By all rights, Amy Zarafshar should be deeply suspicious of any nuclear deal with Iran’s Islamic regime. She vividly recalls being forced to leave her homeland as a sixth-grader, with each family member allowed to take only $500 and a suitcase, after the 1979 Shiite revolution swept out Iran’s pro-American monarchy and much of its middle class fled into exile.
But now, having built a comfortable life in America, Zarafshar is actively rooting for President Obama’s recent diplomatic overture to Tehran and says she worries that congressional meddling could quash the chance for a nuclear accord. On Tuesday, the McLean, Va., woman hosted a reception that raised $100,000 for the National Iranian American Council, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports the current bilateral talks.
“Yes, we suffered, but that was a long time ago. Now it is the people of Iran who are suffering, and this agreement could start opening things up for them,” Zarafshar said during an interview in her spacious, well-appointed home.
“I don’t want war to come to my homeland,” she added in a burst of emotion, referring to fears of an American military attack on Iran, which some U.S. hawks have advocated. “I don’t want to see it bombarded like Iraq, with innocent people killed. We have to find a way out.”
After years of staying aloof from public debate, Iranian Americans — one of the nation’s most affluent and educated immigrant groups — are emerging as an unexpected and articulate constituency for U.S. diplomatic engagement with the ayatollahs. More than 600,000 live in the United States, including tens of thousands in the Washington area.
The bilateral nuclear talks have been tense and controversial, with Iran under pressure from U.S. economic sanctions to curb its nuclear enrichment program. In early April, negotiators reached a framework agreement and set a June 30 deadline to finalize the details. But skeptical congressional opponents demanded the right to vote on any final agreement, and the president reluctantly agreed.
For many exiles, supporting the talks has more to do with family ties and sentimental attachment to their homeland than with the technical and political aspects of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Many are highly critical of the Tehran regime, but some believe its current leaders are more moderate and open to change than past officials.
According to the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, a nonprofit advocacy group, 80 percent of Iranian Americans still have relatives in Iran and nearly one-third travel there every few years. The group has called for a negotiated settlement that “effectively cuts off Iran’s pathway to a nuclear weapon,” and says it is “critical” that Congress not take any measures that could derail the talks.
The evolution in exile attitudes has paralleled the surge in visits to their former homeland. Many returnees have found Iranian society more welcoming than they expected. They have also seen firsthand the impact of U.S. sanctions on their friends and relatives and, more recently, the public enthusiasm among Iranians for improving relations with the United States.
Kevin Saghafi, 59, a car dealer in Leesburg, happened to be visiting Tehran in April when negotiators in Switzerland announced the framework agreement. He said the experience was like being in Georgetown at night on the Fourth of July.
“The amount of energy and excitement in the streets was amazing. People were shouting and dancing and congratulating each other,” Saghafi said. “It was not at all what I had expected. Everyone there wants to see peace between our countries, and as an Iranian American, I do too. It’s like your mother and father getting into a fight and you want them to stop.”
Others hope a successful nuclear pact leads to a revival of bilateral trade and allows Iran to be seen as a more reliable partner for the West, even as a Muslim theocracy. Babak Hoghooghi, a lawyer in the District who often travels to Iran, said young people there are eager to become part of the global economy.
“Liberal democracy is not on the horizon, but Iranians don’t want another revolution,” he said. “They want change and progress to evolve, and they want to join the community of nations.”
Such descriptions contrast sharply with the world’s image of Iran and its rulers as fanatically anti-Western and domestically oppressive. An Iranian American journalist from The Washington Post, Jason Rezaian, has been jailed in Iran for the past 10 months and charged with espionage. Many members of Congress say the Obama administration is too eager to reach a deal and are likely to oppose it.
Not all Iranian exiles favor the current talks, especially members of religious minorities such as Jews, who tend to identify with Israel’s fears of an Iranian attack. But many others with equal reason to mistrust Tehran — including those who fled the 1979 revolution with nothing — now seem convinced that the chance for nuclear detente is too important to waste.
“If this nuclear deal does not work, there will only be more American sanctions and the Iranians would build thousands of centrifuges. This will be fodder for the people on both sides who want to beat the drums for war,” said Paymaun Lotfi, 46, an orthopedic surgeon in Woodbridge, Va., whose family left Iran when he was 15.
Lotfi noted that for years, Iranian Americans stayed out of the public eye and focused on building successful private lives. But now, he said, “we need to be engaged, to talk to Congress, to let our opinions be known. Many of us have hoped for a regime change, but now we have seen what happened in Iraq when the U.S. got involved and things went from bad to worse. Nobody wants to see that.”
The National Iranian American Council, based in the District, has become a driving force behind the pro-diplomacy push. Its president, Trita Parsi, has been tarred by critics as a lobbyist for the ayatollahs, but he said the celebration in Iran over the framework agreement proved that his group was right to support the talks.
“Opponents said if we talked to Iran we would betray democracy, but seeing people dancing in the streets was the ultimate evidence that they were wrong,” Parsi said. “The hope for change is in the society, not the regime.”
The views of Iranian Americans are still less influential than those of more outspoken and politicized exile groups, such as Cuban Americans who long dominated U.S. policy toward communist Cuba. They have had few friends in Congress on Capitol Hill, where anti-Iran sentiment remains strong.
But at Zarafshar’s lavish party Tuesday evening, dozens of affluent exiles mingled easily with two supportive members of Congress, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) as well as several former legislators. The evening’s message was urgent and the mood was self-assured.
“Thirty years ago, I ran through the mountains to escape. Many people in this room have similar stories, but we do not want revenge,” said Nader Sadeghi, 54, a professor of surgery at George Washington University. “If there can be an opening between Iran and the U.S., both will benefit. There will be more hope for liberalization in Iran and less chance of war.”
Parsi, who spoke at the crowded gathering, said the exile community’s dawning activism is beginning to achieve results. “We have allies, and doors have opened,” he said. “If the Iranian American community was dead set against negotiations, it would be hard for Obama to make the case.”