Most Iranian Americans arrived in the United States after 1979, following the Iranian Revolution and the fall of the Shah. About 40% settled in California, primarily in Los Angeles. The United States has the highest number of Iranians outside the country. While those who supported the Shah left as soon as possible, many who did not identify with Khomeini and his clerics stayed. In the beginning, they supported the revolution because of issues with the Shah, a U.S. protegee. Two years before his overthrow, demonstrations, strikes and disapproval of the Pahlavi dynasty was commonplace. His extravagant living style was out of touch with his people. While he built up the country’s industries, infrastructure and cities, he ignored the rural villages beyond.
I interviewed Afrooz (not her real name), now a San Mateo resident, who was born in Tehran in 1964. When she was 14, the Islamic revolution changed her life. She attended an all girls’ highs school, graduated in 1982. It was common practice for teachers and principals to spy on their students and report who was loyal to the Ayatollah. Because she did not sufficiently meet that goal she had to leave the country if she wanted a university education.
She and her sister left Iran at the end of 1983 for Germany. They came to Southern California in 1985 and Afrooz moved to San Mateo in 1989 with her husband, a fellow Iranian she had met in Los Angeles. She attended San Francisco State University, studied cell and molecular biology and returned later for a master’s degree in economics. Her mother and her brother and his family remain in Iran. Her father died several years ago. He was a businessman and the family is middle-class.
She has been back to visit her family four times since 1983. She says the situation in Iran is very complex. Much work has been done on infrastructure, highways, airports and connecting small towns and villages through technology, at least around the largest cites. On the other hand, there is an abundance of bribery (almost any transaction requires a bribe including going to court), lack of rule of law, heavy traffic, air pollution and lack of political and social freedom. Unemployment is especially high among recent college grads.
Getting in and out of Iran is usually not a problem unless the government decides to keep someone hostage for ransom. On her last trip, when she took her son to see his ailing grandmother, he was not allowed to leave. The government said since both his parents were Iranian born he was required to do military service. It took 20 days of anguish to finally get a waiver from the Iranian Embassy at a multi-figure price. On the other hand, the Iranian people welcome Americans and are delighted to meet them and have them visit. And many Americans have made the trip safely. She has never seen any real demonstrations against Americans. Even on the anniversary of the hostage taking at the U.S. Embassy this year, the streets were quiet.
But what about Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and the agreement which the United States plans to rejoin. She said most Iranians feel the country should be allowed to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes but are against developing a nuclear bomb. They especially don’t like the government giving millions of dollars to Syria’s Hezbollah, and Hamas when those funds are badly needed at home. The sanctions from the nuclear arms deal have hurt.
And what about those anti-American demonstrations we see on TV? They are usually organized on Friday prayer days. There are Iranians who support the clerics. They are the militia and older people. The government has come out cruelly against any demonstrations, overpowering any opposition, sending death squads to other countries to track down the disloyal.
“People don’t support the government,” she said, “but how do we get rid of them?” The Green Revolution failed because those calling for separation of church and state were either killed or jailed. Iran is a religious country but, for most young people, religion has no place in their lives and feel religious leaders have to be replaced by a non-religious form of government. A sore point today is that COVID vaccines are given to the clergy but ordinary people have to use the black market where doses sell for up to $20,000. For the country to be successfully vaccinated, it has to be through international organizations.
Her two children have done well in the United States. One graduated from the University of Chicago and now works at the UCLA Medical School. Her son will soon graduate from Columbia University. Ultimately, she hopes for a good relationship between our two countries.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.