Type to search

On the Iranian Diaspora

Fall 2009 Features

On the Iranian Diaspora

Iran is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. But what of the over three million Iranians outside Iran?

There has been heightened fascination with Iran since at least 1979. The recent contested presidential elections and the escalating bras de fer over the country’s nuclear programme have only fed this interest. Still, Iran and Iranians remain very much misunderstood outside of the territorial boundaries of Iran. And this, strangely, for a nation that has been in existence for over 2,500 years – home to one of the world’s earliest and continuous civilizations; one that has made countless contributions to the human condition.

For most foreign observers, the word ‘Iran’ triggers only the sad images of a tormented people under authoritarian rule, a recent history of war and conflict and a highly conservative, theocratic political system with a deep-seated animosity toward the West. Accurate though many of these impressions may be, thirty years against the backdrop of thousands of years of history and socio-cultural evolution can neither reasonably tell the full Iranian story nor provide a proper understanding of Iranian consciousness. Further contributing to this ‘Persian enigma’ is the Iranian government’s isolationist posture since the 1979 Revolution – a posture that has circumscribed any meaningful cultural exchange or open contact with the outside world.

And yet, behind the heavy formal ‘curtail’ of the Islamic Republic that one typically observes in the popular media, lies a highly sophisticated, cosmopolitan Iranian society with a profound self-awareness – an awareness of its ancient culture and history, as well as a sincere yearning for political reform and respect for basic civil liberties. Indeed, the recent upheaval in the country over the presidential elections is a clear example of the social dynamism that is alive and well in Iran. To be sure, the Iranian story has not yet been fully narrated.

Just as ‘veiled’ as the Iranian population inside Iran are the three million-plus Iranians – the Iranian diaspora – living outside of Iran proper. Scattered across the globe, the vibrant Iranian diaspora can doubtless help to demystify both Iran and Iranians. Quite evidently, this diaspora can also help to develop Iran itself economically, socially and, in time, politically. It can equally assist in developing options for intelligent and constructive strategic response to Tehran’s belligerence. Our task in this piece is to explore this exotic diaspora in its various dimensions and possible missions.

Mass Iranian migration is a relatively new social phenomenon. Indeed, with the exception of ancient sporadic migrations – say, after the invasions of Persia by Alexander of Macedon in 331 BC, the Arab conquest of 633 AD or the Mongol devastations that commenced in 1219 – Iranians have had, until recently, little cause for leaving their country en masse. Note: The Arab conquest of 633 resulted in the exodus of, among others, a large number of Iranian Zoroastrians – the ancestors of today’s Parsis – to India. And Zoroastrianism, of course, is Iran’s ancient religion, predating both Christianity and Islam. It preaches, inter alia, gender equality. Indeed, the teachings of Zarathustra, the faith’s prophet, influenced Judaism and, by extension, other Abrahamic religions, the Bahá’í faith, as well as Roman and Greek philosophical traditions. The Iranian diaspora, as it is understood today, is therefore the by-product of different waves of immigration, precipitated mostly by the watershed events of the 1979 Revolution, the ensuing Iran-Iraq war and the resulting drastic transformations in Iranian society.

The first modern outpouring, from 1950 to 1979, pales by comparison with the mass population flows following the 1979 Revolution. After WW2, with a slowly recovering Iranian economy, Iran’s growing middle-class and elite increasingly engaged in the practice of sending their children abroad to pursue higher education at top schools – principally in Europe and the US. It is estimated that, by 1979, just prior to the Revolution, some 100,000 Iranians were living abroad and enrolled in the world’s top universities – particularly in the US. Included in this first modern wave of Iranian émigrés were groups of wealthy sympathizers of the monarchy, as well as members of religious minorities who left the country out of a fear of persecution in the event of the collapse of the monarchy.

The establishment of the Islamic Republic and Iraq’s invasion of Iran less than a year later in 1980 combined to trigger the major modern exodus from the country. Among the émigrés of this period was an amalgam of all of the classes of pre-revolutionary Iranian society: secular Iranians and liberals, communists, opposition groups and ordinary Iranians who simply looked unfavourably upon the changing face of Iran – restrictions on civil rights; gender inequality; forced hijab laws; and so forth – and sought a more promising future for themselves and their children. These émigrés included Iran’s intellectual and economic elite. The exodus was abrupt, disorganized and uncertain. Thousands left, leaving their possessions and properties behind – fancying their leave to be temporary – only never to return. Many had their life-long savings and real estate confiscated by the Iranian authorities. Others fled out of fear of having to undergo military service, and of being sent to their deaths in the eight-year war with Iraq.

