Why many Iranian-Americans are wary of Tehran, and vice versa

Iranian-Americans have long kept a low political profile in America but, as US-Iran tensions escalate, that is changing. They are worried not only about war, but also about possible reprisals against them from Iran.

By , Staff writer

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    Iranian-American Amir Hekmati has been sentenced to death by Iran’s Revolutionary Court on the charge of spying.
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When, in early January, Iran sentenced Arizona-born Iranian-American Amir Hekmati to death for allegedly spying for the CIA, the case cast a spotlight on a prosperous American community that had long lived under the radar. Not anymore.

With US-Iran tensions rising over recent months to what some fear is the brink of war, a community that long shunned politics in favor of professional and academic advancement is ramping up its profile.

And signs are growing that the Iranian regime has taken notice and is acting to chill the trend. Activists in the United States cite the Hekmati case, but also warnings in the form of Facebook and other electronic messages sent to Iranian-Americans who have gone public with pro-democracy views.

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Even the mysterious mid-January murder in Houston of a young Iranian-American woman, Gelareh Bagherzadeh, who had converted to Christianity and taken up the cause of human rights in Iran, has some Iranian-Americans wondering who is behind a killing that has stumped police. She was shot in her car five days after Iran vowed to retaliate for the killing of a nuclear scientist in Tehran.

For years after the advent of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Iranian-Americans kept their heads down, focusing on professional practices and business pursuits in enclaves in northern New Jersey and in Washington, D.C.; Dallas; and "Tehrangeles" – which boasts the largest concentration of Iranians outside Iran. But Iran's captivating yet ultimately unsuccessful "Green Revolution" in June 2009 awakened a hope for change that has led to a rise of political activity in the US, many Iranian-Americans say. Increasingly, the activity of a community that maintains very close ties to Iran is aimed at influencing US-Iran relations.

The case of Mr. Hekmati, age 28, a former US Marine and video-game specialist who, according to his family, went to Tehran last summer to visit his grandmothers, suggests the close-knit nature of Iranian-Americans' relations with their homeland. By some estimates, as many as a quarter of the approximately 1 million Iranian-American US citizens and residents visit Iran every year.

"A lot of people thought it was actually pretty crazy for someone to go to Iran who had been working for the US [military]. It's hard to see how anyone could expect to keep their identity unknown," says Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, a New York-based Iranian journalist and blogger who came to the US after being jailed for his work in Tehran in 2004. "It was risky, but it shows how even for people born in the US, it's important to go back to Iran."

That closeness to family back in Iran is a large part of what drives Iranian-American opinion on US-Iran relations. They don't want bombs falling on Tehran, and for the most part they don't want ever-tighter sanctions that, opinion polls show, they believe will hurt the general population without prompting the mullah-led regime to change course.

"When Iranian-Americans go to Iran, they are visiting parents and siblings and first cousins. It's not distant cousins in some ancestral home, and that has an important influence on how they view relations between the two countries," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) in Washington. "Surveys show that sanctions are not supported by the majority of the people, and as for a military attack," he adds, "that idea gets less than 5 percent support."

Many Iranian-Americans agree that it was the promise of the aborted Persian Spring in June 2009, when the Iranian regime successfully silenced a blossoming pro-democracy movement through brutal repression, that got a largely quiet US community to act.

"There has been an uptick in political activity in the Iranian-American community, and you can tie that to the 2009 uprising and the hopes it raised that change in Iran is possible," says Majid Roshani, a Virginia pharmacist and spokesman for the US Committee for Camp Ashraf Residents, which lobbies for protection of an antiregime Iranian population living in a refugee camp in Iraq.

Even though the Green Revolution failed, Mr. Roshani says, it "shattered a prevailing feeling among Iranian-Americans of 'what's the use?' when it came to antiregime activity. When you saw Iranians ready to die for change," he adds, "it raised this need to get involved."

Mr. Parsi says he founded NIAC in 2002 to involve Iranian-Americans in American domestic issues. But what he claims has become the largest grass-roots organization of Iranian-Americans has shifted its attention outward as world powers have focused more on Iran. "It was really the world focusing more on Iran that turned us toward diplomatic issues like dealing with Iran's nuclear program," he says.

Despite a common disdain for Iran's Islamic regime, Iranian-Americans are not a united community, experts in and out of the community agree.

"There was some unity in supporting the 2009 demonstrations, but that's pretty much gone now," says Mr. Mirebrahimi, the New York journalist. "Maybe there is a common desire about replacing the Iranian regime," he adds, "but then that unity breaks down into a thousand views on how to replace it and with what."

Perhaps the most glaring division in the Iranian-American community is over the People's Mujahideen of Iran (known by its Persian acronym MEK), a radical antiregime organization that received asylum from Saddam Hussein and mounted attacks against Iran from its Iraqi base. The group, the organization behind the refugees of Camp Ashraf, says it has renounced violence and is seeking to be removed from the US list of terrorist organizations.

A State Department review is in progress, but in the meantime groups like NIAC are lobbying for the designation to remain. Many Iranian-Americans say they will never forgive the MEK for siding with Mr. Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War.

Parsi worries about something else. He says that, once delisted, what he calls a "marginal group with virtually no support inside Iran" would "position themselves as the face of the opposition, and the real pro-democracy forces inside the country and out would be overshadowed."

Mr. Roshani, the Camp Ashraf spokesman, says that while he is not an MEK member, he does see it as "the only organized group that is capable of bringing change to Iran."

Divisions or no, it's the desire for change in Iran among Iranian-Americans that the regime seems bent on squelching.

The Iranian regime has never executed an American, and most experts don't think it will start with Hekmati. His sentence is being appealed. But Iranian-Americans who received Facebook and e-mail messages in 2009 warning them of the consequences for visitors to Iran of their pro-Green activities say the message behind the Hekmati case is clear: We are watching, and if you actively oppose us, we will act to stop you when we can.

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