Iranian-Americans: Bridging the Divide

By Alidad Mafinezam

Iranian-Americans: Bridging the Divide originally appeared on

For over three decades, official political antagonism between the U.S. and the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has obscured the deep bonds between the two peoples. This deadlock and the mutual demonization has worked to marginalize the sizeable Iranian-American community, hindering its attempts at integrating fully into the fabric of America’s civic life. As communities of diverse backgrounds blossom more fully in Obama’s America, Iranian-Americans run the risk of being left out of claiming their share of the American dream.

Estimated at over a million people, Iranian-Americans rank as one of the best educated and financially successful segments of American society. As individuals, they have made seminal contributions to almost all fields of endeavour, adding significantly to America’s global competitiveness and its claim to thought leadership and innovation. From finance to journalism, from high-tech entrepreneurship to real estate development, and from medicine to all fields of engineering, Iranian-Americans contribute daily to America’s greatness. In information technology and engineering, especially, the presence of Iranian-Americans is palpable across America’s leading companies and university campuses.

Yet, by most accounts, Iranian-Americans have yet to establish unifying institutions that make their voices heard by American decision makers, and effectively protect their rights and good name against discrimination. Given its major assets, it is crucial now for this community to achieve more unity and engage in effective group work to ensure that they aren’t subjected to collective punishment and censured for the misdeeds of the government in Tehran.

In the United States and beyond, attachment to their Iranian heritage and their ancestral Persian language, which has made so many contributions to human civilization, should never be cause for discrimination and exclusion, irrespective of which government is in power in Tehran or the state of U.S-Iranian diplomatic (non) relations. From a foreign policy standpoint, too, the more cohesive and established the Iranian-American community becomes in the U.S., the greater its impact will be on the mid- to long-term future of Iran and U.S.-Iran relations.

Ties That Bind

For Iranian-Americans, a key requirement of gaining full acceptance is knowing more of their own history, and becoming better acquainted with their long presence in America, and the deep ties of friendship between Iranians and Americans for the past century and more.

A prevalent myth that has stymied the evolution of this community into a confident and cohesive collective entity is the internalized perception that they are still “new” to America, and that they must wait for the next generations to be fully accepted by mainstream institutions as an integral part of American society.

Given the difficulties faced by other minorities in America to gain full acceptance – Italians, African Americans, Latinos, Jews, etc-it is argued that Iranian-Americans must travel the same long road that these communities have had to travel – albeit each in its own way — to gain full acceptance.

Since Iranian-Americans are a “newer” community, it is implicitly argued, they must be content for now on the margins of America’s civic and political life, and must make the needed sacrifices so their children and grand children are accepted as full-fledged Americans in due course, which was the case with so many other groups.

This line of thinking, which has inadvertently induced Iranian-Americans to lower their present expectations and “wait their turn,” is deeply problematic on two separate levels. Looking at the history of Iranian-American cultural relations shows that significant interaction between the two people has deep roots in history, much deeper and older, indeed, than America’s ties to the vast majority of other Asian and Muslim-majority countries.

In addition, historically speaking, many newcomer communities, possessing little education and meagre knowledge of English, immigrated to America to fill the menial jobs that “white” Americans did not want. The Iranian-American community, by contrast, comprise one of the best educated and financially successful communities [PBS: The Iranian diaspora comes of age] across America’s diverse cultural landscape. The main reason for this success is the extensive and historically grounded exposure of Iranians to American culture and educational institutions throughout the 20th century. This exposure was built atop Iranian civilization’s own long history of literacy and learning.

So the oft-cited poem of Emma Lazarus, which says in part, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” has only partial relevance to Iranian-Americans, many of whom have joined the American family already possessing significant levels of education, wealth, and human capital. Being confined to the margins is thus a significant waste of talent and ambition, especially since these are qualities that comprise the building blocks of America’s claim to greatness.

The depth of the cultural ties between the two countries is best seen in the life of the first Iranian-American, Mirza Mohammad Ali Mahallati, also known as Hajj Sayyah (1836-1925) who spent a decade in the 1860s-70s living in the U.S., gaining citizenship in 1875. Sayyah was inspired by the ideals of democracy and rule of law that he saw in America, which led him, upon his return to Iran, to become a significant supporter of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 in his “other” country.

