What the US election means for Iranian Americans

The hardship Iranian Americans have faced under Trump is just one example of how American democracy is in a crisis.

A woman reads a Farsi magazine in Westwood, Los Angeles, California on July 14, 2015. [File: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson]

For Iranian Americans, the election of Donald Trump was more than an expression of intolerance and ignorance in the United States. It was an assault on their basic civil rights and the existence of their country of heritage.

In the past four years, Iranian Americans have been torn from their families, stripped of their bank accounts, and arrested at the border. A continuation of the status quo would make the community an ever-more vulnerable minority, especially as the drums of war against Iran beat louder.

The plight of Iranian Americans is proof of not only the inherent dangers of a xenophobic commander-in-chief, but of the corrosive effect warmongering policies abroad have on civil liberties at home. Many of the challenges faced by the community today are a direct consequence of tensions between the US and Iranian governments, such as the “Muslim ban” that mostly targets Iranians and is grounded in debunked security excuses, or broadly-written sanctions that have led to cases of banking and other services being denied to Iranian Americans.

The fact that Americans of Iranian heritage are now facing blatant discrimination should worry all Americans concerned with safeguarding the US as a constitutional republic. This moment calls for broad coalition building and bold political action among Americans from all ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The stakes facing the Iranian-American community

The Iranian-American community is relatively affluent and highly-educated but by no means politically monolithic. In the 2019 Public Opinion Survey of Iranian Americans, almost seven in 10 of the respondents said they will probably (19 percent) or definitely (50 percent) vote for the Democratic candidate for president in 2020, while just 21 percent said they will probably or definitely vote for President Trump’s re-election. The same poll demonstrated the top issues for the community are promoting human rights and democracy in Iran, preventing war, and easing sanctions. The community has met major setbacks on all these priorities in the Trump era.

For Iranian Americans, the Trump presidency categorically demonstrated: “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” Trump’s feverish march to war with Iran has already led to the curtailment of their civil rights and promises even more frightening consequences. This was exemplified in January when the US assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and brought the two nations to the brink of war. Soon after the news of the assassination made headlines across the world, reports emerged of hundreds of Iranian Americans being stopped after re-entering the US from Canada. Many had simply gone across the border for a concert only to be held and interrogated upon their return about their “political views and allegiances”. It later became evident this was not some isolated incident by a few bigoted border officials but stemmed from a directive from US Customs and Border Protection.

While Americans of Iranian origin face a growing atmosphere of discrimination, Iranians in Iran have suffered far worse from the devastating US economic sanctions imposed in recent years. These sanctions are creating unprecedented poverty and crushing the Iranian middle class and civil society. The academic literature shows they will diminish the potential for peaceful democratic change and entrench authoritarianism. Despite this, President Trump has doubled down on his reliance on sanctions even amid the coronavirus pandemic and coupled it with threats to destroy Iranian cultural sites and “end” Iran.

The Trump era has made the stakes crystal clear for many Iranian Americans: Either organise politically and make your voice heard or face increasing persecution. There currently exist several Iranian American advocacy organisations aiming to do precisely this, and I work for the largest, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

However, Iranian American advocacy organisations are also caught in the crossfire between the governments of the US and Iran. Shockingly, efforts to silence Iranian Americans who seek to bridge the gap between the two societies come not just from Iran’s repressive government, but also the US government in recent times.

Last summer, a scandal erupted after it emerged that a US State Department programme created to combat Iranian government propaganda, the Iran Disinformation Project, was being used to smear and slander Iranian American critics of the Trump administration’s approach to Iran, including journalists, academics, analysts, and organisations like NIAC.

While funding for the project was cut after its activities were revealed, attacks on Iranian Americans from State Department officials have continued. Recently, Ellie Cohanim, the State Department’s assistant special envoy on combatting anti-semitism, accused Sima Ladjevardian, a Democrat running for Congress in Texas’s 2nd district, of being an “Iran regime mouthpiece”. The evidence against her? Having Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who was imprisoned in Iran for years, tweet about her.

The attacks by Cohanim and the State Department at large reflect a concerted effort to marginalise and increasingly demonise Iranian Americans opposed to the Trump administration. As Dylan Williams of J-Street opined, Cohanim’s remarks amounted to a “reprehensible” and “bigoted dual loyalty accusation”, an ugly canard that has been used to destructive effect against Jewish Americans for years.

Meanwhile, within Iran, Iranian Americans have always been viewed with suspicion by the country’s security agencies. While NIAC and similar groups are accused of seeking “soft regime change” for their efforts to improve US-Iran relations, numerous Iranian Americans have been arrested in Iran while visiting on the same charge. As Xiyue Wang, a Princeton PhD student who was imprisoned in Iran for three years, recently wrote, powerful elements within the Iranian regime believe “reconciliation with the United States is threatening and unacceptable, and all attempts at rapprochement must be suppressed”.

Forming a big-tent coalition in opposition to Trumpism

The challenges currently faced by Iranian Americans are just one example of how American democracy is in a crisis moment. Protecting the US’s pluralistic and democratic traditions requires exposing Trumpism for the con it is, and groundbreaking coalition-building from Iranian Americans and Americans of all stripes.

President Trump has betrayed the voters who put him into power, particularly the white working class. His calls for overturning the Washington establishment and “draining the swamp” morphed into “deconstructing the administrative state”, as Steve Bannon put it. He protected corporate interests over anything else and rolled back consumer rights and environmental protections. He never replaced Obamacare or introduced an infrastructure plan. His tax-cut bill made the rich richer as the middle class continues to shrink. He never brought back manufacturing jobs. After being elected on a promise to end endless wars, he needlessly and recklessly took the US to the cusp of a catastrophic war with Iran.

The US desperately needs a new social contract. Even if Trump loses in November, defeating his legacy and preventing the rise of another populist demagogue in his vein necessitates Iranian, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and white Americans (including those of rural and working-class backgrounds) making common cause and standing up for the ideals this country was founded on.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.