The large and influential Iranian-American community could do more to help improve relations between Washington and Tehran. Image: iStock

Relations between Iran and the United States have followed a bumpy course since the 1979 revolution that set the stage for a metamorphosis of Iran’s foreign policy premised on the mantra of “neither Eastern, nor Western.” As the Islamic Republic gained more statecraft experience, that adage surrendered its sanctity, and it is now fine to be pro-Eastern, even though unexplained hostility toward what is geopolitically identified as the West, as a whole, remains in currency.

Unlike the second term of Barack Obama as the US president, when Tehran and Washington made major strides toward resolving some of their many differences, culminating in the monumental Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in July 2015, the three-plus years of Donald Trump’s presidency plunged bilateral relations into a nadir.

The two rivals were on the brink of an all-out military confrontation on at least a couple of occasions in the past two years, and it was the exertion of some level of discretion that averted what could be a full-blown disaster in the Middle East.

In recent years, I have conducted dozens of in-depth interviews with prominent politicians, diplomats, scholars, academicians and commentators with backgrounds of studying the ups and downs of Iran-US relations. The plurality of them were upbeat about the possibility of a positive about-face shifting the dynamics of this four-decade-old impasse.

For example, the inimitable American journalist Stephen Kinzer told me that Iran and the United States were not destined to remain adversaries forever, while the former US ambassador to Israel William C Harrop once told me that growth of mutual trust between Tehran and Washington was plausible over time.

Even at the height of tensions, the majority of assessments were positive, underlining the proclivity of the United States to have normal, strife-free relations with Iran, and the Iranian leadership’s track record of making pragmatic decisions at critical junctures, which could be cited as grounds for its preparedness to ease tensions with the US.

It is an open secret that Iran needs to tread a thorny path to become a democratic state, prioritizing the interests, demands, human rights and civil liberties of its people while holding back some of its ambitions that make it a persona non grata on the international scene. And it is true that the United States, over the past four decades, has acerbically and continually criticized Iran’s human-rights record, its regional activities and its nuclear brinkmanship.

Even so, for Iran to maintain peaceful and healthy relations with the United States, it does not really need to spring to the top of Freedom House rankings or the Legatum Prosperity Index of good governance and political freedoms, morphing into the microcosm of liberal values the United States is believed to represent.

Some of the traditional allies of the United States in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have almost never held any elections, treat women as second-rate commodities and continue to be deeply repressive, authoritarian regimes that are rarely admonished by the White House or the US media conglomerates.

Yet the evolution of relations based on mutual respect and shared interests, in the case of Iran and the United States, which have been at daggers drawn for more than four decades, is not only a matter of determination by two governments to work for détente and rapprochement. Ordinary people have an indispensable role to play in challenging the status quo and urging the two governments to move away from bellicosity.  

The Iranian-American community

According to the latest US Census figures, more than 467,000 people of Iranian descent live in the United States. This means the Iranian-American community is larger than the community of Israelis, Egyptians, Romanians and Turks residing in the US.

Whether they were born in the United States to Iranian parents or have weathered the byzantine labyrinths of the US immigration laws to obtain a green card or become naturalized citizens, Iranian-Americans are a paramount part of the US society and have impacted life in that country in meaningful ways.

Some of the most reputed names in the sciences in the United States are people of Iranian origin. Silicon Valley, in particular, is a melting pot of many distinguished Iranian entrepreneurs and philanthropists.

Millions of Americans know of Pierre Omidyar, the founder of the multinational e-commerce giant eBay, or at least have enjoyed the benefits of his products. Omid Kordestani, a board member of Twitter since 2015 and the former senior vice-president of Google, was born in Tehran.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the world’s leading space agency, boasts several Iranian-American scientists and astronauts, including Firouz Naderi, the former Mars exploration program manager at the research organization, and Jasmin Moghbeli, a 36-year-old marine who may become the first woman to set foot on the moon in 2024.

Many in the media and academia say Iranian-Americans are among the most successful immigrant groups in the United States, and 60% of them have earned at least an undergraduate degree.

There have been prominent Iranian-Americans in the ranks of US politicians, as well. Some examples are Goli Ameri, the former assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, Azita Raji, the former US ambassador to Sweden nominated by Obama, Ferial Govashiri, the personal secretary to Obama, and Anna Eskamani, a 30-year-old member of the Florida House of Representatives.

Iranian-Americans teaching and researching at US universities are countless, and some of them are now incontrovertible authorities in their fields, retaining supreme positions in the American academic institutions.

From Vali Nasr, who was until late June the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies to Abbas Milani, an esteemed political scientist and director of the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies at Stanford University, and Mehrzad Boroujerdi, the director of Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs, Iranian scholars occupy very high positions in US colleges and universities.

And an overview of the Iranian-Americans involved in the dominion of media takes us to such outstanding names as Christiane Amanpour, the chief international anchor for CNN, Farnaz Fassihi, the award-winning Iran correspondent of The New York Times, and Azadeh Moaveni, a Time magazine correspondent and university professor.

Even though no comprehensive list of the most illustrious Iranian-Americans can be put together to do justice to including all the familiar names, it is worth noting that the celebrated comedian and actor Maz Jobrani and Emmy-nominated producer and media commentator Reza Aslan are also members of the squad of Iranian-Americans.

This dynamic community indeed has significant capacities to remodel the convoluted nature of Iran-US relations and transmute engagement and dialogue from an elusive undertaking into a palatable reality embraced by both governments.

Encouraging academic exchanges; promoting events, workshops, conferences and gatherings involving Iranian and American professionals who share an ambition for improved Iran-US relations; working to debunk stereotypes by organizing trips for American journalists to visit Iran and bringing their Iranian counterparts to the United States, and of course carrying out robust research and writing articles for global media outlets on the importance of revitalizing the bilateral ties and explaining the dynamics involved are some of the steps that can be taken in preparation for moving past the failed legacy of mutual animosity.

The role of lobbies and advocacy organizations in swaying political decision-making at the highest levels is indisputable in the realpolitik of the 21st century. Take as an example the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which pours huge sums of money into influencing the policies of the different branches of the US government in favor of better US-Israel relations, while running a panoply of promotional schemes attracting American voters and politicians to its cause.

The community of Iranian-Americans suffers from a dearth of such persuasive lobbies that can function as facilitators for the refinement of Iran-US relations while countering the spates of anti-Iranian propaganda the mainstream media have been orchestrating for a long time, spoiling the American public’s perceptions of Iran and the Iranians.

It is true that there are organizations such as the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) or Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) that are laboring to champion the ideal of enhanced Tehran-Washington connections and advocate the rights of Iranians in the United States, whose vulnerability and underrepresentation make them prone to discrimination.

But these organizations appear to be too underfunded and detached from the mainstream of American affairs that they are not having the impact their missions have mandated.

The grim developments of the recent years, and President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, which have translated into the narrowing of the window of diplomacy should alarm the Iranian-American community and catalyze coordinated action on their behalf.

The proactive community of Iranian-Americans has lots of options at its disposal to bridge the gaps separating the Iranian and American peoples and dismantle the wall of mistrust between the two governments brick by brick. It should unleash this potential today.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.