In a related vein, it was an American missionary priest and Princeton graduate, Howard Baskerville, who had settled in Tabriz, the largest city in Iranian Azerbaijan, in the early 20th century. So committed was Baskerville to Iran’s advancement that he took up arms and joined forces with constitutionalists, falling in battle during the peak of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906: As an American, he was defending the rule of law and constitutional government in his adopted country against kingly despotism. Baskerville’s bust adorns the Constitution House of Tabriz to this day.

Another major example is Seyed Hasan Taghizadeh (1878-1970) who spent a year-and-half in New York in 1913-14, and was inspired by America’s openness and its attachment to the ideals of human progress. Taghizadeh is universally regarded as one of the most significant and progressive political and literary personalities of modern Iran, who played key roles during the constitutional revolution and during the half century-long Pahlavi era, which ended in 1979. During his time in New York, Taghizadeh wrote numerous articles that he sent to Tehran for publication from New York, and shared his observations on America in the early twentieth century.

Taghizadeh returned again to America in 1926, as a high representative of the Iranian government, to take part the Sesquicentennial International Exposition of 1926, which was a world’s fair hosted in Philadelphia to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence. One of the main attractions of the exposition, which won a gold medal, was the Persia Pavilion, which was based on the Masjed-e Shah (King’s Mosque) in Isfahan, one of the world’s architectural marvels.

The Persia Pavilion was designed by Arthur U. Pope [] (1881-1969), an American art historian, educator, author, and major advocate of Iranian art and architecture. Beginning in the 1920s until his passing in Shiraz, Iran, Pope became a world leader in promoting Iranian art and culture through exhibitions, congresses, and publications. Pope’s best-known work, A Survey of Persian Art was published in six outstanding volumes by Oxford University Press, completed in 1939. Pope was the main organizer of five world class congresses on Iranian art and architecture throughout over four decades of intense activity in this area.

Pope and his wife Phyllis Ackerman founded the American Institute for Persian Art in 1925, which was later named “the Asia Institute” in New York. They are widely credited with significantly expanding Western understanding of the richness of Iranian civilization.

To pay homage to their major contributions to Iranian civilization, the Iranian government built a mausoleum for Pope and Ackerman (also an art historian focused on Iran) in the city of Isfahan, which continues to serve as a potent symbol of deep historic ties between two people.

Yet another key American who left an indelible imprint on the evolution of Iran as a modern nation was Samuel M Jordan (1871-1952) , founder of the American College of Tehran, latter named Alborz Collegiate. Jordan, after whom a major avenue in Tehran was named (changed to Africa Ave after the 1979 revolution) is arguably the most influential American in the history of U.S.-Iranian academic relations. Jordan’s decades-long career in Iran coincided with Iran’s transformation from a weak, ineffective state into a modern cohesive entity. A Christian missionary, he was a strong and effective advocate for the development of modern institutions in Iran, based upon its own history and the adoption of American methods of education, administration and communications.

Up until the revolution, Alborz Collegiate, under the direction of Jordan’s successor, Mohamamd-Ali Mojtahedi, became Iran’s undisputed leading secondary school, training the country’s best and brightest students, many of whom would later end up at the top American universities.

In helping Iran in building modern institutions, the work of another American, Mogran Shuster (1877-1960), belongs in its own league. He was a leading lawyer and civil servant, who had served as a U.S. customs and administrative official in Cuba and the Philippines In 1911, Iran’s fledgling central government was powerless before the “great game” advances of Russia and Britain which had divided Iran into their respective northern and southern spheres of influence.

In response to this situation, in 1910, the Iranian government, through Iran’s embassy in Washington, officially requested American help in bringing order to the country’s financial situation and balance of payments. The reason for this overture was that the U.S. was seen by significant sections of the Iranian elite as an advanced and yet neutral county without imperial designs and territorial ambitions in Iran, a country ideally positioned to help Iran modernize and develop.

The U.S. government obliged the Iranian request, and president William Howard Taft nominated Shuster, who moved soon to Tehran to assume, on official Iranian parliamentary decree, the post of General Treasurer of Persia, which he held until the end of 1911, resigning and leaving Iran only in the face of intense Russian pressure, exerted through military force and invasions of Iran.

Upon his return to America, Shuster, moved by his experience in Iran, wrote what is arguably the most important book in the history of bilateral relations: The Strangling of Persia, which was published in 1912. The book describes the sad predicament of a weak country caught in the middle of the imperial rivalry of world powers. Shuster passionately describes his attempt to modernize the functioning and maintenance of Iran’s treasury, which had suffered greatly at the hands of the corrupt and ineffectual Qajar kings. Shuster’s deep sympathy for the welfare of Iranians and the challenges of building modern institutions in Iran is on vivid display in these pages.

