Iranian-Americans Caught Between Enemies

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran regularly riles American politicians -- whether by threatening Israel, being coy about his nuclear plans or criticizing the West. But while his statements may trouble American leaders, his stand against what he portrays as American imperialism attracts supporters across the Middle East and even within the United States. Some Iranians in the U.S. feel caught in the middle: they, too, are critical of U.S. foreign policy, but they are also critical of Iran's current government and they find it difficult to voice their concerns without playing into the agenda of either side.

As a journalist, Iranian-American reporter Kouross Esmaeli has traveled regularly to Iran.  But he says this year his friends and family members are confirming reports by human rights groups that the Iranian government is locking up lawyers and journalists who criticize the regime. It seems unclear what will get you in trouble, he says, so right now he prefers just to stay away from Iran. On the other hand, Esmaeli says criticizing the Iranian government from his home in the U.S. is tricky in a whole different way. Here, if he makes noise about Iran’s human rights abuses, he has another fear.

“It will become part of the anti-Iran rhetoric,” he says, and he worries it could be used to justify military action.

Every time Ahmadinejad comes to the United Nations, American politicians hold press conferences condemning him. Even local City Council members join in, despite their limited ability to have any impact.  “His commitment to oppression and in fact killing people who disagree with him or are different, is completely antithetical to everything New York is about,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said at a press conference during the UN General Assembly in September.

Many Iranians in the U.S. gladly support calls for stronger sanctions and a tougher stance against Iran. But Esmaeli says he does not want to fuel the fire. He says sanctions -- even targeted ones -- end up hurting civilians there and he vehemently opposes the idea of the U.S. or Israel bombing Iran, as some politicians have threatened.

At the same time, he says, there are movements in Iran that need help. “So how do you help the pro-democracy movement in Iran at the same time that you don’t feed into the U.S. government’s kind of saber rattling?” he asked, soon after Ahmadinejad’s latest visit to the UN.

American peace and human rights activists might seem like natural allies, but Esmaeli, and Iranians like him, are sometimes frustrated when they look to that group for support. The U.S has a long history of interfering in Iranian politics and some activists remember protesting U.S. support for the Shah’s brutal regime in the 1970s. Some organized rallies in solidarity with the Iranian revolution and now they say Iran’s sovereignty is at stake again; American imperialism is again a threat.

“There are very few times in history where massive non-violent protest forced the change of a government,” former U.S. Attorney General and lawyer Ramsey Clark recalled in his Greenwich Village apartment. “And that happened with the Shah.”

After Clark’s tenure as attorney general in the 1960s, he became a well-known human rights activist and traveled frequently to Iran during and after the revolution. In Iran today, Clark said, he knows there are problems, but he's hesitant to add his voice to the chorus of Ahmadinejad’s detractors.

“He gets that all day, everyday,” Clark said. “And of course some of the things that have happened are very sad. But, sad compared to the Shah? Not even on the chart.”

So when Clark joined more than a hundred other activists for a dinner with the Iranian president this year, he made a speech about the damage the U.S. has inflicted on Iran and chose not to mention Iran’s current human rights record.

Clark’s omissions were a disappointment to 30-year old Bitta Mostofi (photo on right), who was among the peace activists in the audience. Her family is from Iran, and in 2009 she helped start a group called "Where Is My Vote NY," which calls attention to human rights issues in Iran.

The evening after the dinner with Ahmadinejad, Mostofi was still outraged by the speeches she had heard. “None of these groups at any point in their conversation,” she said, “said any criticism, any concern about the well-being of a population that at a minimum has faced massive suppression of their freedom of speech.” Instead, she says, people praised the Iranian President. (You can watch a video of the speeches here).

One of the event’s organizers, Phil Wilayto of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, opened his comments by calling the Iranian president a hero, “for the way he has stood up to the world’s biggest bully,” referring to the United States. The guests ranged from prominent anti-war activists to African American social justice advocates and Iranian supporters of Ahmadinejad.

Mostofi was invited because of her work protesting the war in Iraq and advocating for the rights of Palestinians. She said she agreed with many of the criticisms of the U.S. brought up by the evening’s speakers. On the other hand, she said, “My counterparts inside of Iran are in prison. And that means that when they can’t speak out, and I’m in front of their president, if I don’t have the courage to do it in that room, in the United States where I live freely as a citizen, then who else is going to do it!”

