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A startling split in the Iranian American community

While brave young women are being shot by police in Iran, their compatriots in America are being attacked for even suggesting negotiations with the regime.

Demonstrators marching in solidarity with protesters in Iran stood around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington on Oct. 29.DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images

Don’t bother showing up for the lecture that a prominent Iranian American author was supposed to give at Harvard this month. It’s been “postponed.” Harvard acted after being bombarded with protests and threatened with a large-scale demonstration.

That gave me a free evening, since I was supposed to introduce the lecturer, Trita Parsi, author of three books about Iran. It also fits into a startling pattern of harassment and threats that has passionately split the Iranian American community. Those who favor negotiation with Iran, including a new nuclear deal, are being bitterly attacked by compatriots who reject any contact with the mullahs’ regime while brave girls and women are being shot by police back home.

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Harvard’s cancellation was just the latest of several over the last few weeks. The first came on Oct. 18, when the University of Chicago canceled an appearance by the Iranian American journalist Negar Mortazavi after receiving a bomb threat. She and other female journalists who write about Iran have been barraged with chillingly explicit threats. After The New York Times published a story suggesting that American sanctions played a role in sparking the current uprising in Iran, it received a petition with 15,000 signatures denouncing the story’s author, Farnaz Fassihi, as “part of the dictatorial regime.” More than 100 scholars responded with a statement declaring that “these online smear and harassment campaigns falsely accuse female journalists of being agents or mouthpieces of the Iranian government, are often misogynistic and sexist in nature, and increasingly threaten physical harm or call for violence against these women.”

Men are also affected, minus the rape threats. This month a group in Seattle that was hosting the popular author Reza Aslan canceled the event, citing “credible threats of disruption.” That was the third cancellation in a matter of days for Aslan, who is promoting his wonderful new book, “An American Martyr in Persia: The Epic Life and Tragic Death of Howard Baskerville.” He said the venues that wanted to host him had received hundreds of “cut and paste” emails denouncing him as an apologist for Iran’s government. A similar campaign has been launched against the National Iranian American Council, a pro-diplomacy lobby in Washington.

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The wave of protests shaking Iran has dramatically sharpened the anger that now divides Iranian Americans. One group believes that only engagement will gradually draw the Islamic Republic toward moderation — and that in any case the value of a nuclear deal is so immense that negotiations must proceed regardless of domestic disturbances. Their militant critics believe that the current upheaval in Iran may be the Islamic Republic’s death knell, and that total isolation would hasten its collapse. They favor harsh sanctions on Iran, an end to nuclear diplomacy, the expulsion of Iranian diplomats from foreign capitals, and even the ejection of Iran’s soccer team from the forthcoming World Cup. (Mark your calendar: Barring an ejection, Iran plays the United States on Nov. 29.)

Some Iranian Americans who believe the Islamic Republic is on the brink of collapse seem to be jockeying for positions in the next regime — much as Cuban exiles in Miami did for decades. An exile group formerly designated by the United States as terrorist, Mujahedin-e-Khalq, has been accused of mobilizing “bot armies” to foment hate campaigns against supporters of diplomacy. Even Iran’s “crown prince,” Reza Pahlavi, son of the deposed Shah, has jumped into the competition. At a press conference in Washington last month, he described the protests in Iran as a “national revolution” and called for formation of an “interim government.”

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The female-led civic rebellion that has set off this frenzy is a product of Iran’s tortuous history. Given its millennia of cultural and political achievement, its size and location, and the sophistication of its people, Iran should be one of the world’s leading nations. Instead it is poor, isolated, and torn by anger. What happened?

The answer takes us back to the traumatic hostage crisis of 1979-80, which is the subject of a deep-dive PBS documentary, “Taken Hostage,” now available for streaming. (I appear briefly in it.) As this documentary shows, the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 did not guarantee the rise of a repressive religious regime. After radical students seized the US embassy in Tehran, though, Ayatollah Khomeini embraced their cause and purged his government of all who disagreed. That allowed him to consolidate religious power and create a political system that is not only brutal, incompetent, and corrupt but also insists on closely policing the private lives of citizens.

The PBS documentary takes modern Iran’s story further back, to its true roots. In 1953 American and British agents organized a coup that deposed Iran’s democratic government, which had nationalized the oil industry. That coup set off a series of astonishing events: the Shah returned to power, revolutionaries deposed him after 25 years, and harsh religious rule followed.

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The young women now braving bullets on Iranian streets are rebelling against all of this painful history. One of their movement’s glaring weaknesses is that it has no coherent leadership. Some Iranian Americans hope to provide it. The intolerance they are showing toward others suggests that they have fallen into the same mentality that has imprisoned generations of Iranians in an authoritarian cage.


Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.