The most recent wave of Iranian emigration – lasting from the mid-1990s to the present – is a continuation of the brain drain of the immediate post-Revolution period, with one additional traditional group: working-class migrants in search of upward social mobility. Constant in these migration flows are asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons – to date, over 100,000 in number – fleeing Iran on account of the government’s poor human rights record and crackdowns on political dissidents.

The largest concentrations of modern-day Iranians living abroad can be found in five countries spread between the Middle East, Europe and North America. The US hosts over a million Iranians – the largest Iranian émigré population in the world. The United Arab Emirates, due to its proximity to Iran – a convenient hub for Iranian business and tourism – hosts some 400,000 Iranians. Canada is third with some 120,000 Iranians (Toronto is affectionately called ‘Tehranto’ by some Iranian-Canadians), followed by Qatar and Germany, with numbers fast approaching 100,000 each. Other countries with large concentrations include Sweden, with approximately 54,000 Iranians; the UK, home to some 58,000 Iranian émigrés; and Israel, home to some 135,000 Persian Jews. (Interestingly, many Persian Jews, with roots in Iran dating back to its foundation, have refused to leave the country, thereby making Iran’s Jewish population – albeit small – the second largest in the Middle East, after that of Israel.) Turkey and increasingly Australia, are also worthy of mention for the growing number of their Iranian immigrants.

Notwithstanding the hardships of immigration and thousands of harrowing accounts of struggle, the story of the Iranian diaspora is generally one of remarkable success built on resilience and courage. Today, the Iranian diaspora is a robust and successful immigrant group. From accomplished engineers, healthcare practitioners, artists and entertainers, to journalists, scientists – Firouz Naderi, the former head of NASA’s Mars Exploitation Project, comes to mind – academics, business owners and entrepreneurs, Iranian émigrés have been quick to embrace the hospitality of their adopted nations and have, in a relatively short span of time, put themselves in a position to give back as productive citizens.

With a culture that puts immense emphasis on education and the nurturing of children’s talents – a parental obligation that is even legislated into the Iranian Civil Code – such collective success should not necessarily surprise. In the US, where the majority of the diaspora resides, Iranian-Americans have thrived with conspicuous distinction. According to a study published by the Iranian Studies Group at MIT, apart from occupying senior leadership positions at many of the Fortune 500 companies, Iranian-Americans are teaching in a wide array of disciplines as tenured professors in elite American universities, such as Berkeley, MIT, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Columbia, to name but a handful. This trend largely repeats itself in all countries inhabited by a critical mass of diasporic Iranians.

Both host states and diasporic Iranians stand to benefit from policies aimed at shattering glass ceilings that often prevent new immigrant groups from rapid integration into their new host societies. Such policies would include better foreign credentials recognition and zero-tolerance for workplace discrimination.

Not only has the post-Revolution Iranian exodus been a sizable brain drain for Iranian society, but it has also been an undeniable capital drain that has redounded squarely to the benefit of these Iranians’ new host countries. By 2006 estimates, Iranian expatriates are worth a net US $1.3 trillion. By the year 2000, diasporic Iranians had invested close to US $400 billion outside of their country, albeit with very little investment in Iran itself. These figures are much higher today. (It is estimated that the flight of human capital costs Iran a whopping US $38 billion annually.) The exodus of brainpower and capital continues at this time of writing, and will likely only increase in view of recent government purges and suppression of voices of dissent. The Iranian political landscape and the country’s failing economy – under perpetual sanctions, and beset by corruption and internal mismanagement – together offer no employment security and little opportunity for the influx of highly educated, skilled labour entering the job market each year from a population of 70 million. All this translates into net emigration from Iran.

