Testimony of Azita Raji
Nominee to be Ambassador to the Kingdom of Sweden
May 20, 2015
Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Shaheen, and distinguished Members of the Committee. I would like to begin by recognizing my parents for their wisdom, strength and encouragement, which are fundamental to my being here today. I am grateful to my husband, Gary Syman, for his unwavering support, and to our five daughters and seven grandchildren, for the joy and inspiration they bring me. I appear before you as a woman whose family endured the life-altering upheaval of the Iranian Revolution, and found new hope and new life in the United States of America. Throughout my life, while living, studying or working in countries as different as Iran, Switzerland, Japan, Italy, France and the United States, I arrived at the realization that I had been, in principle and sensibility, quintessentially American all along. And so, I have never taken for granted the freedom to speak my mind, the protection of the rule of law, and the opportunities to benefit from the similarities and differences that create the transformative mosaic that is America. Our country’s de facto motto, E Pluribus Unum, speaks to our belief in unity within diversity, a belief that has made me effective in what I have chosen to do in business, in philanthropy, in the political arena, and even in my own family life. And it also speaks to a world that in its differing views has never been in greater need of commonality, kinship, and partnership. Which is why it is an especially meaningful honor for me to find myself here, before this distinguished Committee, and to have the trust of President Obama and Secretary Kerry to represent and serve the United States of America, and to be asked to do so in Sweden, an important partner and close friend of the United States and a country where respect for the rule of law, individual freedoms, human dignity and gender equality are hallmarks of national identity and defining pillars of government policy. If confirmed, I pledge to serve our country to the best of my ability and to work closely with you to deepen the friendship and expand the cooperation between the United States and Sweden. I will focus on four priorities. First, security challenges. Sweden is an engaged and effective strategic partner of the United States and NATO in promoting global peace and security. Our close cooperation with Sweden in support of Ukraine, as it fights against Russian aggression and seeks to implement ambitious reforms, is vital and greatly appreciated. Elsewhere, whether in Afghanistan (where Sweden made significant contributions to the ISAF mission, and currently provides assistance to Resolute Support Mission and support to Afghan democracy), or Africa (where Sweden is one of the largest contributors to Power Africa and to the global fight against Ebola), or Syria, Iraq and Kosovo, or in fighting ISIL, global terrorism and corruption, Sweden is valued and respected as a reliable partner in advancing peace. If confirmed, I will seek to further strengthen our bilateral cooperation in addressing regional and global security challenges, and to support Sweden’s partnership with NATO. Second, economic prosperity. As a strong and long-standing economic and trading partner since 1783, Sweden is the 11th largest direct investor and one of the fastest growing and largest investors per capita in the United States. Our economic partnership supports over 190,000 American jobs across 50 states. If confirmed, I will continue our focus on promoting bilateral trade and investment opportunities, particularly in emerging industries, such as information technology, biotech, and clean energy. Today our economic focus must not just be bilateral, but also multilateral. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is an important building block of the wider trade policy agenda between the EU and the United States and will be an important focus of our work in the coming months. Sweden is a strong supporter of T-TIP and a logical partner in this effort, having relied on free trade to become one of the world’s most globalized, competitive and innovative modern industrial economies. If confirmed, I will encourage Sweden to highlight and leverage its economic success in creating prosperity through trade to promote our shared objective of a comprehensive T-TIP agreement. Third, environmental challenges. The United States and Sweden have an active partnership on environmental and climate change issues, including our close cooperation in the increasingly important Arctic region. Sweden chaired the Arctic Council from 2011 to 2013, and its accomplishments included a historic marine oil pollution preparedness and response agreement. The United States assumed chairmanship of the Arctic Council in April 2015. If confirmed, I will prioritize our continued bilateral cooperation on environmental and climate change issues, stewardship of the Arctic region, and scientific research. As a global leader in environmental sustainability and clean energy technologies, Sweden derives more than half of its energy from renewable sources, making it less dependent on energy imports than most EU countries. If confirmed, I will engage with our partners in Swedish government and private sector to explore innovative ways to leverage Sweden’s energy leadership in the EU to advance our shared priorities in addressing climate change and European energy security. Fourth, shared values. Our growing friendship with Sweden remains anchored in the genuine affinity between our peoples and our strong commitment to democratic values and institutions, a commitment expressed in our global partnership to protect and advance human rights and civil society. It is a friendship based on a shared heritage that dates back to 1638, when the first generation of Swedish immigrants arrived on the shores of what is now the state of Delaware. Today over 4 million Americans claim Swedish descent. They continue to enrich our culture and society and have been part of our economic success from the beginning, by building such successful companies as Walgreens, Greyhound, and Nordstrom. If confirmed, I will dedicate myself to deepen this enduring friendship, by encouraging understanding of our similarities and respectful debating of our differences, and by taking a multi-stakeholder approach to building innovative partnerships outside the government between our peoples and institutions and leveraging technology and public-private partnerships to connect with new audiences. Finally, if confirmed, I look forward to meeting the talented and dedicated professionals of our Embassy in Stockholm. I will support their continued success and be their biggest advocate, as we work side by side to advance our vision of a deeper friendship and stronger partnership between the United States and Sweden. The safety and security of our team, and that of all Americans in Sweden, will always remain my top priority. Thank you very much for your consideration. I look forward to your questions.
