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The Iranian Diaspora in America: 30 Years in the Making


12 Sep 2010 10:3623 Comments
6600_1154027085546_1073745969_478362_7427130_n.jpgA permanent, engaged community slowly takes shape.

[ 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.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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Good examples to follow, Nasr and Majd. Both are insightful, in their own ways, and both quite approachable. I totally agree, they're unapologetically Iranian,

Amir, don't forget, we here in northern California have SF Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi.

Overall, a good article. Thanks.

However, I take exception to an element of Arezu Rashidian's statement in this article. Does she vote in Iranian elections? The answer to that would be telling.

Pirouz / September 12, 2010 9:16 PM

Vali Nasr and NIAC representing Iranians in the US??!

What percentage of the million plus Iranians identify themselves with Vali Nasr and NIAC?
Vali Nasr is an Islamist and NIAC is an Islamic Republic apologist organization, whose main function is to be a lobby for the IR regime and its wealthy beneficiaries.

No wonder why majority if Iranians living in the US want nothing to do with the American politics. After all they fled Iran to be rid of these types of characters.

Maziar / September 12, 2010 9:45 PM

NIAC has a membership of 3000 and is hated by iranians because they have stood against the iranian people who wanted decmoracy.

they wanted us to sweep all the crimes of the Islamic Republi under the rug and be buddy buddy with them.

they are finally being exposed.

their membership is going down because people now know what they stand for.

shahin / September 13, 2010 3:05 AM

this was agreat article,and a root of awakening for the iranian-americans.we cannot be effectice and have our voices heard just in our grand partys,just among ourselves.we need to organize and have a larger voice.
regarding the attacks ON NIAC,I CAN PROUDLY SAY THAT I HAVE BEEN A MEMBER FOR THE PAST 8 YRS AND we do not represent by any means,the islamic republic of iran.that is why we as a community still have a lot to learn politically and mature,intead of just constantly accuse and attack each other.no iranian american,would ,in a clear consious,like to see iran become another iraq,and afghanestan,just to remove this oprresive regime.

fay / September 13, 2010 7:08 AM

A very informative article and a timely one. Although we all can be different, we have to agree on the right to be different and still the duty to work together.

Ali / September 13, 2010 9:29 AM

NIAC is one of the best IA organizations in the US. I support them not just because they have done more for IA than any other organization, not just because they helped prevent war, not just because they defend the persepolis stones in Chicago, but also because they are the only IA organization that has essentially defeated the MKO in Washington.

The MKO is trying to hijack the Green movement - they actually tell Americans that THEY ARE the real Green movement - and there is no other organization than NIAC that has helped set the record straight on this one.

Amir is 100% right - by strengthening NIAC and organizations like NIAC, the IA community will become stronger and more capable of helping the people in Iran.

Sepehr / September 13, 2010 9:34 AM

Well, to the point,

Long-live to NIAC, congratulations.....

Iranians should be proud that their voice is heard well despite that NIAC existed in short-time - a decade.. it has changed the perspective in washington.. and it is revealing why Neo-cons, AIPAC, never stop their smear compaign..

abdikadir / September 13, 2010 8:54 PM

I personally see the Iranian-american community alot like the Greek-american community.

I have alot of expierences with the Greek-american community, having grown up with a large group of freinds that were first generation. I also grew up with quite a few first-generation Vietnamese. But, I was much closer to the Greeks, and my brothers' first wife was Greek-American.

To be honest, Iranian-americans, like Greek-americans, do not have the numbers to effect public policy in the U.S. in a substainal way of their own. The only way for them to do so is to aliegn with the two major parties, and their policies. Presidential candidate Dukakis is a good example.

The issue the Iranian-americans, and Greek-americans, seem to be struggling with is how to maintain the culture and traditions and close ties to the home country. These issues rapidly become non-issues by the third and fourth generations in the U.S. Some of this is unfortunate, the loss of traditions is unfortunate. But some of this is beneficial. These people become "americans" and do not try to interfere with other nations.

The good news is that U.S. demographics are rapidly changing. Even in remote areas like mine( where I live in a county of 20,000 reported) there are probably 5,000 immigrants either permanant or temporary).The real issue of U.S. immigration, therefore politics, therefore culture, is the massive Latino immigration. To preface, I am married to an immigrant from Ecuador. I volunteer to translate english to spanish for the local hispanic community center. I am a firm supporter of free immigration for all people.

