Jamal Abdi is the president of National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 2002 to give voice to the Iranian American community. Prior to joining NIAC, Jamal worked in the US Congress as Policy Advisor on foreign policy, national security and immigration issues. He has written for The New York Times, CNN, Foreign Policy, The Hill, USA Today and blogs at The Huffington Post.
How did you get involved in this work?
I came to NIAC from Capitol Hill in late 2009 at a time of great hope but also high stakes for US policy on Iran. Obama had launched the first direct talks with Iran aimed at resolving the nuclear issue, while inside Iran an organized democracy movement was ascendant. It felt like we were on the precipice of history after decades of US-Iran enmity that, for many Iranian Americans like myself, imposed a physical and psychological wall between our country and our heritage. I decided I wanted to focus what I had learned working on political campaigns and on foreign policy in Congress to help set the US and Iran down a new path and realize the hope of the new US administration and the people of Iran struggling for their rights.
What do you appreciate most about the challenge of your work?
I love being the underdog, building something that hasn’t been done before — and finding the creative strategies to win on behalf of justice, empathy and democracy. I love being able to sit at the cross section of politics, policy, advocacy and community building to build real political power for my community — one of many communities that have been politically marginalized and which can make America and the world a more just place by securing our seat at the table and breaking the imbalance of power that has allowed the few to make decisions on behalf of the rest of us.
How do you know you're making a difference?
NIAC worked relentlessly to push for diplomacy between the US and Iran. For years we took the abuse of a political system that didn’t want to let our voices be part of it but didn’t give up. We finally realized that goal in 2013 when serious talks began and then worked with an amazing coalition to secure a historic diplomatic agreement even as we were collectively vastly outspent by those clinging to the status quo. I know we’re making a difference because now, after four years of Donald Trump and pretty much the worst stress test imaginable for our policy achievements and worldview, we are poised to return to the Iran nuclear agreement despite massive efforts to kill it. When I first came to DC in 2007, I don’t think this would have been imaginable and this is a testament to our and our partners’ work. Through this process, our Iranian American community has become more politically involved than ever, and we have Iranian Americans running for office, working in government, civic life and taking agency of their political worlds. This is lasting, measurable change.
Regarding US-Iran issues, what needs to happen in the next four years?
The artificial barrier between our two countries must be removed, the US must be in a position to both work alongside and call out the warts of all the parties in the Middle East rather than being beholden to one set of partners that does not have just, democratic interests in mind. Iranian society has been decimated by years of sanctions that have been corrosive and enabling of an undemocratic government that has kept the Iranian people from realizing their potential and being a force for good in the region. By ending the imbalance and restraints on US relations in the Middle East, in four years we can be in a position where the parties there are beginning to engage in positive sum engagement and the US can end its military presence that has perpetuated violence in the region and been a driving force in so many of America’s and the world’s ills this century.
Originally published December 2020.