A Tale of Two Diasporas
Iraqi exiles were gung-ho to overthrow Saddam. So why are Iranian-Americans so keen on dialogue with the mullahs who rule Iran?
An eerily familiar drumbeat of war is intensifying across Washington, just as the United States ends its decade-long adventure in Iraq. The ghosts of America’s neoconservative past have dusted off their Iraq playbook to make the case for war with Iran. Their formula is simple but effective: Portray the Iranian government and its nuclear program as existential threats, insist that a chain of catastrophic events will result from inaction, and minimize the costs and risks of war.
If one looks back, however, neoconservative officials in the U.S. government weren’t alone in their push for war with Iraq. A crucial aspect of selling the war to the U.S. public was support within the Iraqi-American community. Iraqi dissidents living abroad, such as Ahmed Chalabi and Kanan Makiya, as well as supposed whistle-blowers turned known fabricators like the infamous "Curveball," led a contingent of vocal Iraqis who pushed for steadily more aggressive actions to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. Their promise that the invasion would be a cakewalk and that U.S. soldiers would be greeted with flowers and candy didn’t quite pan out. Now, the fruits of their labor are clear for all to see — a broken country, devastated by war and sectarian strife, with no discernible end in sight.
Iranian-Americans, in stark contrast with the Iraqi diaspora, have largely opposed a rush to war. This is a fact that I have observed up close, while working in the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs and now at the National Iranian American Council, where I maintain close and continuing contact with Iranian-Americans to ensure we accurately represent their views. Together, these two vantage points have crystallized one key takeaway: Iranian-Americans deeply resent the Iranian regime, but prefer U.S. policies that emphasize engagement and de-escalation.
Why have Iraqis and Iranians living abroad reached such drastically different conclusions? For more than three decades, the Iranian-American community has grappled with the paradox of wanting to make Iran a better place — but fearing success as much as defeat. Some worry that contributing to positive changes inside Iran will only strengthen a draconian system, extending its lease on life.
For many Iranian-Americans, this dilemma was resolved by their disastrous historical experience with revolutionary upheaval. Rather than laying the groundwork for democracy, Iran’s 1979 revolution simply replaced one dictatorship with another. As a result, Iranian-Americans strongly prefer to use the rule of law to alter not only the Iranian government’s behavior, but also the thinking of Iranians inside Iran.
Efforts by the Iranian-American community to promote engagement and oppose military intervention have been consistent and cohesive. The University of California, Berkeley, conducted a scientifically sound opinion survey that found that roughly 70 percent of Iranian-American respondents favored dialogue and negotiations between the United States and Iran. In 2008, the Iranian-American community mobilized this majority into a successful campaign to defeat a congressional resolution that would have taken a decisive step toward war.
The Iranian-American community’s overwhelming support for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign is also a telling indicator of its political attitudes. For every dollar raised by Republican nominee John McCain from Iranian-Americans, Obama — who was running on a platform that promoted engagement with Iran — raised five.
Iranian-Americans understand from personal experience that abrupt political change is unlikely to produce the desired result. Retired ambassador John Limbert, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran during my tenure in Foggy Bottom, reflected poignantly on this understanding in a 1999 speech. "Our liberal-minded Iranian friends, whom we counted on to contain the  revolution’s excesses, proved to be helpless in political turmoil," he said. "They were too much like us: They could write penetrating analyses and biting editorials, but lacked the stomach for the brutality that wins revolutions."
Despite the fact that a majority of Iranian-Americans favor a more tolerant, pluralistic, and democratic system in Iran, they see little evidence that U.S. efforts to topple the current regime would bring Iranian democrats to power. Within Iran, rampant popular dissatisfaction has yet to evolve into a sustainable and coherent challenge to the system. The Iranian government’s monopoly on violence has prevented such challenges, but has not ended the desire for change. Even the original leaders of Iran’s Green Movement, which emerged from the country’s contested 2009 presidential election, were attempting to push for peaceful change through the ballot box.
The ongoing death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan has made the Iranian-American community even warier about foreign efforts to "liberate" their ancestral homeland. Right or wrong, many in the Iranian diaspora see the U.S. invasion of Iraq as less about nuclear programs or democracy, and more as a gambit to seize oil resources. These conspiracy theories may seem absurd, but behind them lies a deeper reality that is very powerful in the minds of Iranian-Americans.
Few Iranian-Americans would welcome the prospects of a U.S. intervention under the auspices of democracy promotion that, in turn, shattered any semblance of stability and ignited a destructive cycle of conflict. Iran’s contested 2009 presidential election and the ongoing human rights abuses have left Iranian-Americans searching for new ways to help foster peaceful, indigenous change. Their ideas remain diverse, but there is near-unanimous consent that change should occur without bloodshed.
Like their Iraqi brethren, Iranian expatriates want to change their government — it is their methods that differ. A majority of Iranian-Americans would welcome an improvement of relations between Washington and Tehran because it increases the prospects for positive, peaceful change from within. The watershed event of the Islamic Republic’s nearly 33-year history — widespread protests in 2009 — occurred at the height of Obama’s "mutual interests and mutual respect" initiative. Many of the West’s Iran analysts and experts, both Iranian and American, assert that the regime needs a U.S. enemy for its survival. If true, wouldn’t sustained offers of friendship — which would put the Iranian regime’s domestic agenda at the forefront — provide the biggest threat to the regime?
Engagement with the Iranian government understandably spurs many moral dilemmas for Iranian-Americans. Most, however, understand the alternatives — particularly when juxtaposed with Iraq, where war has resulted in nearly 200,000 Iraqis dead (based on conservative estimates), 1.3 million Iraqis displaced, and decades’ worth of destroyed lives for those still living in a perpetual war zone.
Let’s not kid ourselves: There are Iranian-Americans who support U.S.-sponsored regime change in Iran — and in due time, American neoconservatives will find their kindred spirits. We undoubtedly have our Chalabis and Makiyas — some long-established, some coming of age. But it’s clear that most Iranian-Americans distrust anyone who welcomes foreign armies into the motherland.
There is no arguing that Iran must change. The Iranian government’s human rights record is appalling, people lack basic freedoms, and economic disarray prevents Iranians from managing the present or planning for the future. Few Iranian-Americans are calling for sitting idly by and waiting for the situation in Iran to improve on its own. But it’s a rare voice indeed that is calling for war.