The large numbers of immigrants from Latin countries are dramatically changing the U.S. political culture. Which had become very stale and rather autocractic. Immigrants are particularily aware that the individual has a superior right to the state. Imigrants know that trying to establish things like state religions, state languages,state "cultures" are extremely harmful. The rights of the indivdual have been marginalized in the era of big U.S. government of the '30's to the present. These are ideals of oppessors. They are the ideals of nations that have fallen under the weight they have put on their citizens. Immigrants know this more than most.

muhammad billy bob / September 13, 2010 9:21 PM

NIAC is a force for good. I might not agree with everything they do and the tactics used, but they've proven themselves time and time again to be on the side of the iranian (and american) people.

Ali / September 14, 2010 2:23 AM

I think you've missed a key issue with the Iranian-American community. Generally, Iranians came to this country already weary of it and other "Western Countries" for meddling in Iranian affairs for many generations before. Not just the "Western Countries" either. Iran, due it's geographic location and resources has always had different outsiders meddling or occupying them. Young Iranian's grow up from the beginning stages of childhood with an untrusting eye towards authority, government, religious leaders etc. This is a cultural characteristic passed down from generation to generation rooted in real world experience. It's not uncommon to find an older Iranian today saying something to the effect "I wish Iran never had oil, or we would be prospering today" The bottom line is, most Iranian-Americans simply want to be left alone to prosper and devote their time, energy, and resources to making sure their own family is taken care of. They figure "everything is politics" and "politics" is controlled by a shady few, so what's the point in getting involved? Iranian's don't trust their surroundings, and certainly don't trust other Iranians enough to assemble into powerful political organization,. say like the Jews. This isn't going to change, and quoting a few Iranian-American political organizations assembling or a few LA-Perisan TV stations running doesn't amount to a real sense of "coming together" or even a trend in that direction. Instead, it's mostly some Iranian's who want to be "fashionably" known among Iranian circles as prominent, educated, leaders. If Iranian-Americans came even remotely close to forming a sense of cohesion and politically organized themselves even just a little bit, they should have at least one CA Senator by now with the education, intelligence, contacts, and resources they have. Instead, we have two Jewish CA senators.

Your article briefs well, but it misses the point in my opinion. You also mentioned that you respected folks liked Nasr who are unapologetically Iranian, but isn't that the minority? Most Iranians I know strive to be "as american" as possible to lose that "iranian stigma" As Iranian-American's move into subsequent generations, I suspect, they'll lose their Iranian identity even faster than other European immigrants lost big portions of their ethnic identity. What say you, Amir?

Ashkan_Irani / September 15, 2010 8:43 AM

A great article. It is indeed time for our generation that came of age post-revolution to finally get past the ossified and understandable mentality of our parents generation who consider "politics" a dirty word.

The amazing thing is that the Iranians living in Iran are probably more informed and more engaged politically than some of these folks who still use innuendo, conspiracy theory, and character assassination as their modes of political analysis.

Kudos to you Mr. Bagherpour, and kudos to the NIACs and PAAIAs, and IAABs, and IABAs of our community. We need many more organizations like these.

Ardashir / September 15, 2010 4:39 PM

NIAC lies about everything including what they stand for and fools all these Iranians.

Go ahead NIACis push for a deal with the devil Khamenei who killed your countrymen.

Dont try to hide behind the we are trying to get people involved with american politics, we are raising awareness bs.

now niac is a human rights supporter, people are not dumb.

Layla / September 15, 2010 4:49 PM

NIAC's main enemy is APAC. That speaks volumes.

Those who hate NIAC have no regard for Iranians in Iran and the fact that sanctions and war will only help erase the Green movement and strengthen the hardliners.

These haters fall into two categories: APAC supporters who would love to see Iran bombed for the sake of Likud in Israel and MKO who have no problem with killing millions of Iranians as long as a few IR men die in the process.

These two groups hate the pesky Greens (NIAC) who would advocate peace and take away their excuse for existence.

