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Dear Iran, Can I Please Come Home?
Relations between Tehran and Washington are better than ever, but for Iranian-Americans things have never been worse.
On my desk is a pile of small passport pictures of me in a turquoise headscarf. I have recently been considering making my first trip to Iran since 2009, though my Iranian passport is long expired. The photos for a new passport, along with the application, linger next to my laptop, waiting for me to summon the courage to show up at the consulate in London. After that, the only thing separating me from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport would be a plane ticket and a whim.
But fear and uncertainty have been holding me back. Although I live in Britain, I was born in California to Iranian immigrants, which makes me a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen. And like many Iranian-Americans, traveling back to my ancestral home involves taking an incalculable risk. There’s no way to know what would await me on arrival. I might visit my elderly relatives, deal with family business matters, and return back to my children in Britain without any hassle. Or I might have my passport confiscated at the airport and be summoned for interrogation, in which case I might be unable to travel for weeks, awaiting my passport’s return, or, worse, face full-blown imprisonment of indeterminate length.
The nuclear deal sealed between Iran and six world powers this July has been a bittersweet experience for the estimated 1 million people who are citizens of both Iran and the United States. As diplomatic relations between the two countries has improved, the situation for Iranian-Americans seems to have mostly gotten worse. While the regime tolerated its diaspora citizens for much of the early and mid-2000s, now the category stands as an identifiable security risk for travel. The Islamic Republic has ensured that the only reliable certainty in our lives is uncertainty.
The problem is that Iran is deeply ambivalent about its citizens who share nationality with the United States. Since the early 2000s, officials have explicitly invited Iranian-Americans back to the country, declaring its doors would be open for expatriates who wished to return. This is a sincere reflection of the views of the part of the Iranian state that wishes to end the country’s isolation, jump-start its economy, and reintegrate with the world. This past summer, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei even suggested that the diaspora should be offered “incentives” to reverse the country’s brain drain and spur investment in the economy.
But despite Khamenei’s directive, the most ideologically fervent members of the state, who believe Iran has a revolutionary duty to oppose the United States, have consistently murmured their dissent. Rather than view Iranian-Americans as compatriots, they treat them as potential traitors.
To these hard-liners, Iranian-Americans are too dangerously at home in the West and seek to extend that intimacy back into Iran, whether it’s through connections to universities, NGOs, or businesses. Iranian-Americans become a target — and, especially for their potential as an irritant to Iran-U.S. ties, a particularly convenient one. “They’ve decided to have a problem with dual citizens,” a well-connected friend recently told me.
It’s important to note that for Iran’s hard-line security establishment — which includes elements within the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guards, parliament, and the Ministry of Intelligence — dual citizens don’t just represent a danger to the regime’s ideological coherence, but also to establishment members’ personal economic interests. Much of the security establishment thrived under the sanctions in effect prior to the nuclear deal, often acting as middlemen to help sell Iranian oil. When the sanctions were in effect, the absence of any foreign competition meant that lucrative contracts were easily slid into the hands of those with vested Revolutionary Guard affiliations.
So while the regime’s mixed messages to the diaspora may seem capricious or irrational from the outside, they are dictated by the divisions within the Iranian state — and even within the minds of the hard-liners who do not differentiate among security, ideological, and economic threats. When President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, talk about reshaping Iran in the long term, this is what they have in mind — the need to tame a deep state that, as it has become ever more powerful, has become ever more paranoid about its own citizens.
Unfortunately, for now, this is the part of the state that wields the most power. At present, five Iranian-Americans are detained in Iranian prisons. The latest to be detained, the Dubai-based businessman Siamak Namazi, is my friend. I know no truer patriot than Siamak; Iran was the great love of his life. His family has been working quietly to secure his release, but everything around his detention remains frustratingly unclear. Sometimes, lying awake at night, imagining him in Evin prison, I wonder what message the rest of us are supposed to take from his detention. Are we always meant to have thoughts of home shaded by dread of worst-case scenarios?
I use the broad first-person plural, we, but it’s worth noting that not all Iranian-Americans are in equally impossible situations. Those whose work in fields deemed sensitive by the state — academia, journalism, government, NGOs, international organizations, certain industries — reap most of the scrutiny and feel most of the anxiety.
To be sure, many who fall under this umbrella come and go from Iran without ever experiencing problems. But their safe passage is often purchased at the price of constant vigilance. They are obliged to maintain a hygienically apolitical social media presence and a degree of self-censorship at public forums and in professional and even social associations. It’s not uncommon for Iranian-American college students to wipe their social media accounts before flying back to see family over the summer.
Among our circle, the circle of the anxious and waiting, many make inquiries via friends or government contacts to try to find out whether it is safe to return. The responses are usually opaque: You’re welcome to come, but we can’t guarantee your security. Not now, maybe in the spring. Our database is clear, but we can’t vouch for other institutions.
For the thousands of Iranian-Americans acquainted with such insecurity, it is a matter of some pain, in the hopeful aftermath of the nuclear deal, to watch the merry rush of those who are not. That Westerners who have no personal relationship with Iran can now travel there freely rankles, naturally; but what is worse is to see Iran differentiating among its children, favoring some and turning others to outcasts. The distress of the many people in my situation, the distress I feel simply in the course of writing this piece, too often goes overlooked. I can’t help but feel that going to Iran is a great privilege, one that I have been denied — or, more accurately, if perversely, have been obliged to deny myself.
It is now six years since I have seen my eldest relatives; their voices grow frailer each year when we speak at Persian New Year. I haven’t seen my cousins’ children grow from babies to kindergartners, and they haven’t seen my sons. Never mind that, for me as a journalist, Iran has always been at the center of my professional life. Like so many Iranian-Americans, I would be happy to never work there again, if only I knew that going back as a citizen, as an Iranian, would be safe.
Some dual nationals have sought to apply for visas on their American passports, hoping to enter Iran as American citizens. But Iran typically does not permit this; if you hold Iranian citizenship, the Islamic Republic will recognize you only as an Iranian, vulnerable to its laws and judicial procedures. Effectively, there is no way out.
The Islamic Republic likes to fawn over the accomplishments of its American diaspora. State television often runs news of Iranian-Americans’ scientific or technological innovations, especially the mark they have made in Silicon Valley. But this pride is often swept away by currents of patriotism that don’t interpret the national interest in economic terms. Real economic growth requires a degree of political openness, and Iran, like many countries with a wealthy, educated diaspora, would stand to benefit greatly from a door that was genuinely open to Iranian-Americans. But that question is at the heart of what divides the Iranian regime today: greater prosperity through openness, or muddling through in isolation. The fate of Iranian-Americans hangs in the balance of that struggle.
As for me, the passport photos and the application form remain beside me as I write. I have often pushed them to the edge of my desk, and the back of my mind. But they never stay there for long. In the summer, I thought October might be a good month to apply. When September came, I thought spring would be the best time. But as the last generation can attest, the generation that first immigrated to the United States, that kind of thinking is what allows a season of reflection to stretch into decades of regret.