Bonds of Healing

A full century after the publication of Shuster’s book, in late May of this year, the Iranian-American Medical Association, [] a decades-old organization, held their annual two-day convention at the Marriott on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C.

At the convention, IAMA’s leaders unveiled pictures and details of the impressive medical facility and building they have recently completed in Bam, the historic city in central Iran that had suffered a horrible earthquake in late December 2003. This impressive structure, built as a humanitarian gesture of Iranian-American doctors, took close to a decade of fundraising, planning, overcoming bureaucratic hurdles, and dealing with the ever-present uncertainty of [U.S. sanctions regulations] to bring to fruition. With this gesture, Iranian-American doctors, many thousands of whom provide world class services in America’s hospitals and clinics in all states, have highlighted the humanitarian commitments of Americans across the world.

A key personality in the history of Iranian-American relations in the healthcare arena was Dr. James Bowman, (1923-2011), one of the leading medical researchers and practitioners of his time. In 1955, as a specialist in pathology and genetically-borne diseases, Bowman and his wife Barbara (who would become a leading child development educator and executive) decided to gain international experience. Bowman who had become the first African-American resident at St. Luke’s Hospital Chicago, chose Iran.

Bowman was offered a job as chairman of pathology at Nemazee Hospital in Shiraz, one of Iran’s oldest cities. “We were recently married, so we took a chance,” he explained. “It changed our lives completely.”

It was in 1956, a year after moving to Iran, that their daughter, Valerie Jarrett (senior advisor and former mentor to president Obama) was born. During the family’s six years in Iran, from 1955 to 1961, Bowman gained first hand experience with a number of diseases for the first time. “I saw smallpox, brucellosis, rabies,” he had said.

A common disease of certain ethnic groups in Iran was favism, a genetically determined blood disease caused by an enzyme deficiency. His work in Iran on battling favism fit with Bowman’s lifelong focus on inherited blood diseases, and led to important discoveries about the genetics of these diseases among select populations. His experience in Iran led Bowman to travel all over the world to collect blood samples for DNA testing. His work in Iran also led Bowman to engage in collaborations with University of Chicago researchers, who had been among the first to describe the enzyme deficiency and its connection with anti-malarial medications.

Upon his return from Iran, the University of Chicago invited Bowman to join the faculty in 1962 as an assistant professor of medicine and pathology and director of the hospital’s blood bank. His contributions to the field remained sustained and significant for many decades.

While Bowman’s work in Iran in the 1950s represented a novelty for most Americans at the time, it stood on solid historical ground. Joseph Plumb Cochran,  M.D. (1855- 1905), who was an American doctor and Presbyterian missionary, is credited as the founding father of Iran’s first modern Medical School. He was born in and he passed away in Urmia, leaving a significant legacy of commitment.

Cochran’s father, the Reverend Joseph J. Cochran, and his mother, Deborah Plum, had been first-generation American Christian missionaries who had arrived in Iran in 1848, settling in Urmia, in Iranian Azerbaijan, to serve the areas sizeable Christian community.

In his teens, Cochran moved to America for education. He stayed for over a decade, educating himself in medicine across New York. Upon his return to his birthplace Cochran created Urmia’s first medical school, which was established in 1878. In the course of Cochran’s quarter-century long leadership, dozens of medical students graduated from this School. Over the decades, Cochran was joined by other American doctors — who remained permanently in Iran. In 1905, the year of his passing, the New York Times published a moving obituary on Cochran’s legacy.

Shaping the Future

As the foregoing discussion shows, Iranian-Americans are deeply connected to the democratic traditions of the U.S. because of the long and historically grounded relationship between the two people. Given the vast capabilities at its disposal, the main challenge and opportunity for the Iranian-American community is to see how it can maintain its cultural attachment and knowledge of Iran despite the lack of political relations between United States and Iran.

For this purpose, we must delve into some of the salient issues confronting the Iranian-American community, and to explore ways of crafting innovative solutions that can better harness the capabilities and assets of the community for domestic and global purposes.

  • A Demographic Assessment of the Iranian-Americans/Results of Opinion Polls

It is crucial to examine the limitations of the current Census numbers where no provision exists for “Iranian-American,” and community members are required to check “other” and write in “Iranian-American” to be counted. The official number of Iranian-Americans is thus reported at less than 400,000, a significant underestimate. A detailed breakdown is needed of the city-regions in North America which host the highest number of Iranians: Southern and Northern California, the Washington Metropolitan Area (including Southern Maryland and Northern Virginia), Houston, etc. Using Geographic Information Systems and other mapping software, we can provide an easy-to-digest account of where people of Iranian origin have settled in North America. Where data are unavailable, it is critical to ascertain how new research can fill existing gaps.