Newly Nominated US Ambassador to Sweden
A new ambassador has been nominated to replace the current ambassador, Mark Brzezinski. The nominee, Azita Raji, is a former investment banker. She was born in Tehran and grew up in Iran and Western Europe. After graduating from high school in Lausanne, Switzerland, she earned her B.A. in Architecture and French from Barnard College followed by an MBA in Finance from Columbia Business School. In her professional career, she has held a number of prestigious positions, including Member of the Bretton Woods Committee and Commissioner of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
Her nomination has been submitted to the U.S. Senate for its consideration. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Ms. Raji would become the first female ambassador from the United States to Sweden as well as the first Iranian-born American to be appointed as a U.S. Ambassador.
File photo: Athena Center for Leadership Studies
US to get first female ambassador in Sweden
Published: 24 Oct 2014 09:06 GMT+02:00
Updated: 24 Oct 2014 14:40 GMT+02:00
She is also a former investment banker and held a senior position at JP Morgan Securities.
She was a major fundraiser for Obama’s 2012 re-election, bringing in more than $3 million and serving as the President’s national vice-chair for finance.
The US Embassy said Azita Raji would be "the first Iranian-born American to be appointed as a US Ambassador."
“I enthusiastically congratulate Azita on her nomination," Ambassador Brzezinski said in a statement. "Relations between the United States and Sweden have never been stronger, nor have they delivered more for our respective peoples."
Azita Raji's nomination must be approved by the US senate. It is likely to be at least six months before she can book her flights and move to the Swedish capital.
Well-Trod Path: Political Donor to Ambassador
And after raising millions of dollars for Mr. Obama, Ms. Wintour had a prize in mind, according to several people close to the White House: appointment as ambassador to Britain, the United States’ most prestigious diplomatic post.
But by the time Ms. Wintour returned home to New York, officials had told her the job in London would almost certainly go to someone who had done even more for Mr. Obama: Matthew Barzun, a genial former technology executive who spent 20 grueling months as finance chairman of the president’s national fund-raising operation.
As Mr. Obama begins his second term in the White House, the donors and bundlers who raised more than a billion dollars to get him there are pressing hard for appointments. The sheer scale of Mr. Obama’s fund-raising machine has led to an especially intense scramble for plum ambassadorships, with as many as 300 people vying for just 30 or so positions, according to several people involved in the process.
“The president now has six years of relationships, not two years,” said Andy Spahn, a public relations and political consultant who, along with Jeffrey Katzenberg, the film producer, was Mr. Obama’s top Los Angeles fund-raiser. “So I expect that it will be a lot more competitive this time around.”
Interviews with more than a dozen donors, Democratic officials and advisers involved in the discussions revealed some unspoken rules: Volunteer for more than one country. Be prepared to serve for only two years, so that a second round of envoys can be appointed before Mr. Obama leaves office. Don’t mention how much money you raised for the campaign (but don’t expect much if you didn’t raise at least a million dollars). Let it be known where you want to go, but don’t publicly campaign for the job.
“You have to find the balance between waving the flag to get your name out there and waving the flag so much you smack people in the face with it,” said Jonathan Prince, a former State Department official under Mr. Obama.
Nearly every aspiring ambassador contacted for this article did not return phone calls or declined to comment about any interest in specific jobs. But speculation about who is in line for what often makes its way into the press; last month, The Hollywood Reporter published the names of several West Coast donors said to be on Mr. Obama’s short list for diplomatic posts — a list as closely scrutinized by Hollywood for who wasn’t on it, other donors said, as for who was.
