Why the Mullahs fear the Iranian diaspora

Why the Mullahs fear the Iranian diaspora

The Organization of Iranian American Communities march to urge 'recognition of the Iranian people's right for regime change,' in front of the White House in Washington, DC. (AFP)

To more efficiently shape policies toward the Islamic Republic, it is vital to pay attention to the voices of the Iranian diaspora residing outside Iran for several reasons.

First of all, Iran has a sizable diaspora with over five million Iranians living abroad. Although most of the Iranian immigrants left Iran in 1979, a considerable amount of Iranians continued to leave Iran, reaching a peak in the early 1990s, and again more recently because of the sharp increase in the brain drain. Iran has reportedly the highest brain drain in the world, with approximately 150,000 educated individuals leaving the country every year.

Secondly, due to the socio-economic status of the Iranian expatriates, they can be a robust platform in potentially helping to change the destructive behavior of the Iranian government and transforming Iran into a more prosperous and peaceful country.

According to several nuanced reports, including a study conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Iranians abroad have managed to create a successful immigration story wherever they form a diaspora. Reportedly, the Iranian diaspora in the United States is among the most highly educated people in the country and has excelled in various sectors, including science, arts, business and academia. A combined net worth of the Iranian diaspora is more than $1.3 trillion, as many hold high level positions in Fortune 500 companies, elite American universities and the medical profession.

As a result, understanding the aspirations and demands of the Iranian diaspora toward the Islamic Republic could be instrumental in helping foreign governments form policies toward the ruling clerics of Iran.

To better understand what the Iranians living abroad want to change in Iran, it is important to look back at the reasons which forced them to leave their country.

Many Iranians left Iran when the theocratic establishment came to power. The immigration trend continued under the Islamic Republic as several important rights including religious freedom, freedom of speech, press, and assembly, equal opportunities and women rights were suppressed with the regime’s iron fist.

Since its establishment in 1979, the Iranian regime has considered Iranian expatriates as a threat and has viewed them through the prism of suspicion or foreign conspirators.

That is why the regime has repeatedly arrested, imprisoned and tortured dual citizens. Currently, dual citizens held as political prisoners in Iran include Iranian-Americans Karan Vafadari and his wife Afarin Neyssari, and Baquer and Siamak Namazi, as well as the British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who worked for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency.

The Iranian authorities are concerned that Iranians who live abroad can contribute in importing Western culture into the society, specifically among the youth in Iran.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

The Iranian authorities are concerned that Iranians who live abroad can contribute in importing Western culture into the society, specifically among the youth in Iran.

From the perspective of the Iranian leaders, Western infiltration is much more of a threat than other factors. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei famously warned against those who “infiltrate in a country or society, and control the culture of that society by imposing their own culture on them, will try to weaken the foundations of the family in that society, as one important strategy. This has been done in many countries, unfortunately. Men are made irresponsible, and women are made immoral.” He added that “It is the loss of cultural identity that leaves nations defenceless and captured in the hands of foreigners. This is facilitated by the collapse of the foundation of families in society.”

That is partly why the theocratic establishment has also routinely targeted the families and relatives of those Iranians who live outside the country, particularly in the West.

In addition, the overwhelming majority of Iranians who live abroad want to see a democratic Iran. Recently, thousands of Iranian Americans attended a rally in Washington DC laying out their demands, which included imposing sanctions on Iran’s top leaders, particularly the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. They also chanted “Change, change, change. Regime change in Iran.”

“It’s always important to come and be in solidarity with Iranian Americans who are for regime change. And also to show the Iranian people and the rest of the world that there is a strong resistance that’s been around for 40, 50 years, and make sure they hear our voices loud and clear,” Los Angeles resident Delaram Ahmady, 26, told the Washington Examiner. “We don’t want an attack, we don’t want war. We just want to back the Iranian people and the Iranian resistance,” she added.

The White House took notice of the rally of the Iranian Americans, as the Vice President Mike Pence said on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday: “What we want to do is stand with the Iranian people, thousands of whom gathered outside the White House on Friday, and thousands of whom took to the streets last year in communities across Iran.”

The Iranian regime fears the Iranian diaspora because of its influence and hopes of establishing a democratic system of governance in Iran. To pressure the Tehran regime, the international community must listen to the voices of the Iranian diaspora and support them.

• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh

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