  • The Effect of Recently Tightened Economic Sanctions on the Iranian-American Community

The ever-more stringent sanctions on Iran, which include the country’s public and most private financial institutions, have made it prohibitively difficult to transact with Iranian entities in any sphere. The effect of the sanctions must be examined on those members of the Iranian-American community who own property in Iran, or those who have depended for their sustenance on their business transactions with or their pension from Iran. The recently instituted exemptions, announced by President Obama as part of his Iranian New Year message in late March 2012, must be examined as they pertain to information and knowledge products. The specific humanitarian exemptions such as remittances, disaster relief, medical services, and others exemptions must be discussed in relation to the current modus operandi of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) which oversees the implementation of the sanctions policy on Iran. We must also discuss the extent to which the current sanctions regime allows academic and cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Iran. The legal complexities of this issue must be dissected by Iranian-North American lawyers who have specific expertise in this area.

  • Iranian Studies Programs in American Universities – including Persian language learning facilities and funding streams available in pre- and post-secondary educational institutions in the U.S.

An in-depth look is needed at the leading centers of Iranian studies in American universities, focusing on their capacities and current limitations, exploring the types of funding that are now or potentially available to expand existing programs or launch new ones: University of Maryland at College Park, [] Stanford University, [], Princeton University [] Columbia University [] University of California Los Angeles [] University of California Irvine [] We must also compose a comprehensive list of Iranian studies professors across American universities and how their individual and collective capacity can be strengthened. Also important is to take stock of the main Iranian student organizations in universities across the U.S.

  • The Key Organizations of the Iranian-American Community: A Qualitative Assessment

There is a need to provide a qualitative appraisal of the track record and potential of the main organizations and community centers of the Iranian diaspora in North America. Such an effort must include interviews with the founders and current leaders of these organizations on what their challenges and opportunities have been. The surveyed organizations might include, among others, the National Iranian American Council, [] the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian-Americans, [] Iranian-American Bar Association, [] Iranian-American Medical Association, [] Pars Equality Center, [] the Farhang Foundation, []. One of the key issues that must be covered is the cultural and other challenges that have hindered the optimal cooperation of these organizations.

  • Key Media Outlets of the Iranian Diaspora in North America

We must take stock of the key print and broadcast Persian-language media in America, with a focus on newspapers and satellite television stations. Since VOA Persian programming is staffed by diaspora members, it must also be covered. This line of inquiry must examine the range of stations and programs and publications that reach millions of Persian speakers in North America, in Iran itself, and beyond. By connecting with their producers, publishers, and editors, we need to provide a gap-analysis of what types of media outlets exist, what needs to be created, and how to make the most of their capacity. This type of research will be based on in-depth interviews with key Persian-language media leaders in Los Angeles, the Washington, D.C. area, etc.

  • Promoting Integration

An examination is needed of the current level of integration and success of the Iranian- American community in the following key fields: business (high-tech, finance, real estate, etc.) politics and government on all levels and branches (including law enforcement and military), mainstream media, and philanthropy. By identifying successful and outstanding examples in these and other arenas, we can make suggestions on how the Iranian-American community can benefit from the experiences of success among their ranks, and how the younger generation can receive encouragement and mentoring. In this line of inquiry, we must also include a comparative analysis of where the Iranian-American community stands in comparison to better-established communities.

  • Key Opportunities for the Iranian-American Community

Finally, to gain a deep understanding of the challenges and opportunities confronting Iranian-Americans, we must consider the kinds of programs and activities which have the highest chance of ensuring that this community reaches its full potential. We must discuss the current status of Iranian-American Community Centers — especially in southern and northern California and Northern Virginia/Southern Maryland and to create spaces where community members and their non-Iranian guests can convene to produce and advance Iranian culture and heritage, community development, and the building of bridges between the Iranian-American and other communities. We must explore activities that can lead to reconciliation and more successful collective action among hitherto divergent groups within the Iranian-American community. The possibility of designing and holding an Annual Iranian-American Convention or an Iranian-American Congress must be discussed, which could draw thousands of outstanding and committed community members, and exemplary organizations, to explore possibilities for cooperation and mutual advancement.