In the middle of February, I began writing an article that examined the roots and implications of the undying Iran/US conflict from the perspective of Iranian Americans in the Pacific Northwest. But by the end of February, just before the work was completed, the novel coronovirus claimed its first American life. And on the first day of March, images from a high-resolution satellite operated by Colorado-based space technology corporation Maxar showed "Iranian authorities digging large numbers of graves in the Qom area... [for] the growing numbers of coronavirus victims in the country."
At this point my article seemed dated. We had, it appeared, entered a much more different world than the one that prompted my investigation. Iran was now busy burying the dead, and some of its top leaders were counted among them. Meanwhile, Seattle became, according to the New York Times, the American capital of the virus. The US/Iran conflict would certainly be shelved for the time being.
I was wrong.
The US is still preparing for a war with Iran. On March 27, the New York Times reported that a "secret Pentagon directive orders planning to try to destroy a militia group backed by Iran." On April 1, 2020, a day the future may recognize has having considerable world-historical importance, Trump tweeted that "Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on US troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!" Two days later, Fox News reported that the U.S. military is moving air defense systems "into Iraq following attacks on American and coalition forces in recent weeks."
How is it possible that the US, at a time like this—with over 330,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country—can find the wherewithal to continue its age-old beef with Iran?
One might say it must have something to do with Trump's irrational hatred of all things Obama. The US's first black president struck a historic nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, and, almost immediately, the wall of tension between the nations dissolved. Boeing soon received a large order for planes from Tehran. And European capital began flowing into Iran. All of this progress was soon squashed when Trump become president. He wasted no time going after his predecessor's legacy. There was Obamacare, the Paris accord, and the Iran deal. Trump succeeded in exterminating the last two achievements.
But let's think about this: Would Trump have left the deal alone if some other president—say, George W. Bush—had signed it? I do not think so. If one takes a few steps back from Trump's blazing cathexis with Obama, we will see at the top levels of the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House, the men and women who kept pushing the president to kill the deal. It was not, in my estimation, just Trump hating on a black man's success. The renewed preparations for war, the refusal to end the punishing sanctions during the pandemic, can be attributed to something deeper than MAGA. The psyche of the US's governing body has a cathexis with Iran.
And so, my late-winter work on the Iranian Americans, their situation, and the US's long conflict with Iran is, sadly, still relevant, even now as the US begins to bury its dead in the thousands.
My story begins in the twilight of a day late in January. I'm in Beacon Hill’s Baja Bistro having drinks with an Iranian American woman, Roya. She sits across from me on a high table at the corner next to a window. The sun is setting on the first day without rain in nearly a month. Those mornings were dark and rainy, those afternoons were less dark and rainy, those evenings returned to the exact same dark and rain of the mornings. Roya is drinking a green-colored margarita in a tall glass; I, a white wine that’s a little too sweet.
“When I was a girl, I was told by my parents to tell white people I was more white than them. It was strange. I, like other Iranians, was officially white [in the US]. But we were not treated like white people; we did not get any of the benefits of whiteness,” says Roya, who does not look white at all. Her skin is unambiguously brown, and she has the kind of black hair you rarely find on white women (not thin and straight, but thickish and curly).
Roya is 38 and an opthamologist. I met her a year ago through a mutual friend, Darrius, who is also Iranian American but who moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2019. (LA’s Iranian population is the largest in the world outside of Iran.) We met at a dinner party at Darrius’ First Hill apartment in the winter of 2018. At one point during the small gathering, Roya and I began talking in the kitchen, which had a long rectangular window above the stove overlooking a massive and deep construction site. When I learned about her line of work, I told her about the floaters in my eyes. Always been there. Nothing can be done about them. Some see ghosts, I’m condemned to to see cells with nowhere to go and nothing much to do.
Later in the evening, our conversation took a serious turn. As I looked around the white kitchen counter for a charger compatible with my phone, I explained to Roya that I had had one of those bad days. I'd left home without my wallet, my passport, and my phone charger. And now the battery on my phone, the only means of paying for a ride home, was almost dead. She gave me a puzzled look and asked if I always carried my passport. I told her I did. I have a state ID, but I came from a class of black Africans who are unable to trust any political situation no matter how stable it appears. What we know is that the time to get out of an imploding country can suddenly be reduced to a matter of hours. She said she only recently began carrying her US passport. But for a different reason. She had read stories about brown-looking citizens being picked up and locked up for weeks at the immigration facility in Tacoma because they weren’t carrying their papers. This is the point we began talking about Iranian Americans.
She told me about her mother, a Marxist, and about how a large part of her childhood was spent in the immigration building in Portland, Oregon. She said she felt at home there because it was always filled with brown people. She also spoke of her aunt, Marjan, who lives in Salem, Oregon. Marjan recently had a psychotic breakdown because “of being paranoid the government was listening to her.” This happened during her time in Iran, and it happened again in the US, particularly after 9/11. “She isn’t crazy,” Roya said, “just sad. Her soul was tired of being afraid.”
I had not spoken with Roya since that party, which was held by our now-departed mutual friend, but the story of her aunt Marjan came back to my mind when in January 2020 an intense concatenation of Iranian-related events shook the world and my region, the Pacific Northwest.
