The Silence of the Iranian Lambs
The Silence of the Iranian Lambs

JURIST Guest Columnist A. John Radsan of William Mitchell College of Law, president of the Iranian-American Bar Association, says that while the silence of Iranian-Americans in the midst of rising tensions between the US and Iran may have been benign up until now, recent history suggests that members of the community may soon need to speak up for themselves and for their rights…

If silence is significant, Iranian-Americans have made great news by having little to do with official relations between the United States and Iran. As the two governments exchange proposals and threats about Iran’s enrichment of uranium, a group with over 500,000 people has not done much to influence policies that affect their homelands. Even if Iranian-Americans have not shaped a strategy to deal with Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, they should at least be commended for not helping either the United States or Iran make a case for war.

Even by the low standards of the Middle East, we Iranian-Americans are disorganized. As tragedy unfolded on September 11, we knew before others that Iranians had nothing to do with those attacks. Unlike the Saudis in the plot, Iranians would have argued about who should fly the planes. Some Iranians, dissatisfied with their titles, would have huffed off before take-off. In our dark humor, we recognized our lack of team play, our pathology in preferring to be the president of a small group rather than the vice president of a much larger group. For better or worse, we have mainly rendered ourselves neutral.

Iranian-Americans differ from the Iraqi exile community that helped to shape (or to distort) American policy toward Iraq. Yes, most of us follow the news in Iran. Yes, some of us travel there. But very few of us affect policies in Tehran or Washington. We talk more than we accomplish. At home, we dream to be like other ethnic groups: Indian-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Rarely do we network as they do. When we do, it leads more often to arguments than to deals. Iranian-Americans who have succeeded in business—Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar and many others—keep a careful distance from the group. Not many Iranian-Americans have been elected to public positions, and not many have been appointed.

Iranian-Americans split along many lines. Some came here before the 1979 revolution in Iran. Some came during the revolution. Some came much later. Some are citizens, some resident aliens. Some are rich, some poor. Some are secular, some devout. Of the religious, most are Muslim, but some are Christian, some Jewish. Most are Persians, but some are Azeri, Arab, Kurdish or Baluchi. The Iranian-American scene in Washington differs from the scene in Texas. And Los Angeles, renamed “Tehrangeles,” is a world apart.

The Bush Administration has not necessarily ignored us. Sometimes it has considered how it can use us. But as a senior State Department official once told me, back when I ran an “Iran Commercial Initiative” for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there may not be anyone who speaks for a unified Iranian-American community. One group that is organized, the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MKO), is on the American terrorism list and does not have much support in Iran.

Iranian-Americans, in California and elsewhere, do have a diffuse influence on the Iranian nation. Between the United States and Iran, there is a two-way flow of people, books, movies, radio programs, and satellite television. As a result, Iranians are probably more pro-American than people in Saudi Arabia, America’s supposed ally in the region.

By our inaction, Iranian-Americans may actually be doing a service. We have learned from the Iraqi quagmire. For us, it would be irresponsible to feed the fantasies of an instant change in Iranian regimes. Democracy is not easily transplanted to the Middle East. Change is more likely to come gradually from within than to be imposed from without. Those are some of our lessons.

Unlike the time when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from exile, it is not possible today for an Iranian who has lived away from his homeland to return there as a leader. Iranians have been through too much — a long war with Iraq, sanctions, economic stagnation, and oppression — to accept a Pahlavi prince from Virginia. The powerful Iranian regime, led by a “Supreme Leader,” still divides the country into two groups: insiders who are part of the clerical establishment and outsiders who are not. Iranian-Americans, cast between two countries, are not a part of that equation.

For our two countries, we will hope for the best. Perhaps the United States and Iran can negotiate through the impasse. But we should also plan for the worst. Perhaps the United States will attack Iran. In that event, learning from our experiences during the 444 days of the hostage crisis, we should be organized enough to prevent ourselves from being scapegoats for angry Americans at home. The risk is that the slurs and insults that were common here in 1979-1981 will descend into American internment camps. For us, from international politics to domestic politics, silence has its limits.

A. John Radsan, associate professor at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota, is president of the Iranian-American Bar Association, a national organization with chapters in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles.

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