A month of hell for Iranian Americans

All of January's top coverage of Persian communities in the U.S.

Salaam, friends! 👋 I’m journalist Aysha Khan, and you’re reading my monthly roundup of the latest news stories about Muslims in the U.S.

January has just been hit after hit for the U.S.’s large Iranian diaspora. So I chose to dedicate a section of this newsletter to the month’s most important coverage of Iranian American communities. Except then I hit Substack’s email length limit and I had to split the newsletter it into two editions: One for the Iran stuff, one for everything else.

This email is the one with all the Iran news.

  • Nawres Waleed Hamid, a U.S. citizen who grew up in Iraq and was serving as a translator for the American military, was the latest American to die in the U.S.’s nearly two-decade military entanglement in the Middle East. His death in a rocket attack in December was quickly seized upon by President Trump, touching off a chain of events that, for several days, set the world on edge.

  • When the U.S. blamed an Iran-backed militia for Mr. Hamid’s death, Trump responded by ordering the killing of Iran’s prominent Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in turn prompting retaliatory strikes by Iran against American troops in Iraq. But Trump would have never let the contractor, an Iraqi immigrant, into the country in the first place, Arun Gupta writes.

  • In Tehrangeles—the Persian neighborhood in central Los Angeles—Iranian Americans had mixed reactions to the U.S.-ordered strike that assassinated Soleimani. Members of California’s strong Iranian diaspora say they were shocked, alarmed or relieved that Iran’s highest-ranking official, the man seen as a cultural icon in Iran and the mastermind behind the Islamic Republic’s military operations throughout the region, is gone. But virtually all acknowledged that life would likely get more difficult for Iranian Americans.

  • “It was the impending feeling of doom”: Iranian Americans say they’re trying to pick up the pieces after enduring 10 days from hell, including facing vitriol from lawmakers and neighbors alike.

  • “On one extreme, if there is a war, will Trump decide to bring back internment by executive order? Short of internment, Iranian Americans are at risk of unlawful surveillance, national registry programs, hate crimes, overpolicing, employment discrimination and harassment,” Nima Rahimi noted.

  • Indeed, the legal foundations for such punitive action against the Iranian diaspora already exist. Since 9/11, courts have granted the government broad leeway to label groups “terrorists,” and enact a suite or repressive measures against its own civilians, a law professor explained.

  • Take Farnoush Amiri’s family. In 2005, when she was 12, she woke up to her family’s home being searched and their belongings inspected. Afterward, her family questioned their place in the U.S., but they didn't talk about that day for more than a decade. Now, she shares her story in an emotional essay for NPR.

  • The shooting has put security and law enforcement agencies on high alert, fearing potential cyberattacks or the presence of a so-called “sleeper agent.” New Mexico Homeland Security officials asked an Iranian American cultural group in the state if they’ve seen any suspicious activities, raising eyebrows for the group.

  • Perhaps the most immediate implications have been for Iranian travelers, or Iranian Americans in the U.S. planning to travel. More than 60 Iranian-born people have come forward with accounts of having been detained and questioned days after the strike. Reports suggest that up to 200 travelers were stopped, including U.S. and Canadian citizens and legal permanent residents, while crossing the U.S.-Canada border in Washington State.

  • Even as federal officials continue to deny that Iranian American travelers were stopped at the border, instead blaming holiday staffing shortages for delays, an email from one border officials suggests that officers were told to target Iranians. The Department of Homeland Security has opened an investigation into the border stops.

  • Meanwhile, a whistleblower leaked an internal CBP bulletin, directing border officers to detain and vet “all persons” born 1961-2001 with links such as birthplace, travel or citizenship to Iran or Lebanon, as well as individuals of any other nationality who had traveled to Iran or Lebanon. The memo, which NBC News independently verified and which U.S. officials are now investigating, said CBP was looking for military connection—particularly membership in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard's special Quds force—as well as extremist ideology, links to terrorism, criminality and “deceptive behaviors.” The directive also asks directly about religion: “Even if they are not of SHIA faith, anyone can state they are Baha’i, please question further to determine if this is the case...Anyone can state they are from a different faith to mask their intentions.”

  • The incident in Washington isn’t an anomaly. Americans and travelers of Iranian descent have long been harassed at U.S. border crossings, HuffPost found. That’s particularly been the case for students admitted to U.S. universities: At least 17 Iranian students have been deported since August, including many here in Boston, leaving universities concerned.

  • At Boston’s Logan airport, an Iranian student was refused entry to the U.S. and deported, though he had a valid student visa to attend Northeastern University—and an emergency stay granted by a judge. A judge later dismissed the case as “moot,” saying, “I don’t think [CBP is] going to listen to me.” Officials later said they believe he has family ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah. “We are seeing a pattern by an already empowered rogue federal agency targeting Iranians for deportation,” the student’s lawyers wrote in a column calling for accountability and oversight over CBP.