For some would-be diplomats, the hunt began the day after Mr. Obama’s re-election in November, when the president’s top aides began asking his leading fund-raisers if they had interest in serving. Mr. Barzun has been an informal facilitator for donors and fund-raisers, along with Rufus Gifford, his counterpart on Mr. Obama’s campaign staff. Inside the White House, a small group of senior aides — including the counselor Pete Rouse; Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser; the deputy chief of staff, Alyssa Mastromonaco; Brian McKeon, a national security staff member; and Mr. Obama’s personnel director, Nancy Hogan — have met regularly to discuss potential choices.
Mr. Obama has followed recent tradition in making appointments; like every president going back to Ronald Reagan, he has filled about 70 percent of the posts with career diplomats and 30 percent with political appointees, often but not always top donors. Dangerous spots like Yemen are invariably filled by diplomats, according to statistics compiled by the American Foreign Service Association. Highly sought European and Caribbean countries usually go to political appointees. At least three Obama fund-raisers are interested in Italy this time around, according to people familiar with the roster of potential candidates. They include Azita Raji, a San Francisco philanthropist; John R. Phillips, a Washington lawyer married to the former Obama aide Linda Douglass; and Robert Mailer Anderson, a novelist.
But Asian countries are increasingly desirable. Steve Westly, a California venture capitalist and top Obama fund-raiser, has discussed with administration officials the ambassadorship to China, among other jobs, according to people with knowledge of the talks. The post is currently filled by Gary Locke, the former commerce secretary, who may depart later this year.
Deep pockets are an unofficial requirement for many postings. While ambassadors currently earn a maximum base salary of $179,700, and housing is provided with the job, in some capitals they can expect to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on entertaining. So those who can “self-finance” have a competitive edge.
The expectation is so ingrained that Timothy J. Roemer, a former congressman, felt compelled to bring up his bank account when Mr. Obama named him ambassador to India. “I told the White House and the State Department early on, I can’t afford to do the job like that,” Mr. Roemer said.
Not everyone wants a gilded posting in a European capital. Ellen Susman, a Texas philanthropist who contributed $100,000 to the “super PAC” supporting Mr. Obama, has alerted people involved in the decision-making of her interest in serving as director of the State Department’s Art in Embassies program, responsible for managing the art collection that hangs in American embassies around the world. (Ms. Susman declined to comment.) Others are more interested in policy positions within the State Department or elsewhere in Mr. Obama’s administration.
“There are some people who just want to be an assistant secretary of state for Latin America or something,” said Robert Rizzi, a partner in the Washington office of O’Melveny & Myers, one of several law firms that help clients navigate background checks for high-ranking jobs.
Most presidents, Mr. Obama included, seek to find ambassadors who have business or personal ties to a nation. Philip D. Murphy, a former national finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee who is now the ambassador to Germany, ran Goldman Sachs’s Frankfurt office for four years and is fluent in German.
“In my view, some of the best ambassadors and some of the worst ambassadors have been political,” said John D. Podesta, who ran Mr. Obama’s transition team in 2009. “They have close connections to the president and are understood to be close to policy-making decisions.” But those who “think they’re entitled can cause problems in a bureaucracy that needs to respect foreign service officers.”
Cynthia Stroum, for example, a major Democratic fund-raiser whom Mr. Obama named ambassador to Luxembourg, resigned in January 2011 — one month before the State Department’s inspector general released a scathing assessment of her “aggressive, bullying, hostile and intimidating” management style.
The sheer number of names in Mr. Obama’s hat this year means that most will end up with nothing. Some will be offered a semi-desirable country that they are unlikely to accept, a move that allows Mr. Obama’s team to satisfy their donors without actually hiring them.
Other postings depend, musical-chairs-style, on what people further up the food chain do. Mr. Barzun will get the United Kingdom post if he wants it, according to several donors and advisers with knowledge of the discussions inside the administration. Ms. Wintour was a potential candidate for France but is no longer seeking the appointment, they said — which could clear the way for Marc Lasry, a successful hedge fund investor who was one of Mr. Obama’s staunchest defenders on Wall Street and is seeking the same posting.
A spokeswoman for Ms. Wintour said she was happy with her job at Vogue. Mr. Lasry declined to comment.