My family left Tehran in 1979, in the aftermath of the revolution that created the Islamic Republic of Iran. We arrived in the United States with nothing but a single suitcase each, assuming this would be only temporary. Once things settled down, we would surely be returning to our lives back in Iran.
That was 36 years ago.
Today, I am one of nearly a half million Iranians who live in Southern California, the largest population of Iranians anywhere in the world outside of Iran. In fact, there are so many Iranians in Los Angeles that we’ve named it “Tehrangeles.” Almost a quarter of the population of Beverly Hills alone is Iranian, including a former mayor.
Most of us came here as exiles or refugees fleeing religious or political persecution. We have spent the last three and a half decades with one foot in Iran and the other in the United States, living somewhat schizophrenic lives, like children of divorced parents who loathe each other.
As you can imagine, we’ve been paying particularly close attention to the progress of the P5-plus-1 negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, which, for better or worse, are on the verge of concluding in Vienna. Among Iranian-Americans, opinions tend to divide along generational lines.
Take my aunt, an artist who barely escaped Iran with her life and now lives in Orange County. She is among an older generation of Iranian-Americans who tend to be politically conservative, not religious and a bit insulated.
My aunt has been in the United States for nearly three decades yet barely speaks English. Why should she? She eats only in Persian restaurants, she shops only in Persian stores, she watches only Persian language television stations, of which there are now at least 30 broadcasting via satellite. As far as she’s concerned, she may as well still be in Tehran.
But she’s not. And the fact that she’s not fills her with a white-hot rage that she focuses squarely on the mullahs who took her beloved country away from her.
Lately that rage has refracted slightly, so that some of it now falls on President Obama, whom she considers foolish for pursuing a deal with Iran. In her opinion, the Islamic Republic cannot be trusted under any circumstances.
I hear that sentiment a lot from older Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles, many of whom are convinced that the only way to ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons is to overthrow the regime — even if that means a military attack. This is also the view of most Iranian Jews in Tehrangeles, some 50,000 strong, who distrust the mullahs as much as, if not more than, my aunt does.
My father, a devout atheist who never trusted anything said by a man wearing a turban, went to his grave waiting for the United States to overthrow the Iranian government so he could go back home. When I asked him if he would have been willing to see Tehran bombed, he told me that Iranians are prisoners in their own country. Sometimes a prison break requires bombs.
That view is most definitely not shared by the younger generation of Iranian-Americans — those born here or who, like me, came as children. Many of us feel far removed from the political and religious turmoil of the Iranian revolution and so, for the most part, have replaced our parents’ anger and bitterness with a sense of longing and fascination about Iran.
My youngest sister, for example, is the only one in my family who was born in the United States. Yet she speaks better Persian than any of us. She wears a hijab. A few years ago she scandalized my family by demanding an arranged marriage back in Iran. For her, the negotiations taking place in Vienna are not just about curbing Iran’s nuclear program; they represent the first steps to normalizing relations between the United States and Iran.
If my father were alive he’d say my sister is being naïve, that she has no idea how awful the Iranian regime is, how much suffering it has caused. Yet that is precisely why my sister’s opinion — and those of younger Iranian-Americans — is so vital.
After all, delicate diplomacy such as this requires dispassion. We must not ignore Iran’s terrible human rights violations. But if we want to actually do something about those violations — rather than simply complain about them — we should support the nuclear negotiations.
I believe success in Vienna will empower moderates in Iran, strengthen Iranian civil society and spur economic development. It will result in interdependent trade relations between Iran and the United States, which will give Iran’s leaders the incentive to behave responsibly and punish them when they don’t.
The fact of the matter is that three and a half decades of anger and bitterness, of sanctions and isolation, have had no positive effect at all on the nature of the Iranian regime. That’s because isolating a country does not change its behavior. Engaging it does.
By easing sanctions and giving Iranians (particularly the 60 percent of the population that is under the age of 30) access to the rest of the world, a nuclear deal may accomplish what all Iranians in Southern California — my father’s generation and mine — dream of: an Iran that is a responsible actor on the global stage, that respects the rights of its citizens and that has warm relations with the rest of the world. As we Iranians like to say, inshallah. God willing.
Reza Aslan, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, is the author, most recently, of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.