  • Another Iranian student, set to begin their Ph.D. at Michigan State University, was also deported after arriving at Detroit Metro Airport with a valid student visa.

  • One Toronto-based truck driver says he was denied entry to the U.S. by border guards who questioned him about his last name, Soleimani. “I have a newborn girl…I'm worried for her,” he said. “She got my last name too."​​​​​

  • Iranian Americans are ensnared in political purgatory: On the one hand, family members from Iran are barred from entering the U.S., and their Iranian American relatives, who are facing the prospect of a civil rights crackdown, cannot travel back to their native country due to heightened political tensions. “There’s a whole side of a family that I may never see or know,” one Mana Kharrazi said.

  • As if the travel anxiety and fear of war wasn’t enough, the Iranian diaspora suffered another blow this month: A San Diego psychology student, her sister and their mother were among the 176 people killed—including more than 60 Canadians—when a Ukrainian jetliner was shot down after taking off from a Tehran airport.

  • The families of five Americans believed to currently be in Iranian custody have called on Trump to bring their relatives home.

  • A coalition of Sunni and Shiite leaders in Southern California called for a deescalation of tensions with Iran, saying war will harm innocent people and devastate economies.

  • “As sectarian tensions escalate and we edge closer to another regional conflict, now is the time for leaders to resist calls for revenge and retaliation,” CAIR’s Abbas Barzegar writes. After all, he says, Sunni and Shiite Muslims say the same prayers at cemeteries.

  • U.S. sanctions have led to severe hardships for Iran’s residents. But Iranians in America also suffer consequences, The Guardian reports. “I’m paying taxes to the government who purchases military equipment to bomb my parents in Iran,” one woman said. “If war happens, what should I do?”

  • Iranian Americans remain deeply divided over the Islamic Republic. Some support intervention at all costs; others seek compromise between preventing warfare and acknowledging state repression. “Our divisions leave Iranian Americans vulnerable as pawns in either country’s political agenda,” Mana Kharrazi writes. “We remain fragmented and unable to break the cycle of violence and demonization harming us no matter where we live. Our inability to come together prevents us from helping those who need us the most: our loved ones in Iran.”

  • Mona Mostatabi reflects on life when your two homes are on the brink of war: “It's really devastating to know that the fears that I grew up with are now being passed down to the next generation.”

  • “For many everyday Iranian-Americans, 9/11 also reactivated an old traumatic fear of being blamed and villainized by Americans for things the Iranian regime did,” Mitra Jalali writes. “Many of them dealt with it by receding from politics in fear. Yet a generation of us—their kids—ran headlong into it all instead…Today, the Iranian-American friends in my peer generation are organizers, activists, artists, policy aides and political candidates.”

  • CNN asked six Iranian Americans about what they think will happen next, from discrimination at home to a potential breakthrough in the crisis. VICE spoke to seven young Muslim Americans about their experiences with how the perception of Muslims changed after the 2003 Iraq War. Prism wrote about how young Muslims say a war with Iran would fuel a war against their communities at home. Bustle asked three young Iranian and Iraqi American women about how they’re coping with their anxiety over the conflict. Iranian Americans in San Diego, San Antonio, Columbus, Denver, Dearborn, Arizona, Minnesota, Oregon and Connecticut also spoke to media about how the tensions are hurting their lives.

  • Hollywood’s longtime use of Iran as a go-to villain has helped shape U.S. public sentiment and, perhaps, even public policy, the Washington Post reports.

  • Some Iranian Americans are using art and culture as “their anchor for remembering themselves in this U.S. context,” from a documentary on the history of Iranians in the Bay Area to a play tracing the influence of Western philosophies on the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

  • Trump tweeted in Farsi about how he “stood with” Iranians since the beginning of his presidency. “Yep, Trump deeply cares about the people of Iran, and you can tell by the way he has banned all of them from America,” Dean Obeidallah responds.

👌 SHOUT OUT

This month I’m spotlighting the National Iranian American Council, a non-profit organization founded in 2002 to advocate for Iranian Americans by producing research, analysis and community building initiatives. The NIAC led the response to the Soleimani killing, rallied against potential war with Iran, strategized as Iranians were detained at the border and challenged the CBP over its denial of the detentions.

That work garnered the suspicion of some lawmakers, including Sens. Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz and Mike Braun, who urged the Justice Department to open up an investigation into the group and said it “purports to improve understanding between American and Iranian people but in reality seems to spread propaganda and lobby on behalf of the Iranian government.” Dozens of civil rights groups and activists repudiated the letter, as did NIAC representatives.

🗣 TALK TO ME

As always, please send me your comments, questions and corrections! Otherwise, we’ll chat again in a few weeks, inshaAllah. 👋

- Aysha