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Iranian-Americans Seek Least-Hawkish Candidate

by Omid Memarian

Jaded toward their government back home and cynical of the current U.S. administration and the Republicans they historically supported, a new generation of Iranian-Americans appears to be looking to Barack Obama to bring about change, especially with regards to U.S. foreign policy toward Iran.

Many observers believe the refusal by the other leading Democrat for the presidential nomination, Senator Hillary Clinton, to rule out force against Iran in campaign statements, paired with her strong support of Israel, has substantially weakened her support in the community.

What troubles Iranian-American voters is the uncertainty about Senator Clinton's position on employing military force against Iran. At least with the leading Republican presidential contender, the option is clear: John McCain believes that Iran is resolute on the destruction of Israel and favours sanctions and military action against Tehran.

"Every option must remain on the table. Military action isn't our preference. It remains, as it always must, the last option," said McCain during a speech to the group Christians United for Israel last July. Unfortunately, his rendition of the Beach Boys song entitled "Barbara Ann", i.e. "bomb, bomb, bomb, (pause), bomb, bomb Iran" earlier this year clearly depicted his frame of mine.

Other Republican contenders, such as Mitt Romney, hold a similar stance: "There is one place of course where I'd welcome [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad with open arms: and that's in a court where he would stand trial for incitement to genocide, under the terms of the Genocide Convention," Romney said.

The 2000 census estimates the number of Iranians in the United States at 330,000, more than half of them living in California. This figure reflects a major wave of immigration in the years immediately following the 1979 revolution. Iranian-American political and community groups believe the estimate is vastly understated and that the population in fact may be as high as one million.

"We are witnessing a rather stark shift in the Iranian-American community," Trita Parsi, director of National Iranian American Council, a nationwide non-partisan institute based in Washington, told IPS. "The Republican Party has lost much support in the community, and it doesn't help that McCain is the likely Republican candidate, mindful of his singing about bombing Iran. This breaks a pattern in which the community has tended to support the Republican Party for fiscal reasons."

"Obama's momentum seems to be even stronger in the community than in the country in general. Many people I've spoken to tend to believe that the difference between Clinton and Bush isn't great enough," Parsi said. "Her vote in favor of the Kyl-Lieberman amendment [which threatens to "combat, contain and (stop)" Iran] has particularly hurt her in the community, and reinforced the perception of her proximity to the Bush foreign policy."

Traditionally, Iranian-Americans who left Iran during or just after the revolution, and have fostered hopes of government change since then, vote Republican. However, almost 30 years later, Iranian-Americans seem to be shifting towards a candidate who will take a less hawkish position on U.S. policy toward Iran.

While they have little sympathy for, and indeed are deeply suspicious of the hardliner government of President Ahmadinejad, polls show that they are nonetheless strongly opposed to any kind of military action against Iran. Most say the last thing they favor is a U.S. invasion or bombing of Iran, and to see the country follow a fate similar to Afghanistan or Iraq, and endure the destruction that ensued its neighbors and bear millions of homeless and refugees.

Dr. Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University, co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, and an influential figure among Iranian-Americans in San Francisco's Bay Area, where Obama just won an endorsement from an Iranian American Democrats, finds the difference in popularity of Clinton and Obama to be minimal.

"They both said that they are willing to negotiate. Obama has been more forceful and categorical and here, based on the empirical evidence that we have, the diaspora overwhelmingly wants principal dialogue, and both of these people seem to confirm that desire."

He believes Clinton's harsher rhetoric stems from the fact that she represents New York, a state with a relatively large Jewish population that is inclined toward Israel and prefers a tougher stance on Iran.

Although it was during her husband's presidency that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright apologised to Iranians for the U.S. involvement in the 1953 coup, which overthrew one of Iran's most popular and democratic governments, Senator Clinton's harsh rhetoric against Iran scares many Iranian-Americans who have family and deep cultural roots back home.

Last February, Clinton spoke at a Manhattan dinner held by the largest pro-Israel lobbying group in the U.S., the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, calling Iran a danger to the U.S. and one of Israel's greatest threats. She mimicked President Bush when telling a crowd of Israel supporters that "U.S. policy must be clear and unequivocal: we cannot, we should not, we must not permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons. In dealing with this threat ... no option can be taken off the table."

Even if Senator Clinton has no serious intention of striking Iran, her rhetoric during the last year has made her unpopular among the new generation of Iranian-Americans.

Additionally, unlike Obama, she voted in favour of the Iran Counter Proliferation Act, calling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a "terrorist organization". She has defended her position, stating, "This resolution in no way authorizes or sanctions military action against Iran and instead seeks to end the Bush administration's diplomatic inaction in the region."

The editor of one of the most popular websites among the Iranian-American community, Jahanshah Javid, said that, "among those who have blogged on Iranian.com in recent weeks, (they) have mostly supported democratic candidates, especially because of their positions on foreign policy which appears to be less militaristic."

However, he was also feeling the winds of change are blowing toward Obama, "because he has clearly stated that he favors negotiations with Iran."

Omid Memarian is a peace fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has won several awards, including Human Rights Watch's highest honor in 2005, the Human Rights Defender Award.

© 2008 Inter Press Service

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