Ali / September 16, 2010 2:03 AM

in response to askan-irani,sorry to tell you that you may be right,regarding the success of individual iranians,who are only concern about the well being of their family alone,the time has come for us to galvanize and be a stronger voice,inorder to be heard.we as a community are very weak and voiceless.so we cannot afford to be just concern about us.i can proudly say that the new generations of iranian-americans are very much concern about the affairs of their homeland and they do not carry this baggage of suspicion and accusations and negetivity with them.they are the one now carrying the torch.

fay / September 16, 2010 6:01 AM

Response to Fay: One thing I cannot disagree with is that Iranian-Americans are generally well educated and pass their unique worldly experiences on to their children better than most other cultures and believe in education. How do you convince someone to fight for something or stand up for an ideology when they have seen first hand that ideology and religion supposedly supposed to be pure and well intentioned, turns out to be just absolutely sullied with corruption, greed and politics? I think Iranians have heard this and lived this time and time again. The Shah was an SOB who took care of his own circle and imprisoned/tortured many people to make sure his circle was taken care of. Iran grew under his rain because a rising tide generally lifts all, and he was tied to the West. But make no mistake about it, he was corrupt, and Iranians generally wanted something better than Reza Pahlavi sucking the blood of the wealth of that country, moving money off-shore, and probably giving kick backs to Western Defense Contractors. In the name of Islam, Iranians believed they could rid themselves of such a monarchical government and replace it with something pure and noble like Islam and Sharia law. I don't have to tell you how that turned out, but it's safe to say that once again, Iranians learned "don't trust a damn thing" especially as their children needlessly died in the Iraq-Iran war.
Sorry to say, but these little Iranian-American political groups will ever get much traction, simply b/c a lot of Iranian-Americans feel that a relatively small amount of influential people control the vast majority of policy. This idea stems simply from their experiences and what has been passed down through generations. For right or wrong, this may change over time, but by then subsequent generations of Iranian-Anericans won't care. Do you think Irish-Americans care tremendously about what happens in Northern Ireland, or if Italian-Americans care what happens in Southern Italy with mafia control and corruption? Instead they'll be occupied with attaining the American Dream.

Jews are different for a number of reasons I believe but won't get into. They stick together, organize themselves around each other, and support each other. Iranian's don't do this, and won't any time soon, if ever.

Ashkan_Irani / September 20, 2010 3:20 AM

dear ashkan,you may be right in few points,but you missed the whole thing.jews have many yrs of immigration history,ahead of iranians,we do not have a long history of immigration,we are new to this concept,having said that,does not mean that we cannot organize and have a unique strong voice,
we have the best of two countrys, and we can achieve our goals.i am an optimist by nature.leave all the imposibilities behind us and march forward.we will all try to succed in here,but we can also be a voice of goodness for our countrymen back home.

fay / September 20, 2010 9:41 PM


Alot of your points are right on target.

However, I think you are discounting alot of the historical, social discrimination of the U.S. Irish and Italian americans now care little about Ireland and Italy because they did not expierence as severe discrimination as Jews, or African-Americans. And the discrimination they faced was for a very brief period.

The ethnic demography of the U.S. is rapidly changing. One, very important, reason it is changing is very different opinions about ethnicity from the people of the U.S. than there were in the past.

The reason why Jews, and other minorities, stuck together, and organized themselves around each other, is that they were forced to do so. Many laws, and social norms excluded Jews from american life.

Also Jews are relative newcomers to the U.S. in significant numbers. The Irish and Italian communities have been in the U.S. in much larger numbers, much longer.

The social attitudes of the U.S.today are much different than they were 40 years ago. It is no longer illegal for a white person to marry and African-american or a Jew or an Asian american. And what is more, these unions are commonly accepted as a normal part of our culture. These attitudes mean Iranian americans will not be forming families with only Iranian americans.

In 2010 there are thousands of African americans marrying Italian americans, Jewish americans marrying Asian americans, Iranian americans marrying Polish americans, etc. The current president of the U.S. is a product of such a union.

Which home country, or culture, or political belief should the childern of these unions associate?

muhammad billy bob / September 20, 2010 11:10 PM

While I'm proud of many of my fellow Iranian-Americans, it does seem to me that most of them still consider "success" in this society as getting rich and living an extravagant life, as opposed to the real successes of those who've changed our local and larger community for the better. How about we as Iranian-Americans be the community that properly defines what it means to be successful? How about we step up to the plate and help America and Americans live a life of values and ethics and culture? We can do it and we do it by example.

