Ill Communication: Iranian-American students feel their homeland is misunderstood
Monday, July 9, 2007
As young progressives ramp up their efforts to end the war in Iraq, fear is in the air regarding growing tensions with Iran, and the rhetoric is sounding eerily familiar.
In the most recent Republican debate, frontrunner Rudy Giuliani suggested that a nuclear strike against the country should not be off the table. And earlier this month, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) advocated a missile strike against Iran if the country does not suspend its nuclear program immediately.
As tensions intensify between the U.S. and Iranian governments, it's important to hear from those caught in the middle of all the geopolitical posturing. With emotional and actual ties to both Iran and the United States, Iranian-American college students offer a unique perspective that digs deeper than the Western media's often superficial take.
According to a 2004 report by the Iranian Studies Group at M.I.T., there are 691,000 Iranian-Americans living in the United States. A largely successful group, the report found that more than one in four have a master's or doctoral degree and that the average family income is 20 percent higher than the national average.
They're a group living the American dream. But many Iranian-American students find worrying misconceptions in the American media's depiction of the conflict.
It's easy to see why these students feel there is ignorance in Western thinking about Iran. How many Americans know, for example, that Iranians are largely Persian, not Arab? How many could identify their language as Farsi rather than Arabic? It is also not clear from most reports on the country that it is incredibly diverse and culturally rich, with over a dozen different ethnic populations and religious minorities including Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Zoroastrian.
The lack of knowledge that most bothered those interviewed, however, didn't concern demographics, but the attitudes of the Iranian people.
"Right now my mom is living in Iran, and what they say in the media is totally not representative of what's happening there," said Adam Bejan Parast, a 2007 graduate of the University of Washington whose father, like many Iranians, came to America for college. "The thing about people in Iran, everybody wants to come to the U.S. Everybody wants to live here and they all love Americans, but if you tell someone that here, they're shocked."
They shouldn't be. After Sept. 11, 2001, when many in the Muslim world were celebrating in the streets, thousands of Iranians also took to the streets--in solidarity with the United States. The tragic war in Iraq has certainly helped to sour many Iranians' feelings towards America. However, according to a recent poll by World Public Opinion, more Iranians have a favorable impression of the American people than the American people do of Iranians--45 percent and 29 percent respectively.
But according to those interviewed, one would hardly know it from the mainstream media coverage.
"All that Western media shows are the bad things and not the good things about Iran," said Sahand Shafiee, University of Oregon '07. "Iran is not a country of hate. ... There are things in Iran and the people of Iran that the Westerners don't see: Demonstrations against the regime, the beauty of Iran, how the people dress nowadays, the economy, and how much Westernized culture is still having influence in Iran despite the regime trying to stop it."
While most Iranian-American students interviewed for this article believe that Americans are generally ignorant about Iran, some remained hopeful because Americans are also curious about the region and its people.
"When I tell people [about Iran], they're very interested," said Parast.
Sadly, the basic facts of Iranian-U.S. relations make up a sordid and complicated history that feeds into today's conflict. Most who tell the tale begin with the CIA's reinstallation of the repressive Shah of Iran in 1953, which the United States formally apologized for 47 years later. The United States backed the Shah over the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh, who wanted to nationalize Iran's oil reserves. But the brutality of the Shah's regime led to a popular backlash and then a revolution in 1979 that installed Iran's current government, an Islamic republic with a theocratic constitution and severe limits on political opposition, free speech, and women's rights.
On Nov. 4, 1979 came the Iranian hostage crisis, an event that greatly damaged relations between the two countries, shattered U.S. credibility, and probably cost Jimmy Carter a second term in office. For 444 days, an American diplomatic mission was held hostage in Iran by student militants, creating an intense standoff that finally ended when Ronald Reagan was sworn into office on Jan. 19, 1981.
Immediately after the revolution, Iran entered into a bloody eight-year war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The combination of the theocratic revolution and the hostage crisis created by the war led many Iranians who could afford to do so to immigrate to the United States. Toward the end of Reagan's second term came the Iran-Contra scandal, in which it was revealed that his administration illegally sold weapons to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Some alleged the deal was part of a quid-pro-quo for releasing the hostages as Reagan took over as president.
These are just some of watershed moments in U.S.-Iranian relations that most Americans know nothing about. Iranian-American students lay the blame at the feet of a shallow media and politicians who take a hard-line stance toward Iran for their own benefit.
Hope lies not only in the passionate democratic movements in Iran, sustained by freedom-hungry students, but also in the potential power of dialogue between the two nations.
"The current administration won't even talk to Iran. It's just completely ridiculous," says Parast. "At the very least, they can talk about something; it doesn't have to be a contentious issue. A dialogue between the two countries, I don't see how it can hurt in any way."
Considering the history of gaffes and misunderstandings between the United States and Iran, American foreign policy toward the nation should take into consideration those who know Iran best. In Iraq we are now witnessing the devastating costs of the alternative, a conflict fed by misinformation and ignorance about the region. To allow this to happen again so soon would be tragic.