I read Professor Najmabadi's heartfelt article “Wrong, regardless” with interest. As a fellow Iranian-American, I understand what you're saying. As soon as I start explaining to people the source of the anger and the reasons for so much hatred, I suddenly feel I'm on the other side, as if I condone, or worse, support terrorism. So, I don't do it any more!
On the other hand, I think it is incumbent upon us, as people who may have a better grasp of the issues of the region, since, after all, we grew up in that neck of the woods, to play our part as Americans. If there is one thing that is clear from last week's tragedy, is the fact that the stakes are much higher now. We have to try our best to make sure these acts of mass genocide will stop.
One look at your own credentials makes my argument for me. You are a professor of history at a great university, for God's sake. I really don't think it is wise for you to remain completely silent and refrain from “explaining” things. I think the problem might have been what you chose to explain, and how you went about doing it, that made you feel ashamed of the act. I hope I'm not making a mistake about this.
I had an email conversation recently with an American woman who is married to an Iranian. She told me that her husband is angry at her and their children because they are displaying the American flag in their yard! He was trying to explain to them that this act, for some reason or another, is not necessary. She was VERY mad at him, and understandably so.
This is the first mistake we tend to make, to sound indifferent to the very real pain and hurt that people around us are experiencing right now. (Of course, I'm not saying you have personally made this mistake, just that we tend to.) We have to be very sensitive to this. This is a time of national mourning, and people are grieving. They are confused and scared.
We all know what that's like. Do you remember the day Saddam's army attacked Khuzestaan? That's more or less how they feel. Respect that. Let people know that you too share their sorrow and understand the depth of the tragedy. Let them know that any act of violence against innocent people is inhuman and deserves our condemnation. That's all.
Also, don't give any un-solicited advice. Americans, in general, are not really into politics. I have realized that almost all of them, even when they start a conversation on a political topic, don't usually want to get into the depth of the issues as passionately as we do. In general, I think we should keep our responses cordial and stick to short conversations. If passions flare, as they might these days, step away. As you know, most Americans are very respectful of each other's personal space and will not push hard.
Lastly, if you do run into someone who really shows the required open mindedness, and the emotional stability needed for a serious discussion, point out to them, simply, that many people in our region are frustrated at the arrogance of U.S. foreign policies. I wouldn't argue these frustrations myself. It may help to have a written article handy, or a good book, or a website address, and ask them to do some research of their own. If they are really interested, they will feel more comfortable and open.
These are historic times. We ALL need to do our best to help stop even more and bigger tragedies. But we have to do it, all of us, in a way that is sensitive to the range of feelings that abound around us these days. The first requirement of a healthy and helpful conversation, about this or any topic, is cordial sympathy and a willful attempt to understand the other person's feelings. If miscommunication is to be blamed for this tragedy, it will surely not help anyone to create more of it.