For some Iranian-Americans, who define their attitude to the homeland in terms of opposition to the regime, a new era of rapprochement is alarming. Marc Benhuri, a dentist and conservative commentator who refers to the Iranian government as “the Islamic Terrorist Occupier of Iran,” says the administration of President Barack Obama was “not thinking clearly” when it opened negotiations. Benhuri was close to the Shah of Iran, who was overthrown in 1979, although he says he now supports democracy, not monarchy. Benhuri says Iran remains determined to build a nuclear weapon, and the only way to prevent it from doing so would be to apply continued economic pressure until the regime falls. "They were going bankrupt," he says.
Many prominent Iranian-American analysts say the divide between those who oppose and support the negotiations is, at least in part, generational. “I think the ground has shifted a bit over time,” says Vali Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former Obama administration official. Iranian-Americans who were born after the revolution and others who maintain connections with friends and relatives in Iran, sympathize with Iranian society and don't see the talks “merely through the prism of whether this is recognition and legitimacy for the regime or not,” Nasr says. “They don't support the Islamic Republic but support engagement with Iran as a country.”
Many older Iranian-Americans, however, have overcome their anger to support negotiations. At least five of my mother’s family members, for example, were imprisoned after the revolution, in some cases for years, and faced the threat of execution before they were eventually released. Others fled into exile. And yet most of my mother’s large extended family have supported the talks, and none of them were in favor of air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The Iranian government, however, has in recent years shown intense hostility toward some expatriates. Haleh Esfandiari, who recently retired as the head of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars was visiting her elderly mother in Iran in 2007 when she was arrested on charges of espionage. Esfandiari spent nearly four months in solitary confinement at the notorious Evin Prison, which two years later took in a flood of peaceful demonstrators from Iran’s Green opposition movement. Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post’s Iranian-American bureau chief in Tehran, has been imprisoned in Evin for nearly a year on espionage charges.
“There is not much love lost between me and the regime after what they did to me, but I'm an objective person,” Esfandiari said. “Every time Iran has been engaged, Iran has behaved. Every time Iran has been ostracized, insulted, marginalized, they go to extremes.”
As Esfandiari’s husband, Shaul Bakhash, a historian at George Mason University, puts it, “You need not be a friend of the regime to favor a nuclear agreement or engagement with the regime.”
Iran’s harsh treatment of expatriates may not be eased by the nuclear deal. “Iranian intelligence [organizations] are very afraid of Iranian-Americans becoming an interlocutor for Iranians and the outside world on social and political issues,” says Hadi Ghaemi, the head of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, which recently released a video about expatriates who faced harassment upon their return. “They don't want to see that, and the nuclear accord may not change that in the short term.”
Still, many Iranian-Americans hope a deal will help advance political reform and, perhaps, help end 30 years of enmity between the U.S. and Iran. “Somebody asked me a couple of days ago, ‘Where are you from?’ And I said, ‘Iran.’ And they said, ‘That country?’” Esfandiari said. “I just think slowly, slowly, if that country will move to the background and be looked at as a normal country, that will make a big difference.”