What is to be made of these dépaysés Iranians? Once they have licked the wounds incurred by their immigration experience, diasporic Iranians should give back to their homeland, allowing it to develop economically and socially. Such ‘giving back’ can take myriad forms: creating joint ventures with clean Iranian companies; initiating development and construction projects in Iran; establishing and promoting non-governmental organizations, charities and other non-politically aligned entities charged with countering social ills in Iranian society (e.g., poverty, narcotic addiction, gender inequality, human rights abuses, discrimination); promoting civil society in Iran; encouraging the sharing of expertise between Iranian professional bodies and academic institutions and their analogues in other countries; supporting Iranian arts and artists; and assisting in the development of the potentially lucrative Iranian tourist industry. From the capital of the ancient Achaemenian kings of Iran in Persepolis to Cyrus the Great’s tomb; from the prophet Daniel’s resting place in Susa or Esther and Modechai’s mausoleums in Hamadan to some of the world’s oldest churches and mosques; from the marvels of the Caspian Sea – where black caviar is harvested – to the deserts of central Iran; from skiing at Dizin resort in the Alborz Mountains to sea-dooing in the clear blue waters of Kish Island: Iran can offer something for everyone. These and countless other treasures remain relatively unknown to the ‘outside world.’

The Iranian story is tragic, and it has been so for some time. However, with every tragedy, there is opportunity. The open-door policies of the diaspora’s new host states have, for the first time in the long history of the Iranian people, given them a platform to promote the richness of their history and culture. This platform is all the more important when juxtaposed with the peculiarly poor job done over the last 30 years by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran in representing Iranians and Iranian values. Indeed, given that the current Iranian government has been so openly hostile to the country’s history, it is the Iranian people – starting, arguably, with the diaspora – who must fill the void and create understanding.

In Egypt and India, let us recall, it was mostly the French and English who informed the Western world of the grandeur of Egyptian and Indian civilizations – albeit, granted, as an ancillary consequence of their imperial projects. In Iran, however, partly due to language barriers and the country’s relative immunity from foreign domination, the riches of Iranian civilization have been largely hidden from foreign audiences, and the Iranian story, as a result, less vividly ensconced in the imagination of the outside world.

But today’s world – powered as it is by massive flows of people, information, ideas and commerce – is an altogether different ‘chessboard,’ and the combinations of possible moves on it are quite different from those of times gone by. While the narrative of Iran and Iranians remains poorly understood, and has historically been poorly told, the time is ripe for it to be recast. The Iranian diaspora should promote cross-cultural programmes to enhance and raise interest in the Iran that the mass media seldom cover. Every Iranian émigré is, on this account, now a ‘goodwill ambassador’ of the country’s long history and culture. Such ’people’s diplomacy’ should in time eradicate stereotypes and prejudices, bridging gaps amongst civilizations. At this particularly volatile juncture in this early new century, diasporic Iranians are well placed to bridge artificial psychic fissures between the Western and Eastern worlds. Said Galileo, the celebrated 16th-century Italian polymath: The world is round. His less well known counterpart from the ‘Orient,’ Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), said much the same in the ninth century – to wit, that in a spherical world with intermingled histories, notions of East and West belong only on a compass.

Iranians and Iranian academics in the diaspora, supported by Iranian business, can partner with leading world universities to establish programmes specializing in Iranian history, politics and languages (including Proto-, Old and Middle Iranian languages), following the examples of similar programmes at leading schools like Columbia and the Sorbonne. Sporting events with athletic clubs in Iran, university exchange programmes and similar initiatives are to be encouraged. Conferences and festivals exposing the world to Iranian art, literature and poetry can also encourage this intercourse of cultures. Iranians – it must be known – have intimate obsessions with poets and poetry: they revere their ancient poets – Hafez, Rumi, Omar Khayam, Saadi, to name but a handful – like deities. Iranian poetry, often punctuated by references to Iranians’ ancient love of wine and winemaking – a trade cultivated on the Iranian plateau since 6000 BC – nurtures the soul with sweet lullabies, permeating the senses, and carrying the reader deep into the meanings of life, love and mortality.

Diasporic Iranians now have an opportunity to educate the world about Iran and its lost history more effectively than any single Iranian sovereign could ever hope to do.

For reasons directly tied to Iran’s modern political history, the country’s legal and political institutions are underdeveloped. Under authoritarian rule, it is fair to say that Iranians have generally lacked a legal culture. For the most part, first-generation Iranian émigrés are themselves susceptible to such legal lethargy. Yet, for both groups, this is slowly changing. In the diaspora, lobbying firms and community interest groups have emerged in major urban centres with Iranian populations. Enrolment in legal and political studies is also becoming increasingly popular among Iranian émigrés. This trend will in time mean increased diasporic support for legal and political developments in Iran itself.

