For the Iranian-American community, Donald Trump’s inauguration bodes the end of an era where a U.S. president commemorated their new year, paid attention to their concerns and desired to engage, not spur conflict, with their homeland.
Though heavily affected by U.S.-Iran tensions, Iranian-Americans have struggled to translate their impressive education and financial power into political influence in Washington. While many within the community have long called for a counterbalance to the unbridled influence of groups stoking perennial U.S.-Iran conflict ― often in line with hard-line pro-Israel, Saudi and MEK-aligned Iranian opposition goals ― reticence to engage the policy-making process is still prevalent. However, the successful fight for the Iran nuclear deal demonstrated that Iranian-Americans finally have a voice in Washington. The question is: How can this voice be maximized?
“Iranian-Americans finally have a voice in Washington. The question is: How can this voice be maximized?”
The impending Trump administration threatens many long-fought-for Iranian-American gains, particularly but not limited to the nuclear deal. The specter of Trump ― who on separate occasions has promised to “dismantle” or “renegotiate” the nuclear deal and has thus far assembled a cabinet and national security council dominated by vociferous anti-Iran hard-liners ― has some worried he may even provoke a war with Iran. If the deal is to be preserved, a catastrophic war averted and potential institutionalized discrimination from the demagogic Trump prevented, it is imperative for the Iranian-American community to further empower itself.
Efforts to push back against war talk and mobilize Iranian-Americans to stand up for their rights date back years. Groups such as the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) ― both with physical operations in Washington ― have long sought to organize the Iranian-American community. NIAC for its part has actively stood against hawkish rhetoric and detrimental sanctions policies towards Iran, but has had to compete against powerful interest groups with far more money and political clout.
Iranian-American Voices Made Impact at Highest Levels
In terms of influencing Washington, existing Iranian-American groups and activists have achieved varying degrees of success. A useful barometer to gauge their effectiveness is access to the White House, which may change under Trump but nonetheless reflects an ability to conduct high-level policy advocacy. President Barack Obama’s second term was in fact a decisive turning point in this regard, marking the first time a U.S. administration was willing to expend political capital on diplomacy towards Iran and listen to the wants of the Iranian-American community.
Beginning in 2013, the administration turned its ear away from more hawkish elements in the Iranian-American community and towards more dovish ones. For example, according to visualizations by the tech company Graphiq compiled from the Obama White House’s official visitor records, Ray Takeyh, a hard-line Iranian-American writer affiliated with the neoconservative Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, has reportedly visited the Obama White House only three times, the last of which was in January 2012.
After Obama’s reelection and the start of revitalized nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 world powers and the Iranian government of Hassan Rouhani, the White House turned to other voices in the Iranian-American community. Indeed, while the perception among some in the public has been that the lobbying battle surrounding the Iran deal was largely between rival pro-Israel groups, namely the vehemently anti-Iran American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the pro-diplomacy J Street, Iranian-American groups played a critical role as well.
“During the nuclear negotiations, the Obama White House consulted with Iranian-American experts.”
During the nuclear negotiations, the Obama White House consulted with Iranian-American experts and organizations who shared its seriousness about getting to a deal and were seen as trustworthy ― given leaks of sensitive details regarding the talks had been a repeat issue for the administration. Leading the pack was NIAC President Trita Parsi, who reportedly had 29 White House meetings from 2013 to 2016, not too far behind J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami’s reported 44 meetings. These numbers and the numbers following are from a database that compiles all visits released to date by the White House. Unlike the official White House website, this tool formats them into lists (the specific numbers here reflect the number of meetings, which subtracts events from the total number of visits.) Parsi met with officials ranging from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and National Security Council Director for Iran Sahar Nowrouzzadeh to Vice President Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser Colin Kahl.
Others prominent Iranian-American policy voices in favor of the nuclear negotiations also received access to the administration. Vali Nasr, the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, reportedly had three meetings at the White House with NSC Middle East coordinator Rob Malley. Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a prominent sanctions supporter, meanwhile, reportedly had only three meetings between 2009 and 2016.
Iranian-American Reactions to Trump
Iranian-Americans are a diverse community politically and geographically spread out across the United States. The most commonly held perspective within the community is of extreme concern about Trump’s stances on Iran, civil rights issues, as well as his general bullish attitude. Like many other Americans, many Iranian-Americans fear there will be massive retrogression on all levels, from domestic to foreign policy, and a degradation of the dignity of the presidential office.
Others are more optimistic, viewing Trump as a transactional businessman who is pragmatic and non-ideological, and therefore in a different camp than Republican neoconservatives. They are hopeful he will see the benefits of business opportunities in opening up to Iran.
On the other hand, some expats are hopeful for a Trump that stokes a hardline with Iran and increases pressure on the country.
“The most commonly held perspective within the community is of extreme concern about Trump’s stances on Iran, civil rights issues, as well as his general bullish attitude.”
These differences were exemplified by a series of opposing letters sent by Iranian-Americans to Trump regarding the nuclear deal. In December, Fox News reported exclusively on a letter signed by 30 dissidents, most of whom are likely Iranian-American, calling on Trump to scrap the deal and topple the Iranian government. The story stated that the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), described by the State Department as the “political arm” of the notorious MEK, reportedly has “supporters among some in Trump’s circle.”
The letter spurred immense derision on Iranian social media. It also elicited another group of Iranian-Americans, composed of prominent artists, academics, human rights activists, scientists, and business leaders, to write a letter in support of the nuclear deal.
Maximizing the Iranian-American Voice
Despite President-elect Trump’s belligerent comments about Iran and threats to overtly discriminate against Americans of a Muslim background, Iranian-Americans should not despair. They have a formidable advocacy apparatus in Washington in NIAC in particular, one that is sympathetic to Iranian society and opposed to war and draconian sanctions. With that said, however, the reality is that Iranian-Americans are still falling short of meeting their civic engagement potential.
“If the deal is to be preserved, a catastrophic war averted and ... discrimination from ... Trump prevented, it is imperative for the Iranian-American community to further empower itself.”
In order to attain the political influence that the size, wealth and education of the Iranian-American community merits, more Iranian-Americans need to more deeply engage the policy-making process. Foremost, this means recognizing and bolstering the groups and individuals that have proven to be effective champions of causes Iranian-Americans care about ― whether it be sustaining the nuclear deal, preventing military action against Iran, or safeguarding their civil rights within the United States. Just as important, however, it means taking the initiative to directly contact members of Congress, hold community-organizing events, and even run for office. Only through such political assertiveness and involvement can the Iranian-American community ensure it will be a political force to be reckoned with in the uncertain times that lie ahead.
Sina Toossi is a senior research specialist at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He tweets @SinaToossi.