GELI Stories – Seizing a Chance Meeting with Iran’s President to Unblock Food Shipments

By Duncan Green - 13 February 2024
GELI Stories – Seizing a Chance Meeting with Iran’s President to Unblock Food Shipments

One of the best things about the course I give on ‘Influencing for Senior Leaders: Analysis, Strategy, and Practice’, with Global Policy's Tom Kirk, is the anecdotes from the participants, who are working in the most difficult of circumstances and often achieve amazing results. So recently I started recording some for a series of ‘GELI Stories’ (GELI is the name of the overall programme – the Global Executive Leadership Initiative). We’ll be putting some of these up on the blog over the next couple of months. Here’s number one, with WFP’s Negar Garami.

Duncan: Welcome to GELI stories. I’m with Negar Gerami from the World Food Programme, who has been telling me an amazing story about some influencing she did in Iran. Negar, maybe you could just tell us a little bit about the background on what happened?

Negar: It must have been 2012 or 2013. At that time, we were still bringing food into the country as ‘in-kind contributions’ and I had around $2.5 to $3 million worth of food that had arrived to the port of Bandar Abbas, at the beginning of the summer. Usually the custom-clearance formalities were done by the government authority that was responsible for the refugee situation – the Ministry of the Interior. They had done this for many, many years and the assumption was that they would continue to do so. What we were not aware of was that legislation had passed through the Parliament taking away that authority from our counterpart, the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrant Affairs (BAFIA), giving it to the Iranian Red Crescent Society instead.

It usually takes 21 days to clear a cargo and we get it out of the port. But this time, a month passed, two months, and we still didn’t have the cargo cleared.

We did not have any relations with the Iranian Red Crescent Society so I had to find my way through the bureaucracy of the government. We went to the customs authorities, we said ‘this is humanitarian aid, this is meant for the refugees, this is of no commercial value whatsoever’. The customs officials said, ‘sorry, you need to have the Iranian Red Crescent Society do the clearance’. We went to the Red Crescent Society and they said ‘but if we give the clearance, you need to hand it over to us. It belongs to us at our discretion to give it to whoever needs it’ and that of course was a no-go for us because we are responsible to our people, to our donors and this was earmarked for Afghan refugees in 20 camps in Iran.

So it was a vicious cycle that I had to break through and talking to the head of customs, I asked, ‘well who has the authority to overrule this?’ And he very smugly said, ‘Only the president of the country’, and I was like, hmm, okay… you can never reach the president. I went back to the office and I was mulling it all over… I was thinking of the consequences, which were devastating for an operation that was around 3-4 million dollars a year. Half of our budget for the year, stuck at Bandar Abbas during the summer – 45 degrees plus with 90 percent humidity so food was on its way to rotting at the port.

It was the month of Ramadan and I received an invitation for an Iftar (the breaking of the fast) gathering hosted by the president. The invitation went to all the heads within the diplomatic community who are Muslims. I happen to be a Muslim, but not practicing. But I saw that as an opportunity to at least get an entry point to speak either to the President or his wife – the Iftar reception is usually hosted by the wife of the president. The first lady is the one who hosts the women within the diplomatic room. So I thought that I would use the opportunity to meet with the wife of the president and try and enlist her assistance to get to the President.

I told my personal assistant to confirm my participation and she was a bit surprised because I usually don’t go to these gatherings. Then I told my team to put a dossier together, a portfolio of what had happened, the background, the issue, what we do, so that I can go with a clear ask and have this portfolio to be handed over to the President by the first lady.

I go in; it’s a huge meeting hall, and we listen to a speech first, and then they break for prayer, and I was sort of standing around. I was, by the way, the only woman in that reception – all men! After dinner there was a line up and I realised that it was the President himself. So you go and shake hands and you thank the President, but as a woman in an Islamic country and quite a conservative country I would not be shaking hands, I would just nod my head, thank the President and move on.

So I queued up – I think there was 50, 60 of us. And when I get to the president, I introduce myself and I speak 10,000 words a minute explaining the situation. And the president was baffled, like he saw this one woman there who was speaking so quickly. He looked at me a little bit puzzled and then he said, ‘so what it is that you want?’ And I said, ‘this is something that only you can resolve and this is a humanitarian issue and I need to enlist your support’. So he looks to his right, and says, ‘this is my vice president for international affairs, and could you please speak with him?’ Because the queue was held up by me and the line needed to move on.

The VP had been standing and listening in and he looks at me and says ‘okay so I see you have an issue but I need to have the background’. So I grab my portfolio which was quite big and I hand it over to him and I say ‘it’s all in here and please can you have a look at it and let me know?’ Then he looks at the file and at me and says ‘OK, I’m going to call you tomorrow, 1pm’. I go home and my heart is racing! I’m thinking, OK, so I got the chance, probably I won’t be PNG’d (persona non grata) but I don’t know what is going to happen to me! All the other ambassadors were asking ‘What on earth were you talking about?’, and I said, ‘this is an issue I needed to discuss with the President’.

Next day, 1pm, I get a call! It’s from the officer to the vice president saying, ‘can you be here within a half hour?’ I race across town, get ushered in, and the guy says, ‘Have a seat, tell me about yourself. Who are you? Why are you doing this?’… It sort of grabbed his fancy, the audacity of this woman walking into a completely male dominated environment and coming with such a request. So I sit down and I explain the situation and all of this and then he hands me an envelope which has a seal of the President’s office and it’s a sealed envelope and he tells me, ‘Well, I spoke to the president and this is a letter from him… go and hand deliver it directly to the head of customs and you will get it sorted out’… and I just looked at that envelope and I was like, oh my God, I’ve won the lottery!

I walk out as if I’m on air and go directly to the customs office and get shown upstairs to the head of the customs and he’s like ‘So you’re back again?’ and I said yes, and here it is and he looks at me and you know I think a million thoughts went through his head…

Duncan: You must have really enjoyed that moment!

Negar: Oh I did, totally! And then I said ‘please open it’. I didn’t know what was in there, but it was a decree from the President himself saying that because of the humanitarian nature of this cargo, this needs to be done by the Iranian Red Crescent Society, and then handed over to WFP to deliver at its discretion to the people in need.

Duncan: GELI is a course for leaders in the aid business and around influencing and that obviously includes bravery, right? I mean, I’m just trying to imagine what it’s like for a relatively young woman in the Iranian context doing this. I mean…. what possessed you?

Negar: I didn’t even think what was going to happen. This was just what I had to do because I felt the burden of responsibility; I had food that was sitting and rotting, food that needed to be distributed to these people and I’d managed to grab the attention of the donors after a long, long time, and there was a lot of money that was invested and I was responsible… I just couldn’t give up on it. I guess it’s the audacity of going in, knowing exactly what you want, being prepared – I went into that situation prepared for anything. I had my facts, right? I had my ask and I knew that, you know, whoever was going to take a decision needed to have a background.

Duncan: But also you need a lot, I mean, you need a lot of face to hold up that whole queue of important people who are all hating on you…

Negar: I think that was the story within the diplomatic community for about a year. But I made it happen, you know – it yielded the result that I wanted.

Duncan: Well, Negar Gerami, thank you very much, that’s a great story!



The Influencing for Senior Leaders: Analysis, Strategy, and Practice’ course is hosted by The Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa (FLIA) at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

This post first appeared on Duncan's blog From Poverty to Power

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