Diaspora Blues: Why the Iranian Diaspora in the United States Disappoints Me

It almost seems like a criterion for being Middle Eastern is thinking there is a conspiracy behind every event. As an Iranian-American, I cannot claim to have been immune to conspiracy theories.
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It almost seems like a criterion for being Middle Eastern is thinking there is a conspiracy behind every event. As an Iranian-American, I cannot claim to have been immune to conspiracy theories. I spent some time in Washington, D.C., this fall, where conspiracies regarding "the lobby that controls U.S. foreign policy," the American Israel Public Affairs Committee -- better known by its acronym AIPAC -- seemed to crumble right before my very eyes.

During my time in Washington, I attended various conferences and mingled with professionals well-acquainted with U.S. policy on Iran, only to learn that we, the Iranian Diaspora, are the ones who allow this to happen.

There is no dispute that the current economic sanctions on Iran are hurting Iranian civilians more than the Islamic regime. Stories of Iranian students unable to pay for their studies in Canada and Sweden because of sanctions on banks seem to be on the back burner. Certain medical supplies cannot reach patients in Iran because of these same sanctions.

Ali Sofizadeh* comes from a family of doctors who studied in the United States but work in Iran. He says, "There's no anesthesia for surgeries, patients who have multiple sclerosis are also facing all kinds of medical shortages."

As highlighted in a recent article published by the BBC, "Although trade in medicine is exempt from international sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council and the unilateral sanctions announced by the U.S. and EU, Iranian importers say Western banks have been declining to handle it."

Placing restrictions on the Islamic Republic's Central Bank has financially isolated Iran in every means possible, restricting the flow of all forms of money into and out of the country.

Many forget that up until Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, a similar incident troubled the basic lives of the Iraqi people. The United Nations reports an estimated 2,690 to 5,357 infants died of malnutrition-related illnesses every month; many faulting sanctions that restricted food and medicine to Iraq since the Gulf War in 1991. Although there was a loophole in the sanctions, known as the Oil-for-Food Program, which allowed Saddam to sell oil as long as the money was used for non-military purposes.

I know that the Diaspora has its reservations about the regime. Some are Monarchist or regime sympathizers, others are Leftists, and then there are those who are conflicted in the middle or apathetic towards politics, folks who tend not to associate themselves with the political climate. But as people suffer in a homeland many still associate themselves with, whether they call themselves 'Persian' or 'Iranian,' with a longing to go back, how can we allow our political views to get in the way of humanity?

This political apathy on behalf of the Diaspora must end.

According to a study by MIT in 2004, "The 2000 census data suggests that the Iranian ancestral group have educational attainments that greatly surpass the national average... With more than 27 percent of Iranian-Americans over the age of 25 having a graduate degree or above, Iranian-Americans are the most highly educated ethnic group in the United States." Let's not forget how well off we are in terms of income: "The per capita average income for Iranian-Americans is 50 percent higher than that of the nation [United States], while family average income is 38 percent higher."

Need I mention the number of prominent Iranian-Americans who have 'made it' and which we often refer to by name with pride? Christiane Amanpour, Emmy-winning news correspondent for CNN; Anousheh Ansari, first female private space explorer; Bobak Ferdowsi, NASA's heartthrob engineer also known as 'Mohawk Guy'; Pierre Omidyar, co-founder of eBay; Vali Nasr, Dean of John Hopkins' SAIS; and Cyrus Habib, the first Iranian-American voted into a state congress. Must I press any further?

It is always easier to point fingers at others than solve problems ourselves. This is why I think the Diaspora tends to be seemingly perplexed and perpetuates conspiracies such as how AIPAC dominates American foreign policy.

Trita Parsi, president of National Iranian American Council (NIAC) highlights brilliantly how the system works:

Within the American democracy, the influence of a group directly correlates to the extent and intensity of its participation in all aspects of the political system -- everything from engagement in the public debate to volunteering, voting and political fundraising, and to running for office. The system is geared towards rewarding intense participation and punishing self-marginalization and apathy.

Truth be told, views can be shifted. Given our success as a Diaspora, we have plenty of leeway.

This past October, I attended NIAC's annual leadership conference. I then sat back and watched 150 Iranian-Americans convince twelve members of congress, solely by speaking with their congressional aides "to take the additional steps necessary so that food, medicine, and humanitarian relief can reach Iran." If all it takes is constituents voicing their concerns to their local representatives alongside some donations during election campaigns, do you think we cannot change policy on Iran? I find myself admiring the Jewish community's ability to mobilize and prioritize issues most important to them. Why can't we?

Given a history of authoritarianism in Iran, perhaps it is imbedded in our culture to not meddle in politics. But the fact of the matter is we are no longer in Iran, but in the United States of America. Over are the days of agents of the regime coming door to door and looking for dissidents; now we have the First Amendment to protect our freedom of expression. As noted in a report on apathy of the Iranian Diaspora, "If Iranian-Americans don't write their own narratives, somebody else will tell their story for them; and that may be a story they don't like."

It is becoming clear that the generation of my parents and grandparents do not want to get involved, mostly because they spent their time trying to succeed in the United States and provide their children with opportunities, which is completely understandable. Now that their legacy is set, it is up to my generation -- those who were brought up in the United States and continue to feel connected to their parent's homeland -- to stand up for what is right.

There are many organizations to get involved with, for example: the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) and Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB). Although their agendas do not have as strong an emphasis on impacting U.S. foreign policy as NIAC's, they are good starting points for the new generation to get involved and raise awareness about sanctions on Iran. It is only a matter of time until the second generation of Iranian-Americans realizes that putting off the plight of Iranians living in Iran is a stopgap. The articles and stories from friends and family will only continue to increase and underline worse issues over time.

As I write this, Ali tells me about his housekeeper in Esfahan, "She has breast cancer, and the chemotherapy medication and all the other medications prescribed for subsiding side effects are not attainable... In general, there's a medicine shortage. Try to see if you can get someone's attention, lots of people are dying."

This is why I have written this, I am trying to get your attention.

* Name changed for the sake of privacy

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