Goli Ameri ran for and won the Republican nomination from congressional district 1 in Portland, Oregon, during the primary elections on May 18th. This success is a first for an Iranian-American candidate in the US. Iranians have served in many prominent public capacities, including some assistant secretary and city council positions around the country, but they have never been this successful in entering a final run for a congressional office. This is indeed a great achievement by itself and warrants congratulations to and support for Goli.
On the other hand, this event has finally brought us to a point to question ourselves about our standing in American civic space and forces us to take position on this issue from the viewpoint of being an Iranian-American, whatever that may mean. We now have to deconstruct ourselves, our heritage, our beliefs, our personal and political connections to the country we were born in, our moral attachments to the old country, and many other attributes that make us Iranian-Americans. Then we have to reconstruct ourselves within our life in this country we call home. We have to reassemble elements that are in compliance with our new identity as Americans and all the concerns that we face as individuals living in this setting. At the same time we need to balance the weight between our heritage and the new social and moral character we have adopted here.
The two party system in the United States has created a 30-30-40 division of the population, which means 30% are voting for their party candidate regardless of his/her personal tendencies. It is only the 40% independent thinkers that cast swing votes between candidates based on their platforms. I emphasize on independent thinker, because in my opinion there are registered Democrats and Republicans that are not voting exactly according to their voting registration status. These swingers normally decide based on their own identification with candidates and on the election day priorities when they vote for a candidate.
Let me explain my position on this a little more; In order to reduce the complexity let us say for the sake of argument that for an American there are only 2 categories of individuals; liberals and conservatives. Further one can also assume that there are two sub-categories for each; financial and social. This would leave us with 4 groups; fiscal conservative [FC], fiscal liberal [FL], social conservative [SC],and social liberal [SL]. In order to make another reduction let us assume that there are two issues on the ballot; new taxes and gun control. Clearly we can expect that a FC person will vote against any new taxes while a FL would vote for it. Regarding the gun control initiative SC will cast a NO vote and a SL will vote YES.
Please note that this is a very simplistic approach and there can be many more specific situations in which these types of people can vote differently, such as the question of war and peace, small government and its control of businesses, abortion and other women rights, gay rights, etc. Since there is a very good possibility that for example a small business owner can be conservative in fiscal issues but liberal in social issues, therefore there can be combinations of these as well; FC/SC, FC/SL, FL/SC, FL/SL. I call these combinations the primary attributes, because any American can identify her/himself with one of them and also because it is used in the mainstream media as the standard for labeling candidates.
In summary, an American voter most likely asks him/herself which one of the above combinations she/he can identify with and how the candidate can be characterized as, so that they can support each other for a common goal. Again, let me repeat, that this is very simplified scenario, because obviously there are many other personal characteristics of the candidate that can have an impact on voter's decision such as likeability, humility, look, confidence, college affiliation, trustworthiness, and career to name a few. In addition to these personal attributes however there are societal identities that can play a role transparent to all previously mentioned adjectives. These are more important issues and can help empower certain associations that voter and candidate belong to or identify themselves with such as race, gender, national origin, and nowadays more often sexual orientation. I would call these later categories secondary attributes.
The question is which one of these parameters would lead in making a decision on the day-of-voting. Is it the fiscal, social orientation that helps us make the call or is it the identification with gender, race, and national origin, or a combination thereof? There is no simple answer to this question, especially if the primary and secondary attributes are at odds with each other, which appears to be so in our Iranian-American case this year. Some existing examples may help us understand the delicate situation we are facing now.
The League of Women Voters (LWV) is a prime example of a vehicle for empowering women in this country. The LWV is a national organization with state chapters around the country and more than 130 thousand members. The organization's name, like its mission, derives from the proud legacy of the women's suffrage movement:
The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan political organization, encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy.(mission statement)
Although the mission statement does not specifically talk about the women issues, a visit to the web site and a look at their publications make clear that they aim at many political hot topics from a feminist (in general terms) point of view and issue position statements based on that criteria. Note that supporting individual candidates would be beyond the non-partisan nature of the LWV.
Nevertheless, in order to officially endorse candidates, Political Action Committees with similar interests have developed such as the National Organization of Women's PAC (nowpacs.org) or the National Council of Women's Organizations (womensorganizations.org), both of which are proposing questions to candidates and make sure that only those who fit their criteria will be supported. NOW PACs base their endorsements on a broad feminist agenda. These issues include:
After the elections, NOW follows up with the officials who NOW PACs helped elect to make sure they are meeting these commitments. As we will see being a woman is not the only criterion for getting support from the NOW/PAC, nor is it THE requirement. Generally speaking men qualify for membership of LWV and some even qualify for getting financial support from women PACs, as long as they support the feminist agenda. Other Political Action Committees have also focused on issues relevant to their agendas and not just the association of an individual to their group.
