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Invited to visit Iran, expatriates receive chilly reception

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TEHRAN, Iran — Over the past year, conservatives here have often fulminated against the role played by Iranian exiles, who helped organize protests against the disputed 2009 presidential election across the globe.

But last week, the Iranian government paid for several hundred "highly placed" Iranians living abroad to come back for a three-day, all-expenses-paid trip. They were invited as part of a high-profile effort to shore up Iran’s pariah image, win over some of the expatriates and, not least, draw some much-needed foreign capital to Iran’s troubled economy.

The guests were treated to a musical performance, a fawning speech by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — complete with oddly inappropriate wisecracks — and a trip to the tourist destination of their choice.

The event did not exactly go as planned.

The gathering, officially known as the Grand Conference of Iranians Living Abroad, is based on the idea that "lying media organizations outside the country with the aim of painting a black picture of the situation in Iran have created an incorrect impression such that some of our countrymen do not have a bright and clear picture of Iran," as the conference organizer, Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh, said in April.

But no sooner had the visitors arrived in Tehran than hard-liners condemned them as traitors. Some clerics were offended by the musical event, which featured women playing traditional music alongside men. The visit aroused such a storm in the media that the Tehran City Council removed all banners and billboards advertising it, said Khabar Online, an Iranian website.

In short, the conference underscored an ambivalence that had been part of Iranian political culture ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979: an evangelizing impulse coupled with a deep distrust of those who ventured outside the fold. As a result, an event that was aimed at polishing Iran’s image ended up showcasing many of the country’s bitter internal divisions.

To some of the visitors, the trip was nothing more than a junket to visit relatives, paid for by a government they despised. One attendee grinned when asked about the conference. "They brought a couple of hundred of us here, all with PhDs and MDs, just to listen to their propaganda," said the man, an engineering professor who left Iran 30 years ago and now lives in the United States. "Lots of us just wanted to see our families."

Hard-liners criticized the first conference last year, but this year they were especially vitriolic.

The expatriates "consider the Islamic Republic to be ‘undeveloped’ and ‘bloodthirsty,’ they think the Islamic nature of the regime is ‘problematic’ and they wish to remove the role of the Supreme Leader from the Constitution," said one editorial in the far-right newspaper Kayhan, which is widely considered a mouthpiece for Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Photographs of the musical performance, in which women could be seen wearing head scarves much looser than those usually required at government events, were published on hard-line website and drew outrage. When female musicians played for the crowd, two clerics left the hall in protest, said a report on the Tabnak website.

Perhaps oddest of all was Ahmadinejad’s speech, which at times resembled a stand-up comedy routine, and included jokes with lewd references. At one point, saying that blaming Iran for the world’s problems was futile, he used a Persian expression that can be loosely translated as "that breast has gone away with the bogeyman," but with a vulgarism for the body part.

Reformists deplored the conference as an empty gesture by a government whose policies have unnecessarily alienated Iranians living abroad.

"While the government has driven away domestic investors with incorrect policies, a conference for expatriate Iranians is held with the aim of attracting investors," Dariush Ghanbari, a reformist member of parliament, said Tuesday, according to the news agency ILNA. "This is a clear contradiction." Ghanbari added that a large number of professionals had fled Iran in the past year, after the election and the brutal government crackdown that followed it.

Some critics of the government claim that as many as 200,000 educated Iranians leave every year, though estimates vary. In 2007, the International Monetary Fund said Iran had the worst "brain drain" of 90 nations it surveyed.

The expatriates’ visit also highlighted divisions among Iran’s conservatives. Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, helped organize the event and was featured in its promotional videos. His involvement drew denunciations from some conservatives who accuse him of holding liberal ideas and unorthodox religious beliefs.

"Who is it that is taking advantage of the name and position of the president?" asked the Kayhan editorial.

The visit was also an effort to draw investment to Iran’s ailing economy. The guests were invited to invest in the Currency Fund for Iranian Expatriates, based on Kish, a free-trade zone in the Persian Gulf. (It is not clear whether such investments would violate the recent sanctions on Iran.) Earlier efforts to bring in money from Iranian expatriates have had little success. Some analysts suggested that this year’s pitch was less plausible than ever.

"Right now relations between the government and the Iranian-American community are at the lowest point they’ve ever been, as a result of the conduct of the Ahmadinejad government, especially since the election," said Trita Parsi, a scholar based in the United States who writes about Iran. "A conference here or there will not make any difference in that larger picture."

William Yong reported from Tehran, and Robert F. Worth from Washington.


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