So when the Iranian government offered the microphone to unscheduled speakers, Mostofi took the opportunity to tell the President her concerns.

“Sir, many of my colleagues, my counterparts, attorneys in Iran, have been imprisoned for criticizing you,” she said, after introducing herself as a frequent critic of the U.S.

She said she received mixed responses. “I had people, when I was walking back to my table maybe not applaud, kind of stare at me. And I had people mouth good job.”

At the end of her speech, Mostofi put on her green wristband, a symbol of the opposition movement in Iran. She says a couple of people told her later that, "my green is hidden." 

"All I said in return was, 'I’m not hiding mine,' ” she remembered.

Clark remembered Mostofi’s speech too. And though he said she may have been right in the most immediate human sense, he was not moved by her use of the forum to scold the Iranian president.

“It’s easy to go some place and slap somebody in the face,” he said. “But you don’t make friends that way. And you think you’re going to change their policy? It’s quite naïve. It’s like grandstanding in a diplomatic meeting.” 

Clark added, “If you want peace, if you want reconciliation, you don’t assault people.”

From his home in Virgina, Wilayto said he agrees with Clark that if Americans want peace with Iran, they have to make room for civil conversation. “Why can’t there be one meeting where people just say, ‘no war or sanctions against Iran, welcome to our country, and no, we don’t think you’re the devil incarnate,’ ” he said soon after the dinner. "Why can’t there be one meeting like that?"

Wilayto recently wrote a book about a trip with peace activists through Iran, and argues that poor and working class Iranians are doing well under the current regime. He sees Ahmadinejad’s detractors as part of a middle class opposition movement. And though he agrees the Iranian government is abusing human rights in some cases, he says it is the job of peace activists to do everything they can to counter American hostility.

“The biggest human rights violation would be a war,” he said. “The Iranian people would suffer immeasurably.”

On that point, Iranian immigrant Leila Zand concurs. As the Middle East program coordinator for the century-old anti-war group Fellowship of Reconciliation, she also opposes sanctions and war. On the other hand, she says, when peace activists meet with Ahmadinejad and the Iranian state media broadcasts it across Iran, they have a special responsibility to bring up Iran’s human rights abuses.

“When we are the only group who have the opportunity to meet with Ahmadinejad and we decide to be quiet,” she said over the phone from her home in Albany, “we give him the understanding that everything is all right from here and he is right.” She says it has the potential to make him and the Iranian public think the abuses human rights organizations report are a lie.

Though Zand has helped organize dinners for peace activists with Ahmadinejad in the past, she said this year she stayed home because she suspected the conversation would lack the criticism she sees as necessary.

What Zand, Mostofi and Esmaeli say they wish for is a more nuanced conversation, with people on all sides.

“How do we live in this America, this country that is so powerful -- that does things that we don’t like to the rest of the world -- and stand up for people who are resisting it,” Esmaeli pondered, but without “justifying some horrible atrocities that those same people do.”

These three Iranian-Americans say they are open for discussion.

Laura Fattal, Cindy Hickey and Nora Shourd, the mothers of Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd respectively protest outside the Iran Mission in New York July 30, 2010

A picture obtained on June 21, 2009 shows Iranian riot police blocking protesters on a street of Tehran.

( STR/AFP/ )

Iranian protesters cover their face from tear gas during clashes with riot police in Tehran on June 20, 2009.


Iranian football supporters wave their national flag against the disputed election win of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the 2010 World Cup Asian qualifer match.


An Iranian woman casts her vote at a polling station in Iran in June 2009

( Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images) )

A police motorcycle burns behind a supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in June 2009

( Behrouz Mehri/AFP )

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses tens of thousands of Iranians gathered in Azadi (Freedom) Square in southwestern Tehran to mark the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution

Iranian students climb over the wall of the U.S. embassy in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution, 4th November 1979. The students went on to seize the embassy staff, and hold 52 of them as hostages fo
Iranian students climb over the wall of the U.S. embassy in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution, 4th November 1979. The students went on to seize the embassy staff, and hold 52 of them as hostages fo

Iranian students climb over the wall of the U.S. embassy in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution, 4th November 1979. The students went on to seize the embassy staff, and hold 52 of them as hostages for 444 days.

( AFP )

The Islamic Revolution's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (L) greeted 02 Februry 1979 in Tehran by his supporters during his return to Iran after 15 years in exile in Iraq and France.