Iran’s modern turbulence has, in addition, not allowed objective and complete historical accounts to be written about critical events and key Iranian personalities. Precisely due to the country’s tortured political story, many Iranians (within Iran and in the diaspora) simply cannot engage in political discussions without displaying emotional – often self-righteous – outbursts. Rigid ‘I am right and you are wrong’ reflexes, as well as a tendency to interpret things exclusively through a self-involved lens, make any sensible discussion of politics challenging. The monarchist therefore has one version of the world and understanding of Iranian history, the socialist another, the secular another still, the religious another, and so on. Blame lies, historically, with the ‘other.’ As a result, there are many taboos that Iranians do not dare touch. For instance, rarely can an Iranian write an objective commentary about Mohammad Reza Shah, Iran’s last monarch, or the Pahlavi dynasty without being labelled a die-hard monarchist and, by extension, a puppet of Western dominion. Similarly, any nuanced declaration (by an Iranian inside or outside of Iran) supporting Western diplomatic engagement with Tehran can be discounted out of hand and molested by allegations of collusion and sympathy with the politics of the Islamic Republic: only, the claims goes, a ‘Hezbollahi’ would dare to encourage any form of détente or rapprochement with Tehran. The natural consequence of these ‘tribal’ propensities and the patent absence of open and accurate debate is the impoverishment of the Iranian people’s account of Iran’s modern history and the track records of, inter alia, the Pahlavi dynasty and the Islamic Republic. This is a net loss for Iran, Iranians and those seeking to understand this complex nation.

Clearly, when the political situation in Iran finally changes, there is much work to be done toward reconciliation, and to establish the full truth about pivotal events in Iran’s modern history. For now, with restrictions within Iran on academic and journalistic freedoms, the role of filling this gap may very well fall to the Iranian diaspora. Yet taboos must be broken if this exercise is to have any meaning. Iranians (both in Iran and in the diaspora) must abandon the aforementioned self-defeating attitudes and work in unison to foster an intellectually creative and dynamic political culture.

Marked divisions also exist within the Iranian diaspora regarding how best to help Iran move toward democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights. Many diasporic Iranians – nostalgic about a native motherland long lost – are willing to entertain the most destructive of forces – war and collective sanctions – as a means to liberate their country from the current ruling elite. Such hard-line positions could well play directly into the hands of those who may have vastly different motives than the establishment of a democratic Iran, and effectively betray what may be called the ‘virtue of the lucky’ – a strategic naïveté born of the comfort and security of lands far removed from Iran and the very people who would have to bear the brunt of such policies. Instead, bona fide engagement – with a human rights-centred diplomacy – and a healthy Iranian economy are what are needed to bring Iran out of isolation and to nurture its socio-political growth toward democracy. History has demonstrated that there is no ‘quick fix,’ and that real and sustainable democracy can seldom be achieved through foreign imposition or force. It is for Iranians – specifically those living in Iran – to define their own political destiny, whatever form that struggle may take. In this indigenous quest, the role of the diaspora should be no more than that of a constructive supporter of such aspirations. Rash romanticism will only beget detrimental results for Iran and Iranians.

In sum, the Iranian diaspora is an ambitious and highly dynamic émigré community. It is simmering with potential and energy, and is already making positive strides in the many nations that Iranians have called home since leaving their ancient homeland. But that is not the full story, nor should it be. The diaspora has much work to do in order to correct the many misconceptions that pervade about Iran, its multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, as well as the country’s (lost) ancient history. Equally importantly, the diasporic Iranian who has the means also carries an obligation to give back and support Iran’s domestic efforts at development and progress. It is hoped that the diaspora’s effectiveness and contributions will only grow over time as diasporic Iranians form an ever closer-knit community, abandoning their traditional amour de soi and – to use an old Persian proverb – no longer “shooting at each other’s shadows.”

On all fronts, it is hoped that better – or, in F/Parsi, behtar – days lie ahead.


Sam Sasan Shoamanesh, co-founder and Managing Editor of Global Brief, is a legal advisor with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands. The views expressed in this article have been provided in the author’s personal capacity, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ICC.


You Might Also Enjoy This in GB