Flying home from Los Angeles, I work to fit together the pieces of my visit with Iranian Americans there. It's more complicated than I expected. There are some constants: Everyone I spoke to wanted the current theocracy in Iran to loosen up on its own people and open up to the world, including America. At the same time, they opposed war vehemently, saying it'd be catastrophic for both nations.
The agreement ends there and a passionate debate begins over how to change (or reform) the Iranian regime short of war. Put simply, should America isolate or engage Iran? Different viewpoints split demographics, and even families. "Put three Iranians in a room and get five political parties in an hour," quips PostGlobal panelist Ali Ettefagh. Here's my glimpse in the parlor room.
Many established figures within the Iranian American community advocate isolating Iran politically and economically. Often having migrated before or just after the revolution with their families, these people feared persecution under the religious regime either for dealing with Shah Pahlavi or succeeding in spite of him. After decades away from their place of birth, these figures want regime change so they can visit their old homes.
Sam Kermanian, a staple member of the community and Secretary General of the Iranian American Jewish Federation argues that America must isolate Iran to push regime change because diplomacy is not an option. "To the Iranian people, their government is the enemy. If America were to talk to that government, the people would feel terribly betrayed…[which] would only extend the life of the regime."
Attempted reforms have failed, he says, and the time is right for revolution. Iran has a large, young population. Two-thirds are under the age of thirty. With few employment prospects and fewer social freedoms, they’re ready to revolt if America stands with them. So Sam calls for America to step up its financial and moral support for latent revolutionaries.
Bad idea say others like author Reza Aslan, diplomacy is the only way. With sharp gray glasses that match his shirt, the thirty-something author of "No God But God," who moved to the U.S. after the revolution, says bitingly, “Despite what wealthy 'Tehrangelinos'…who came here with their Swiss bank accounts and with their suitcases full of cash…think, the Iranian regime is firmly entrenched…. Change will come, but it will be gradual change, within the Islamic Republic."
He says that if America destabilizes Iran covertly, or starves it through sanctions, Iranians will turn against the U.S., emboldening hard line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and legitimating the old (Iranian) rhetoric of “westoxification” which was particularly salient when U.S. President Jimmy Carter seemed cozy with the Shah in the late 1970s. If America confronts Iran now, it will spread the will to sacrifice, and increase the risk of war
The young rappers, the artists and the students I spoke to all shared this fear that isolation could quickly turn to military confrontation. Comedian Maz Jobrani says it's best to be safe and sure and sums it up with "An evolution is better than a revolution.”
An Iranian mother named Sima agrees, but for a different reason. Sipping coffee she says, “One revolution per lifetime is enough.” Iranians are tired of violence and wouldn't rise up even with America's aid, she speculates. This is understandable, but not necessarily good. Revolutions can be worth it she says, but they're risky.
Former communist activist Farid Imam knows this all too well. He helped topple the shah in 1979 only to be tortured and imprisoned for six years by his pious successor Ayatollah Khomeini. Farid, wizened by age, tan and gruff breaks a mischievous smile and says, with understatement, “Removing the bad guy doesn’t mean the good guy wins.”
Those who came of political age during Iraq War II tend to agree. Born too close to the Iranian Revolution to remember it, and too far from it to forget Iraq II, they see daily how when Saddam goes, civil war comes. Talk first, talk second...and attack never, suggests the rapper Basic. “Look at Iraq! You expect America to do any better in Iran! We have no choice but diplomacy.”
Basic was born in southern California after the Iranian revolution. He wears a big chain around his neck, and endorses rap, and rapprochement. He opposes war at all costs, but his elders are different. They still seethe over their loss.
Professor Nasrin Rahimieh, the director of the center for Persian Studies at UC-Irvine tells me this distinction between the old generation and the new is common. “In my classes and my work, I often find young Iranian Americans are more willing to give the regime a second look that their parents would never offer it.” They are more willing to "want to spend time with dialog." Some of them even “tend to support the idea of Islamic governance…if done without violating human rights.”
There are a number of possible explanations for the youth’s gentler view of Iran: teenage rebellion, liberal education, objectivity born of distance, historical amnesia, fewer personal gripes, or favorable encounters with Iran during family visits. But my trip to L.A. highlighted one other, important motive for sympathizing -- relatively speaking -- with the Iranian regime, which has more to do with America than Iran.
“When you hear all these insulting things about Iran from classmates or whatever, you just want to set the record straight and tell them about all the beautiful things in Persian history…” says Basic. It’s not world politics; it’s personal. At the end of the day, Iranian Americans "just want to be able to call Iran their home, proudly."