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For Iranian-Americans, the focus is on America

With  elections in Iran Friday, Iranian-Americans expect a spate of stories to focus on their hopes for their homeland. But, by and large, they'd settle for some sign that their  new homeland accepts them.  By Michael Moran.
Iranian Americans cheer during the first National Convention for a Democratic, Secular Iran in Washington
Iranian Americans cheer during the first National Convention for a Democratic Secular Iran in Washington in April.Jason Reed / Reuters file

Four days after St. Patrick’s Day, Siobhan Clery is walking cross-town and comes upon a crowd of banner-wearing marchers making their way down Madison Ave. “I thought it was the Irish again,” says Clery, a bartender on Manhattan’s lower east side. “But then I saw the flag was all wrong, and there were signs in Arabic and people with signs about Iran. And I got a bit scared by that.”

In fact, the signs were in Farsi, Iran’s national language, and the parade on March 20 was anything but threatening: the second annual festival marking the Persian New Year, or Nowruz, which draws tens of thousands of Iranian-American families in the New York area. But for Iranian-Americans, a growing and increasingly successful slice of the American ethnic pie, the confusion and negative feelings expressed by the 24-year-old bartender are nothing new.

“I’m so sorry to hear that story, but it doesn’t surprise me,” says Dokhi Fassihian, executive director of the National Iranian American Council. “We’ve been working very hard, especially since 9/11 and the backlash that Iranian-Americans felt, to get the larger society aware and educated about our culture and heritage. So this kind of ignorance is something we’ve dealt with. But I have to say, in a large part, it’s the fault of our own community for trying to hide and not be noticed and not get involved politically.”

New nation, new priorities
With Iran holding a presidential election Friday – a vote denounced Thursday by President Bush as a farce aimed at cementing hard-line Islamic clerics in power – Iranian-Americans know they will see a spate of stories around the nation about their hopes and dreams for the land of their ancestors. Many will eagerly await voting results, holding out hope that the most reform-minded of the candidates will fare better than those closely associated with the strict “Guardian Council” of Ayatollah Khamenei, whose Islamic policies are widely loathed by the Iranian diaspora here.

At the same time, Iranian-Americans often view the caricature of their homeland -- blood-thirsty, anti-American zealots -- as a major impediment to happiness in the United States.

"The large majority of Iranian Americans, based on our letter-writing campains to Congress on legislation, do not support a confrontational approach. They don't think confrontation would benefit either peoples," says Fassihian.

Keeping a low profile
While a small and highly active minority of the Iranian-American community has remained active in pushing for a hawkish American approach to Iran ever since the Shah was toppled in 1979, the majority have kept a low profile. The community "basically decided that politics was not their business," says Babak Sotoodeh, an Iranian-American attorney from Santa Ana, Calif. "They tried to blend in instead of educating people about who they were, and that has turned out to be the wrong approach."

That approach has its roots in the community's tumultuous history. Iranians began emigrating to the U.S. during the reign of the Shah, a U.S. ally, in the 1960s. “Then, after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and all through the 1980s, people came because they had been driven out, and that group kept their head down. There was a backlash directed at Iranian-Americans after the hostage crisis in 1979, Sotoodeh says, and so the community went almost underground. "They prospered and felt secure here, but when 9/11 happened and there was again a backlash, they were shocked."

Iranian-Americans, along with many non-Arab Muslims and others, found themselves increasingly scrutinized as the United States ramped up security and immigration procedures following the 9/11 attacks.

“That showed us something was wrong,” says Sotoodeh, who helped Iranian-American families caught up in post-9/11 bureaucracy. "I tried to speak to the immigration and law enforcement people, tried to tell them they were jailing innocent people. But they said things like, 'You should be happy to be here.' I’ve been here 30 years, and here they were treating me, because of my heritage, like suddenly I had no right to speak out."

Mixed policy reviews
While the Iranian community takes some of the blame for the generally uneducated views that Americans show toward them, they also blame simplistic depictions of Iran by both politicians and the media.

Hossein Derakhshan, the best known of the thousands of webloggers who have defied Iranian authorities and posted pro-democracy views on their websites, sees some of the images that Americans hold of Iranians as the result of careless accusations.

Derakhshan is currently in Iran exploiting “a window of opportunity” connected to the elections -- a time when he feels the regime won’t risk arresting dissidents like him.

“How can you say Iranians are the primary state sponsor of terrorism while not even a single Iranian has been involved in any act of terrorism after 9/11?,” he asked in a blog entry after President Bush's State of the Union address in January. “And how dare he talks about the reform in Saudi Arabia while almost all Islamic terrorist groups around the world are funded by rich Saudis, many of them with strong ties to the Royal family?”

Close to home
Most Iranian-Americans, like most people of any group, regard the debates over American foreign policy and Middle East politics as fairly distant from the day-to-day realities of life. There are about 1 million Iranian-Americans in the U.S., with concentrations in Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey, Seattle and Houston. The 2000 U.S. Census found 72,000 in Los Angeles County alone. Given the size of the community, many say that it is wrong to depict them as being on the edges of their seats awaiting the results of an election in a far off land that many of have never visited.

There is much to crow about, too. According to the 2000 Census, Iranian-Americans are the most highly educated ethnic group in the United States, with 27 percent of their children attaining a graduate degree by the age of 25. Twenty percent of Iranian-Americans, according to the Census, reported living in houses valued at over $500,000.

“We are one of the most highly educated ethnic groups in America, and one of the wealthiest," says Fassihian, "and we still can’t keep our grandmothers from being harassed at the airport." So since 9/11, he said, there’s been an enormous push to get Iranian culture and heritage understood by the wider American public. "That parade in New York was a part of that effort," Fassihian said. “We decided it is just not acceptable that we be invisible."