"Tonight we are going to hear about what's really going on in Iran," stated Great Neck Democratic Club President Steve Markowitz, as he opened a discussion on "Iran: Questions and Challenges," on Sunday evening, Jan. 20, at the Iranian Jewish Center/Beth Hadassah. Sponsored by the Great Neck Democratic Club and the National Jewish Democratic Council, the evening featured keynote speaker Congressman Gary Ackerman, chair of the Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, as well as New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, New York State Senator Craig Johnson, and Hooshang Nematzadeh, executive vice president, Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York.
"This is an over-arching subject," said Congressman Ackerman, as he opened the evening's discussions. "Some things we know are not really so ... we don't always know what we know," he added. Yes, the congressman stressed, "the stakes are extremely high."
Speaking on Iran (l. to r.): Hooshang Nematzadeh, NYS Senator Craig Johnson, U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman, NYS Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, and Great Neck Democratic Club President Steve Markowitz.
Congressman Ackerman went on to discuss "the intelligence community," which he said, "is not always right." He said that the intelligence community sometimes just gives assessments, that they give "grades" each day, grades that can be hard to read if you are a policy maker. This just doesn't always work.
Congressman Ackerman stated that "we must re-evaluate, rethink and reconsider, daily, if we are to take serious action." And he spoke of the confusion over whether or not Iran has a nuclear weaponizing program. After former reports to the contrary, today there is word that there has been no such program since 2003. However, the congressman explained that what seems to be so, may not be so. "Don't be fooled into thinking that Iran has no nuclear weaponizing program," Congressman Ackerman warned.
The congressman added that "we wanted international pressure (re. nuclear weapons) rather than war ... we are obliged to try everything first ... war is a total breakdown of all civilized procedures." And while Iran says they have no such program, and refuse to allow inspectors, Congressman Ackerman says again that the answer is pressure from the international community. "
Congressman Ackerman continued, explaining that, in 2003, "Iran made a business decision," deciding that the cost would be higher than the benefit of security to go ahead with producing weapons. "Things then got worse, things continued to go down in Iran, and they did not go forward," the congressman stated. However, he said, Iran does continue to attempt to "acquire materials for nuclear weapons."
Congressman Ackerman said that "there is no transparency to the system in Iran; they won't let in inspectors." His answer is to "incite and pressure ... to pressurize to get Iran to allow transparency ... we need to see what they do so we can understand the dangers."
And Congressman Ackerman emphasized that sanctions on Iran "need to be total and unilateral." President Bush, according to the congressman, "has not been very successful ... he squanders U.S. respectability."
Congressman Ackerman said that, "in the end, we must talk to the Iranians, even if it's distasteful." He said that the United States has not done this for a very long time and "this works against us." And with all of what the congressman termed "indecisiveness in Iran," he believes that our country should take advantage of this and talk.
"An attempt at dialogue is key," said Congressman Ackerman, "and we should continue the pressure," which he said has had "some success."
The congressman ended his words stating that "Iran still presents a tremendous danger until there is transparency and they give up on a nuclear weaponizing program." Congressman Ackerman added that, "until then we have to be vigilant and continue to evaluate."
"I have the fiduciary responsibility as trustee of New York State pension funds," said New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli in his opening statement. He said that this totals $155 billion and includes one million members. Connecting this with Congressman Ackerman's words, the comptroller said that "we have done some things very specific in this area ... we developed risk mitigation strategy regarding investments in Iran."
Comptroller DiNapoli said that in this regard New York State joins 15 other states and many counties trying to bring pressure on Iran. The comptroller said that a similar action was taken last summer to bring pressure in the Sudan to end genocide. And he said that he did not want to wait for "genocide" before he took action regarding Iran.
Mr. DiNapoli said that state Senator Craig Johnson had been instrumental in sponsoring legislation to have the state divest itself of investments with companies that deal with Iran (U.S. companies are already prohibited to do so).
The comptroller stated that "we have to look at what the leaders in Iran are saying ...we must talk to Iranians in Great Neck," and he noted that "today's Iranian leaders "deny the Holocaust and are trying to wipe out Israel." Said Mr. DiNapoli, "We have to fear when evil people have power."
The comptroller then said that his "challenge as comptroller" is "not to wait for genocide, but to take action now."
Comptroller DiNapoli's strategy is a three-phase plan. First they must identify companies doing business with Iran, involving defense or energy. Second, they must engage those companies and ask why they are doing business with Iran, and ask each one to pull out. For phase three, the comptroller's office must then decide whether or not to continue to hold shares of such companies.
"We have sent a strong message ... time will tell the impact," said Mr. DiNapoli. And he added, "Incitement to genocide is not acceptable; would it have changed the world if, in the 1930s, we pulled out investments in BMW?"
Comptroller Tom DiNapoli emphasized that "We are taking the right action ... and this might make the world more secure."
New York State Senator Craig Johnson opened his remarks explaining how he had sponsored the Iran Economic Devestment Act. "And Tom DiNapoli will do it," he stated.
The senator has also spoken on this topic in Washington D.C. "This is an issue that unites Democrats and Republicans," he said.
The senator said that Hooshang Nematzadeh had asked him to tackle this issue. And when Senator Johnson then brought the issue out in public, "to the last person, people were shocked that we invest in such companies," he said.
"This has to stop, and it has to stop now," said Senator Johnson. "We should pull the money out ... and we should commend Tom DiNapoli," the senator added.
Senator Johnson finished his remarks, stating, "Let's provide more teeth in the sanctions laws."
Hooshang Nematzadeh, executive vice president of the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York, presented the closing remarks. Mr. Nematzadeh speaking on his own behalf, stated, "I have appealed to Gary Ackerman and his office has always been open, he always helps."
Mr. Nematzadeh said he has also appealed to Comptroller DiNapoli, and that Mr. DiNapoli was "the first to open up to the Iranian immigrant community." And he said that Senator Craig Johnson, within two weeks of being elected to the state Senate, "came to schul, told us about investments ... and said he would work on it ... and he introduced a bill."
Said Mr. Nematzadeh, "The United States is the greatest democracy." And he went on to tell how surveys in Iran show that the majority of Iranians align themselves with the United States, and not with the government in control in Iran today. "After 9/11, the people in Iran were in solidarity with the United States," he said.
Speaking of the regime in control of Iran today, Mr. Nematzadeh stated that "This regime is not representative of the people."
Mr. Nematzadeh urged the public officials to "stay the course ... the regime will crumble if the people in Iran rise."