I wasn’t supposed to be American. But the 1979 Iranian revolution changed that.
Instead, I was born and raised in the Washington, DC area. Six years ago, after graduating from the University of Maryland with a double major in Persian Studies and Government & Politics, I decided to move to Iran. Most of my friends were worried about me, but my Iranian-American friends knew what was up. They envied me. Rarely any American other than our own community has the opportunity to experience Iran, and it made me feel special.
I was paying off my student loans at the time and I had little money to take with me after purchasing my ticket to Tehran. At the time, U.S. sanctions on Iran were at their toughest, and Iran’s nuclear program was at its most advanced — in short, it was clear that sanctions weren’t hurting anyone except the Iranian people.
Once I arrived and got a job as an English teacher, I experienced firsthand the impacts of U.S. sanctions and saw what life was truly like for my 35 cousins, aunts, uncles and the millions of other Iranians.
There was the time I saw an ambulance suddenly stop on the road to buy drugs off the street — U.S. sanctions blocked the sale of medicines from entering the country legally.
And the time I couldn’t afford to buy mixed nuts for the Persian New Year table with my teacher’s salary.
I met taxi drivers with PhDs, working several jobs to support their families.
My elderly grandmother couldn’t afford to have guests over anymore, telling me it would be “aberu rizi” (embarrassing) if guests came and left hungry.
My male friends would tell me funny stories of arranged engagements with wealthier cousins or family friends — I didn’t find the stories amusing. It was sad.
The United States’ decision to pull out of the Iran Deal feels like such a sucker punch in the gut. No, it feels like being choked.
Living under sanctions often feels like living in a prison. The only connection to the outside world were satellite dishes, which were illegal. But if you walk into any home in Tehran, you will see CNN or some other international news station playing on TV. Every few weeks, police would raid apartment buildings and satellite dishes would be taken down. Days later, they’d once again be quickly reinstalled.
Despite these hardships, I loved living in Iran. I loved being in a country where my first language and my culture were the norm. Where it smelled like mamanjoon’s house everywhere. Where everyone looked like me. Life was tough, but it was home. And although I grew up in the United States, Iran was familiar, as if my parents’ memories and photographs had come alive before my eyes.
Life in Iran was bittersweet. And in the back of my mind, I still felt lucky that my parents moved to the United States.
However, it was the United States that made Iran what it is today. No Iranian will ever forget that the United States was responsible for a coup that overthrew a popular, democratically elected leader in 1953. Mohammad Mossadegh wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil, but American and Western business interests took precedence over Iran’s independence and democracy, which resulted in Mossadegh’s removal. It ultimately led to the Iranian people revolting against the Western-propped dictator Reza Shah, and the mullahs taking the opportunity to seize power ever since 1979.
But I felt the time was ripe for a positive shift in relations. And I wanted to be a part of that.
When I returned to America from my year in Iran, I was determined to get involved in politics and use my experience to help push for a change in U.S. policy that I knew would help improve life in Iran. I believed that Iranian Americans were the bridge, and that we were in a unique position to unite our seemingly intractable and contradictory identity.
And with the Iran Deal gone, it feels like America has locked the window for an unforeseeable future, with no caring for the people inside.
As the world witnessed in 2009, and in the election of Rouhani in 2013, young Iranians (who are the majority) want a chance to rebuild what the previous generations started in 1953 with Mossadegh. Countless human rights activists in Iran agreed – a diplomatic agreement that lifted crippling sanctions would benefit and empower Iran’s youth in that endeavor.
I began working with the Iranian-American community, using my digital advocacy and organizing skills to push for diplomacy. It was exciting to witness public support in the United States building around the two years of tough negotiations between the Iranian and American diplomats. I felt the Iranian-American community becoming whole again — and for imprisoned Americans, like the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, improved relations meant reuniting with family.
When the deal was struck, the energy I felt was electric. I was receiving celebratory messages from my friends and family in Iran, and many in the U.S. witnessed the celebrations in the streets of Tehran on their living room televisions. It was like an invisible wall had been lifted — finally, my American friends would be able to empathize with real Iranians. And for Iranians it was like someone had cracked a window open after years of suffocating sanctions. Fresh air is hard to come by in Iran.
Then came Trump.
The United States’ decision to pull out of the Iran Deal feels like such a sucker punch in the gut. No, it feels like being choked. I’ve been an emotional wreck the past two days. I’m tired of my people being used as political pawns.
Dishonoring the deal added major insult to injury – following Trump’s decision during his first week in office to sign the Muslim Ban. The window was slammed shut. And with the Iran Deal gone, it feels like America has locked the window for an unforeseeable future, with no caring for the people inside.
Which leaves me wondering: what if my parents had never left? And what does it mean to be an Iranian American? Had I not been born in this country, would my life be worth less in the eyes of the “world’s greatest democracy”? America is nothing without the belief that all men are created equal, and without the values of freedom and democracy. By shutting out Iranians through sanctions, we’re robbing them of their freedoms. We are also robbing them of their autonomy, and ability to rebuild their country.
We should have learned in 1953 that how our country conducts foreign policy today will reverberate into the future. Let’s make sure that our lawmakers understand that our blunders today could lead to unnecessary conflict. As we can learn from Iranians — we, the people are the keepers of our country’s values. And with that, I say: forget Trump. Save the Iran Deal.