And it all starts with our leaders. NIAC has so far done an excellent job in representing us, I believe, and PAAIA has had some interesting events and has some noble goals. Hopefully these two orgs work with each other and show some unity on matters that we all obviously care about and want to see our children be a part of.

Nassim / September 21, 2010 5:39 AM

Muhommad, I think we're essentially saying the say thing. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but the fact that Iranian-Americans are going to be marrying into different races underlines my point that they'll become less and less "Iranian" and concerned with Iranian affairs. Your point about the Jews is noted, and I don't disagree that people are a product of their experiences and lessons passed down over generations. The Jews stick together for reasons tied to their experiences and also their religion. They believe they're the chosen people by God, and therefore congregate and support other "chosen" people.
Now sure, there may be a few pragmatic Iranian-American's that are genuine and their agenda for forming or participating in things like NIAC and PAAIA is noble, and then there are the majority I'm convinced, who participate b/c it's sheik to do so. I don't want to sound like a pessimist, even though I do, but more as a practical thinker. Groups like NIAC and PAAIA aren't going to bring change to Iran. They're probably not even going to bring a much bigger voice to the Iranian Diaspora. The only way Iran will change is when people get tired enough of living the way they are, or if an entity like Israel attacks them which is a smaller probability. But even if that day comes, you better believe other nations will be sticking their beak in the matter, and meddling.

It's a shame really. Think about if "Brain Drain" never happened in Iran, and if they had the ability to control their own resources and wealth. Instead, we're scattered all over the world, and don't trust the next Iranian guy we come across further than we can throw them. Don't believe me? Go to any random Iranian you find in any foreign country you visit, utter one sentence in Farsi to them, and watch their initial reaction.

Product of experiences....

ashkan_Irani / September 21, 2010 9:35 PM


Can one not be rich and "live an extravagant lifestyle", and still live a life of "values and ethics and culture"?

The 2 are not mutually exclusive. In fact it is those who are "rich" who have always "changed our local and larger community for the better".

muhammad billy bob / September 21, 2010 9:53 PM


Yes, you basically got it right, imo.

But with one thing I disagree. I think the "brain drain" from Iran is a good thing for mankind as a whole. If the best and brightest were to remain in Iran over the last 30 years their talents would have been largely misused, ignored or even worse, made them a target to be eliminated. This is bad for Iran, but the best and brightest would have been helpless to prevent it. Best results would be to leave.

muhammad billy bob / September 22, 2010 6:03 PM


You make an interesting point, but I believe any group is only as good as it's leadership. If you take the best and brightest away, you're short changing a society.

I also want to make another point. I mentioned brain drain before, but arguably, you still have some extremely smart, capable people in Iran. Iran now has a high literacy rate, and Iranian culture puts a premium on education. But in todays Iran, you still have the best and brightest leaving because the leadership of that country is corrupt and inept. Graduates from Sharif University get visas to leave Iran and never come back.

Think if Mohammed Mossadeq had been able to really establish a strong democracy in Iran where the nations wealth and resources were controlled by such a democracy. What a place Iran would be with all of that raw talent and resources. Instead, the world has what is has sown.

Ashkan_Irani / September 23, 2010 8:22 AM


Iranians in Iran have been short changed. No doubt about it.

But their loss is our gain. May be sad, but true. College campuses in the U.S. are filled with students from around the world who will hopefully stay here to help this society.

Most countries around the world value education more than the U.S. Or maybe, in different ways than the U.S. I can't remember the last time I had a M.D. that was not born outside the U.S. The best and brightest 4th, 5th, etc. generation americans go into law, financial services, and other non scientific areas. 1st generation americans tend to go into medicine, engineering, etc.

The U.S. desperately needs these first generation americans. What I worry about is idiotic xenophobia destroying what has probably been the best aspect of the U.S. Ill advised government intrusions to protect "american jobs".

The converse of that is, what if these first generation americans were to remain only for a brief period until their home countries stabilized and accepted their talents?

My perfect solution is for the U.S. to be so attractive to these people they would never want to leave. They should be allowed to keep the fruits of their labor. They should be rewarded for their contributions to our society.

muhammad billy bob / September 24, 2010 7:51 PM