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Iranian-Americans in the Age of Trump, the Travel Ban, and the Threat of War

We want democracy and freedom for Iran, not because of Iranian exceptionalism, but because those are the values we aspire for at home, and therefore believe all people deserve.

Over and over Americans have called for diplomatic solutions, an end to endless wars, and have worked tirelessly to realize the full breadth of equality and freedoms we have espoused for centuries. (Photo: Liz Lemon/Flickr/cc)

Over and over Americans have called for diplomatic solutions, an end to endless wars, and have worked tirelessly to realize the full breadth of equality and freedoms we have espoused for centuries. (Photo: Liz Lemon/Flickr/cc)

I was born and raised in the United States to Iranian parents and, like many children of immigrants, grew up with a sense of alienation from my fellow Americans. Though raised in the most populace location of the Iranian diaspora in Southern California, my hyphenated identity seemed to be in conflict with itself as Iran was consistently vilified in U.S. media and politics. But rather than attempt to hide my identity, I became determined to move beyond the surface politics to understand more about Iran and, ultimately, to try to bridge the divide between my country of heritage and the country I called home. 

To that end, I entered graduate school to study the history and culture of Iran, which also provided me the opportunity to travel there and do field research. An eye-opening experience, I realized that we are more alike than we are different, and any enmity that may exist between the two countries, was a consequence of their governments, not their people.

In recent weeks, the subject of Iran has again dominated much of our news and media attention. From the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, to Iran’s retaliation and 176 lost lives in a downed civilian plane, the world held its breath and braced for a possible war. As Iranian-Americans were detained at borders for inappropriate questioning about political views—in an increasingly xenophobic and hostile environment—we were inundated with images and stories of the Iranian-American community, often asked the same question, “how do you feel about the current situation?”

No one person or organization can represent the views of an entire community. Iranian-Americans are not a monolith, they are a diverse group with different socioeconomic, religious, and political backgrounds. However, some broad inclinations can be derived from field research in the diaspora, as well as polling that shows the majority do not support a war with Iran, President Trump’s Iran policy, or the travel ban. This should come as no shock, because in fact these are the views of the majority of all Americans. 

Despite the prevalence of antiwar sentiments among this diaspora, there are some rather loud voices that have attempted to co-opt the community and speak for all, while defaming anyone with an opposing political view as an agent of the Islamic Republic. Anyone from community advocates and elected officials, to academics, human rights workers, and journalists have suffered such vitriol. Though the strategy is not shocking in the Trump era, it is disconcerting in a period of rising threats to our democracy. It has been jarring to have a president threatening to bomb 52 Iranian cultural sites, while others call for the deportation of U.S. citizens with conflicting political attitudes and the repression of American civil advocacy groups. When Iranian-American civil liberties are endangered with discriminatory practices by Customs and Border Patrol and bank account closures, I assumed fellow Iranian-Americans—despite differences in opinion on the best policies towards Iran—would stand in principle for rule of law and against the unexplained and often humiliating deportations of Iranian students.

It is a point of irony, that the very people who claim to fight for democracy and freedom in Iran, would erode the foundations of democracy in the United States.

It is a point of irony, that the very people who claim to fight for democracy and freedom in Iran, would erode the foundations of democracy in the United States. In a democratic political system, both individuals and groups are given a platform to share their views and support them with analysis and sources. The public is then free to make its own assessments, vote, and support or oppose legislation as they see fit. This is an oversimplification of course, but it gets to the crux of the matter at hand. We are allowed to have opposing views and express them without threats of physical harm, imprisonment, deportation, or slander. This is the most basic component of a democracy. 

But to understand this confusion and this divide we must examine the differences of these groups. The Iranian-American diaspora is not as divided as it seems, the issue is that we are having two different discussions. There is an important distinction between a member of the diaspora, which is anyone of Iranian heritage, and a member of a dissident group, which by their own admission seek the overthrow of a foreign government and have already hand-picked its successor from outside Iran. Although the diaspora cares deeply for events in Iran because of our families and friends that reside there, our focus and attention is on the politics of our country, the United States. For dissident groups, the lens through which they see events and discuss them is Iran, not the U.S. Thus, as we yell passed each other, a simple truth is lost, we are not having the same conversation.

I grew up listening to debates about Iran and how best to ensure the freedom that Iranians have struggled to achieve for over a century. While some have held onto vestiges of the past, such as the monarchy that was overthrown in Iran’s 1979 revolution, the majority of Iranian-Americans hold firmly that they wish for a democratic and secular Iran, but to be established by Iranians themselves. Additionally, we wish to be treated as equal citizens in the United States, which this current administration has demoralized with the Muslim Ban and sanction laws that harm Americans as well. 

It is time to recognize that the “Iranian” hyphen is not an identity in opposition to our American self, but that this diversity actually defines our American identity. As Americans we expect equal treatment under the law, and as Americans we will hold our government accountable to the will of the people. For some Iranian immigrants, especially those exiled or who fled Iran, America may have been a placeholder, a temporary spot to wait out the eventual collapse of the Islamic Republic. However, for most Iranian-Americans, especially those born after the revolution, America is our home. We want democracy and freedom for Iran, not because of Iranian exceptionalism, but because those are the values we aspire for at home, and therefore believe all people deserve. 

Though diverse, the Iranian-American diaspora is not as divided as it seems because America is not as divided as it seems. Over and over Americans have called for diplomatic solutions, an end to endless wars, and have worked tirelessly to realize the full breadth of equality and freedoms we have espoused for centuries. Remember that despite the divisive rhetoric of the Trump era, he still lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million. It may be fair to say that disruptive voices are loud and aggressive precisely because they are aware of their own weakness. But the strength of our collective voices does not come from numbers, it comes from the conviction that these words are still revolutionary, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Assal Rad

Assal Rad

Dr. Assal Rad graduated with a PhD in Middle Eastern History from the University of California, Irvine in 2018. Her PhD research focused on Modern Iran, with an emphasis on national identity formation and identity in post-revolutionary Iran. Assal joined the National Iranian American Council as a Research Fellow in January 2019. She has written for publications including Newsweek, The Hill, and The National Interest, and appeared as a contributor on BBC World, Al Jazeera, and NPR.

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