“It was a completely harmonious panel,” Hakakian recalled. “We were all in agreement about everything, and then this other writer started saying, ‘We are the people of Persia, the great people who built Persepolis,’ and rather than kind of feel the usual warm, fuzzy feeling, I just started getting really annoyed. . . . How many times do we need to march out these glorious things from 2,000 years ago, as if preserving the dignity of the past is more important than dealing with what’s immediately happening today?”
Hakakian is trying to do just that; this month, she will address the Democratic Caucus on the United States’ Iran strategy in the wake of charges last month that Tehran was plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador here. The alleged plot in some ways mirrors the events described in Hakakian’s new book, “Assassins of the Turquoise Palace,” about the 1992 killing of four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant.
The killings occurred as Germany was improving political and financial ties with Iran, and German diplomats initially tried to blame the deaths on a Turkish faction. But the investigation, led by a determined Berlin prosecutor, eventually implicated Tehran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard Corps that had a list of 500 political assassination targets abroad.
In light of the 1997 verdict in the case, European Union governments suspended relations with Iran for nearly half a year, and Interpol put Iran’s then-minister of intelligence on its most-wanted list. Afterward, Tehran halted political hits in Western countries (though they continued elsewhere). But last month, the U.S. Justice Department accused an Iranian American used-car salesman of trying — on behalf of the Quds Force — to pay a Mexican gangster to kill the Saudi ambassador in a Washington restaurant.
The subject of Hakakian’s book is not typical fare for Iranian American writers of her generation. The former “60 Minutes” producer’s first book, “Journey from the Land of No,” published in 2004, was a memoir about her Jewish girlhood in the 1970s and ’80s in pre- and post-revolution Tehran. After its publication, she sat on panels with other Iranian American writers (a couple of which I joined her on), reminding audiences of the complexities of Jewish life in Iran, the blossoming of the Iranian film industry and the strong youth movement challenging the regime. We wrote books showing that Iranians are just like people anywhere — eccentric, annoying, endearing — and crossed our fingers that our writing wouldn’t enrage the regime or the relatives.
But since Iran’s violent 2009 crackdown on post-election demonstrators, something has snapped. Iranians are fed up with apologizing for their country. Hakakian, 44, thinks the change is long overdue.