Getting back to the issue at hand, meaning the Iranians participation in the US civic life and their support of candidates; we need to first establish our own criteria for support. We need to come up with a common denominator of Iranian interests in the US and develop questionnaires for testing candidates on issues. Some may think that having an Iranian in the congress would help us regardless of that individual's political tendencies. This is in my opinion a provincial approach to a modern political environment and may come from a cultural background that assumes for example that an Iranian police officer would ignore an Iranian's traffic violation, or a Shirazi judge would favor a Shirazi's problem in court. I am further puzzled however, with an announcement by the Iranian American Political Action Committee (IAPAC) which states;
“… the Iranian American Political Action Committee (IAPAC) is a registered bi-partisan federal political committee that contributes to candidates for federal office who are attuned to the domestic concerns of the American Iranian community. IAPAC focuses exclusively on domestic policy issues such as civil rights, immigration and civil liberties, and encourages Americans of Iranian descent to actively participate in the electoral process, to vote and run for political office. In forming IAPAC, the twenty-two founding trustees agreed that in order to provide a voice on domestic issues that unify our community, IAPAC's bylaws would exclude the organization from engaging on issues pertaining to U.S. foreign policy towards Iran.”
The final statement ignores the fact that all discriminations based on the national origin of Iranians is based on US-Iran relations. Looking at the example of Libya shows that all restrictions applied to Libyans such as travel regulations were dropped once the Lockerbie question and WMD concerns were resolved. It is very immature for example to expect IPAC to support a candidate without regarding their position on Israel-US relations, or to expect Armenian lobbyists to stay away from American relations with Turkey. The fact of the matter is that if we do not consider Iran and how to deal with it as an issue important to the community, what else would serve as adhesive or the common denominator for Iranians in the US?
It is obvious that the reason an Iranian scientist is barred from attending his laboratory (Dr. Shahram Rahatlou at San Diego's Stanford Laboratory) is not because he is Iranian, it is because his country of birth is on the list of countries at odds with the US administration. If Iranian scientists and students are not allowed to publish their papers in professional journals such as IEEE, it is because Iran is under embargo by the US. If the exhibition of art and culture from Iran is minimal compared even to the 90s it is simply due to US-Iran relations.
The only justification for the denial of a US visa to Iranian relatives, parents and grandparents, after being forced to travel to third countries and waiting for months for clearances, hide behind the lack of political relations between the two countries. Similarly if an Iranian entrepreneur can not import products from Iran and has to go through lots of labeling scams to be able to sell Persian tuna or caviar in the States, it is because of the boycott of trade with Iran.
I cannot imagine there are many issues that hurt us as Iranian Americans but are not related to the US foreign policy towards Iran or are not related to the attitudes of Iranian-Americans towards their old country. I agree that this is the sticky point and divides our people here in exile, but it is also important to realize that this very critical issue should define who we are and how we want to function as a political force. We have to ask ourselves whom we want to identify with, i.e. with those who disrupt Shirin Ebadi's appearances, showing of Iranian films in festivals, academic conferences on Iran, and Iranian national soccer team games in the US or with those who arrange these exchanges.
Clearly though these behaviors are not unique to us, the Cuban expatriates in Florida have also had objected to baseball games or music concerts by Cubans from the island. In any case these different internal views have their respective external allies in the US partisan scene and as such, if one has nothing in common with a group one should not be expected to vote for its candidate either. Hence, I insist that it is premature to demand Iranian participation in this year's elections without regards to the US foreign policy towards Iran.
Note that I am not taking a position on which direction would be more worthy of support, but I do encourage all of us to take part and show our strength in empowering different and sometimes opposing segments of our community as we associate ourselves with the political system in the US. An examination of Cuban-American dynamics in Florida confirms that at the end of the day they were the deciding factor that selected the US president in 2000. I suggest that it could be a chance for Iranian-Americans to play that role in 2004 by winning California for one of the candidates. In another piece I will talk about our first and only congressional candidate Ms. Goli Ameri.
Author Goudarz Eghtedari is a writer, radio producer, human rights advocate, and peace activist by choice and an engineer and educator by profession. He resides in Portland, Oregon.