As long as we are to distinguish ourselves as Iranians-Americans, the stigma associated with Iranians in US foreign policy, including general social stereotypes, will inhibit our abilities to be a factor in policy making. Unless we can humanize the “Iranian” voice, the “Iranian-American” has little chance of effectuating political or social change.
Rather, as a community, the “Iranian-American” will need to resort to internal adaptation, or assimilation, rather than external appreciation. That is, instead of the average American being capable of associating with and understanding the “Iranian”, our voice will only be reasonable through assimilation and rejection of the “Iranian” self. Of course, there are those who would disagree with this statement, but it is for such reason that I write this piece.
The effectiveness of any lobby group is to make the general community understand its grievances. In particular, by using methods of association, the general public is capable of understanding the plight of minority groups and persuading them to support their opinions. Without association, the general public cannot relate to the minority. Therefore, the most effective method of gaining support is by having the majority relate to the grievances of the minority.
It is for such reason that Israeli lobbying groups in America are effective. The average American can “understand” the hardships and pains Israeli's go through with post-9/11 terrorism. They can relate to their pains and as such Israeli lobbying groups can push for policies against Palestinians, who are considered “foreign.”
For the most part, “Iranian-Americans” have appropriated the role of speaking for “Iranians.” As if to say, at least in passing, that “Iranians” do not have a voice worth listening to. I always find it ironic that we praise “Iranians” for their intelligence, strength, and courage, and ultimately never allow their voices to resonate in the United States.
How many of our political institutions translate the works of authors and scholars in Iran? How many of our lobbying groups have representatives in Iran in order to proliferate “Iranian” points of view? And if so, how many of those “connections” with student groups contain one-sided political perspectives. One would expect that with the diversity of Iranian opinion, there would be diverse voices. Yet, rarely, if ever, do we find Iranian academic journals or even newspapers that are translated and distributed in America.
There's a secondary problem with not facilitating the “Iranian” voice, we assume that the Iranian in America speaks for the “Iranian.” The fallacy of this argument has been described in passing. Simply put, the Diaspora, by its very definition, does not live in Iran. Yes, we care for the issues facing Iran. Yes, the human rights problem is horrendous and the political autocracy is atrocious. However, we do not live in Iran. And until we do, one cannot fully understand the needs of Iranians.
I have heard many stories from those in the Diaspora who visit Iran for 2-3 weeks or months, and come back with a revelation of what the people must want. Ultimately, however, those opinions are never based on fact, but rather subjective association. The circumstances of ones specific surroundings then lend weight to their “political opinion” about Iran.
If on a visit, my family lives in Niavaran, takes me to darband, and gives me daily tours to Tajrish Square, I am sure two conclusions will be drawn: one that Iranian women are extremely beautiful and two that the country is fairly modern and developed. Clearly, living in Qom or Kashan would extend different perspectives. Can we say residency in Oklahoma versus California would change our views on American diversity? Absolutely, and the same applies with Iran. As such, the Diaspora should not dictate policies against Iran.
Lastly, as Iranian-Americans we must be conscious of our American selves. We live and receive benefits and freedoms protected by the law here. Reciprocally we owe an allegiance to this country. This is not to say, “it is our way or no way.” Rather, that our objective should never be to push for policies intended to the detriment of America. Rather to push policies in which will allow America to better understand the conditions of Iranians.
It is in America's interest to help Iran to become a more free and democratic country. However, that transformation can only be accomplished with a deeper sense of understanding of how Iranian politics and society functions, than of what “Iranian-Americans” think should occur.
About Nema Milaninia is a law student in Southern California and owner of the weblog Iranian Truth.