Iranians in America seem to be coming full circle as they prepare to complete another trip around the sun. At the start of spring, Iranians the world over celebrate a new year, known as Nowruz. This year, it takes place today.
Because it’s such an important holiday for Iranians, Nowruz has become an occasion for sending them messages. It has been used for that purpose by both Washington and Tehran.
But this time around, there’s little to celebrate, as the Trump administration’s antagonistic attitude toward all things Iranian seems set to harden.
Two generations after the first mass arrival of Iranians in the United States following the 1979 revolution, Iranians have become one of the most successful immigrant populations in this country’s history.
Both the Obama and Bush administrations distinguished between the Iranian people and the regime in Tehran. President George W. Bush held Nowruz celebrations in the White House. As for President Barack Obama, in every year of his presidency he sent a message to the people of Iran to mark their most important celebration. In his taped remarks, Obama congratulated Iranians on the new year and talked about the opportunities that would be available to them if the Islamic Republic stopped its menacing activities at home and abroad. He called for the regime in Tehran to end its crackdown on human rights and free Americans imprisoned there.
It was an attempt to woo hearts and minds, and it worked.
The sanctions Obama placed on Iran over its contentious nuclear program were some of the toughest in history. Still, many Iranians, in part because of the simple gesture of addressing them directly and respectfully, believed he wasn’t their enemy.
President Trump, on the other hand, seems intent on doubling down on policies designed to vilify Iranians.
His efforts to implement travel restrictions against the citizens of several Muslim-majority countries, which have been struck down as unconstitutional several times, overwhelmingly affected Iranians, since they made up a greater number of visa applications than all the other affected nationalities combined.
Perhaps the clearest message of all is in Trump’s choice of guest on Nowruz. It’s not a successful Iranian American or dissident. Not Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi or the Oscar-winning director Asghar Farhadi. In a most likely unintended coincidence, Trump will meet, instead, with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, whose desire to undercut Iran by any means necessary is his only policy position that appears genuine.
It’s worth recalling that Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the man who orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks as well as most of the men who carried them out, is not on the list of countries affected by the travel ban.
Through a series of appointments and policy moves, this administration is sending a very clear message to Iranians: We don’t want you here.
Consider the story of Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, an Iran expert at the State Department who recently found herself at the center of a smear campaign by a conservative website that described her as an Obama administration holdover (and supporter of the Iran nuclear deal) who had “burrowed into the government” under Trump. Rather than ignoring the wildly inaccurate report, Trump administration members seized upon it, sharing negative information (much of it wrong) about Nowrouzzadeh, who was ultimately transferred as a result.
These are the same people who want the United States to abandon its commitment to the Iran nuclear deal (which, it’s worth noting, directly involves a number of other nations in addition to the United States and Iran). Debating the deal’s virtues and drawbacks is entirely admissible, but it should never be used as a pretext for the persecution of any Americans, no matter what their backgrounds.
Iranians have become a part of the fabric of this country, and I’m always reminded of that this time of year.
Last week, Nowruz festivities began with a tradition that dates back eons. On the final Tuesday night of the year, Iranians jump over fires in a ritual act of purification meant to relieve the pain, suffering and unhappiness of the outgoing year.
Hundreds of Iranians gathered at Freedom Plaza in Washington. It was a freezing night, but the celebration, with blaring Persian pop music and three symbolic fires that attendees lined up to cross, kept the crowd there — in plain view of Trump International Hotel — for hours.
Every imaginable kind of Iranian was there. There were toddlers and senior citizens, new arrivals and people who have been here for decades. Muslims, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and Bahais. And plenty of atheists. Some were mixed race like me. Others were gay. Democrats and Republicans.
Iranians are here, and we aren’t going anywhere.