The Iranian Diaspora in America: 30 Years in the Making
by AMIR BAGHERPOUR in Irvine
12 Sep 2010 10:36
[ dispatch ] More than 30 years since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the United States has become home to the largest and most prosperous population of Iranians outside of the homeland. The steady stream of Iranians that immigrated to the United States during the 1980s reached its peak by 1990. Since then, Iranian Americans' perspectives on their American residence have naturally changed as they struggled to face the reality that they would be staying in the country permanently.
On March 15, 1981, Ali Limonadi launched the first television broadcast representing the Iranian diaspora from a small Los Angeles studio. He named the station IRTV, short for Iranian Television. In a recent conversation, Limonadi described the feelings of the newly arrived Iranians in Los Angeles: "At that time, we thought we would return to Iran after six months. We thought the situation would settle and that people could resume their lives back home. Some of us did not even fully unpack our bags." Archived footage of the first broadcast validates his description. I watched an interview from that 1981 broadcast in which Limonadi spoke with an Iranian psychologist who provided advice to viewers on how to raise their children in the United States. The psychologist said, "Remember to speak Farsi in the home with your children. Do not speak English with them because they will have plenty of exposure to it in school or outside the house while in America. This is important because when we return to Iran, they will be less affected."
Today, unofficial estimates show that the United States is home to more than one million Iranians. According to data extrapolated from the U.S. Census Bureau, they are one of the most highly educated minority populations in the country. But even with the passage of three decades, their individual successes and accumulation of wealth have proven only minimally effective in helping to build a strong community in America. The political and socioeconomic conflicts from the old country have traveled with them. This is a characteristic common to diasporas driven primarily by political and social causes, such as the 1979 Islamic Revolution and its aftermath. That kind of background makes integration into the host nation slower and more difficult for Iranians compared to other ethnic groups that immigrated primarily for economic reasons.
The Iranian community has slowly changed over the last 30 years. A survey conducted by Zogby International last year reported that three out of four Iranian Americans are now registered to vote, nearly 30 percent have contributed to political campaigns, and a like amount have written at least one letter to an elected official. But Arezu Rashidian, an activist involved in the politics of Iran, says, "Although Iranians vote and are involved in domestic issues within the U.S, we don't protest or get fired-up based on issues facing us in America. We still connect to the issues taking place in Iran because we have a duty to speak up for our brothers and sisters at home who do not have a voice."
There is some truth to her statement. Instead of focusing on political efforts concerning domestic issues that strengthen the community locally, Iranians Americans have historically organized according to events taking place in Iran. Yet the 2009 Zogby survey indicates that this is changing. As Iranians set down deeper roots in American society, the trend toward participation in American politics, both local and national, is likely to grow. Evidence includes the rising number of Iranian American candidates running for public office. Over the past year, more than half a dozen Iranian Americans have run for state and local offices around the United States. The highlight thus far has been the election of Andre Manssourian, a former deputy district attorney, as a superior court judge in Orange County, California. Another hopeful candidate is Mark Ameli, an experienced attorney and litigator, who is set for a November runoff for a superior court judgeship in Los Angeles. The most notable success story over the past 30 years has been that of Jimmy Delshad, the Jewish Iranian American mayor of Beverly Hills.
While the number of Iranian American candidates continues to grow, none has yet been elected to Congress. According to Ramin Asgard, a high-ranking State Department diplomat and former political advisor to General David Petraeus, "As Iranian Americans, we need one of our own in Congress to really get recognized, but that requires better organization." One of Mr. Asgard's first duties at the State Department was to approve passports in Turkey, particularly those of Iranians wishing to come to the United States. Reflecting on the experience, he said, "You wouldn't believe how many congressional inquiries I received on requests for passports to family members of Iranian Americans who had relationships with member of Congress. There were more congressional requests than passports I was authorized to approve." Asgard continued, "I thought to myself: Why don't all these wealthy Iranians get together and form some type of organization or pool their resources instead of individually requesting all these congressional requests which don't achieve much in the end?"
Iranian Americans remain characteristically self-interested and individualistic. But by measurable standards, the situation is changing and they are becoming more organized as a community. In spite of the challenges faced by the first generation of Iranian Americans, there is a slow but expected shift away from the political and cultural tensions that have psychologically constrained them from fully integrating into American society. We can observe this shift at the organizational level as interest groups such as the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) steadily increase their membership base and, consequently, their influence in Washington.
For the younger generation of Iranians who grew up in the United States, it is difficult to imagine the feelings of their parents who came to the country with the intent to one day return home. For most, that day never came. Yet as Iranians continue to prosper and adapt, their once temporary homes have achieved a new status. The other day, I called one of my close friends to discuss some of the happenings in Iran. Having never returned in 25 years, my curiosity about events there only builds. So it was perfectly natural that I, a political scientist, and my friend, a journalist, would devote ourselves to the topic. My friend struck a real chord with me as an Iranian American when he said, "Hey, Amir. Maybe one day you can be like Vali Nasr and I can be like Hooman Majd." I was touched by the deeper meaning of the statement, which proposes that there is a link from one generation to another and suggests that the torch will one day be passed. I interpreted it as a symbolic sign of progress -- my generation now has other Iranian Americans to look up to in a way our predecessors did not. Nasr is a political advisor to the Obama administration and Majd is a renowned journalist who writes for mainstream publications such as Vanity Fair. But more impressive than their success and fame is the fact that they are unapologetically Iranian and at the same time unapologetically American. For most Iranian Americans, their six-month stay in America has become permanent. Their bags are now fully unpacked.
Amir Bagherpour is a Ph.D. candidate at the Claremont School of Politics and Economics. He is a West Point graduate and former officer in the U.S. Army. He also holds an MBA from UC Irvine. Mr. Bagherpour is also an associate at the Trans Research Consortium, a research group committed to studying the causes of war and transitions in power.
Photo: Akbar Ghahary, a prominent Iranian American, mingles with the best of 'em.
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