donors. At the Berkeley event 4 out of 7 were directors or large donors. And while PAAIA claims to represent the best and the brightest in the Iranian-American community - it's established a standard that caters to themselves.
The only actual civil servant at PAAIA is Morad Ghorban, its Director of Government Relations and Political Affairs. Since 2003, Morad had served as the political director of the Iranian American Political Action Committee. Instead of taking a career in business or law, he took the less glamorous, less lucrative option of working as an employee for an Iranian-American organization to help us full-time. You would think Morad is exactly the type of person PAAIA would want to encourage its members to be like. Yet, instead of highlighting Morad at the organization's Passing of the Torch events. Instead of putting him forward as a model for civic engagement, as someone who has genuinely sacrificed his time and life for the community, PAAIA instead promotes individuals like Hamid Biglari and Faryar Shirzad, executives at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, two companies famous for their contributions to (and profiting from) the economic crisis. This is how misguided PAAIA has become. Indeed, at their First Annual Gala, PAAIA issued awards to Bita Daryabari, Omid Koredestani's ex-wife who made her wealth through their divorce; Shohreh Aghdashloo, the actress; and Bijan Pakzad, the designer. In effect, the Gala became a view into the lifestyles of the Iranian-American "rich and famous" and not a celebration and thanks to those who have made sacrfices for us. PAAIA did not recognize one individual who dedicated their life to the community. Not one volunteer who spent countless hours for their community. Not one student at the numerous Iranian-American student groups at universities which host programs for our community. Not one who worked, despite having nothing, for us. Compare what PAAIA does to what other community organizations do. For instance, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee has an annual award which it gives to student activists which promote the organization's goals at their campus. It has advocacy awards which it provides to employees at philanthropic organizations (not just their millionaire donors). The Asian Pacific American Community Leadership Foundation provides awards to volunteers who spend hours helping at different events and lawyers who service clients faced with discrimination for free. PAAIA doesn't do this.
The message PAAIA relays is wrong and hurtful to the community. It has become ineffective, divisive and has been used as a tool to benefit its leaders and not Iranian-Americans. One wonders whether there are sincere efforts to change the organization to become a force to help us. To do so will likely require PAAIA to restructure its own values and to cut forces within it that prevent it from going forward.
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