It began in Baghdad on January 3, when Trump assassinated a key Iranian figure, Major General Qasem Soleimani, by ordering a Predator B drone to fire an air-to-ground missile. Then Iran responded by firing ground-to-ground missiles at US bases in Iraq on January 8 (Operation Martyr Soleimani), inflicting brain damage on "more than 100" US soldiers. Also on January 8, Iran’s military fired missiles from a Russian-designed Tor system at an object in the sky that appeared to be a cruise missile fired by the US but turned out to be a plane operated by Ukraine International Airlines. It mostly carried Canadian Iranians who were returning home after the Western New Year. Three days before the Boeing-made plane was blown to pieces over Parand (basically Tehran’s Sea-Tac), by the ground-to-air rockets, Seattle Times reported that an Iranian American family was detained by US officials for more than 10 hours at the US-Canadian border crossing at Blaine.
The connection between this and other similar incidents (involving Iranian Americans and Arab Americans) on the border and the assassination of Soleimani was impossible not to make. But the connection was being denied by the US Customs and Border Protection. The agency claimed that “social media posts [about the CBP] detaining Iranian-Americans and refusing their entry into the U.S. because of their country of origin are false. Reports that DHS/CBP has issued a related directive are also false.”
On January 30, Seattle Times reported an incident that was the stuff of bottom-of-the-barrel Hollywood scripts: A mysterious man in a hoodie left a sealed envelope at the office of a Blain immigration lawyer, Len Saunders. When opened, the envelope contained what appeared to be a photocopy of an undated memo sent from the Seattle Field Office of Customs and Border Patrol to border agents. It’s heading: “Iranian Supreme Leader vows Forceful Revenge after US Kills Maj. General Qassim Suleimani in Baghdad — Threat Alert High.” It's directive: Stop and question people from Iran and Lebanon. The immigration lawyer saw the photocopy of the memo as a “smoking gun.” The US is now profiling Middle Eastern Americans and nationals at Blaine and other border crossings.
“I got pulled over while driving to LA by Border Patrol,” Roya says in Baja—she is on her second margarita, and I on my third glass of white wine (I overcame the sweetness on the second glass). There is a mixture of restrained irritation and weltschmerz in her voice. “This was the week Suleimani was killed. The officers questioned me, searched my car, etc, etc for a substantial length of time. There were multiple cars and officers. Some unmarked, never saw name tags. One or two of the cars then proceeded to follow me for the next while, and even when I pulled up to a lookout spot near Jacumba [Hot Springs] they parked right next to me. They followed me out of the town. I got stopped multiple times between there and LA over the course of the next day and a half.”
Roya is, of course, a US citizen. Meaning, she is an American. Meaning, the country she has lived in and has called home since 2 or 4 (her mother has yet to clear the matter of when she entered the country) is America. Meaning, if her citizenship is not respected, then what exactly is the content or value of US citizenship?
But how did this all come about? Why is Iran always in the news, and why is this news almost always very bad news?
Indeed, my first political memory involves Iran. It’s the hostage crisis of 1979. I can vividly recall the events, or the way they were reported in the papers and on TV. The students storming the American embassy. The blindfolded Americans. The surge of American patriotism. The yellow ribbons tied around trees near my family's apartment, which was not far from Embassy Row in Washington D.C.. The radio playing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” over and over and over. The sand-camouflaged Sea Stallion helicopters that crashed in the Iranian desert in a badly hatched US military plan to rescue the hostages. The way the crashed helicopters looked to my boy mind like massive decomposed elephants. Jimmy Carter’s sad eyes on television, and how much sadder the peanut farmer's eyes grew as the crisis dragged on with no end in sight.
In fact, it can be argued that if the hostage crisis hadn't happened, Carter would have won reelection in 1980 (he was ahead in the polls), and Ronald Reagan, now an icon of American politics, would have ended up in the dustbin of US presidential history that contains Walter Mondale, Ross Perot, and the like.
There is more. After the hostage crisis, there was the Iran and Iraq war that Saddam Hussien started and no one really won after eight very long and bloody years. I was in Zimbabwe during that period and saw Iran, which was isolated (Western and Arabic support went to Iraq), through the lens of a media that wasn’t at all negative—the Zimbabwe government pretty much sided with Iran. It had a similar colonial story: the British (and the West) wanted to control its resources; the Iranians wanted to control their own resources. Lots of blood was shed in this conflict of interests.
In the second-half of the 1980s, there was the Iran-Contra scandal, when the US sold arms to a war-battered Iran and then redirected the proceeds to right-wing rebels in Nicaragua. Then the fatwā on the British Pakistan writer Salman Rushdie. He wrote something in the novel Satanic Verses that was considered blasphemous by many in the Muslim world. Ayatollah Khomeini, the-then spiritual leader of Iran, wasn’t having it. On February, 14, 1989, he went on Radio Tehran and offered a bounty for the writer's death. Khomeini died the same year he issued the hit, but Iran’s troubles did not die with him. They continued until Barack Obama attempted to normalize relations between the Western powers and Iran.
When the agreement was signed in 2015, it seemed that Iran would once and for all find peace in its modern history. The long series of embargoes, which began with Jimmy Carter, who, like Ronald Reagan, accused the country of sponsoring terrorism, came to and end and Iranian oil entered the world market. Trump, of course, brought an end to this historical development. And he revived one that led, in December, 2019, to protesters storming the US embassy in Iraq. Then a US drone killed Soleimani. Then Iran Americans were detained at the border. Then US agents watched Roya park at a lookout spot south of LA.
"How is your aunt doing?" I asked Roya a moment before we got our bill at Baja. It was now night, and the stars were growing in the sky. "She has not changed. She's haunted by Iran and the US. In a way, this is what it's like to be an Iranian in the US."
Part two of this series will be posted on Thursday.