Iranian Expatriates & Their Impact on Iran: An Undergraduate Thesis in International Relations, Part I

In the next series of posts, I’ll be sharing portions of my senior thesis in International Relations.  It would not have been possible without the support of my adviser, Dr. Anna Viden, as well as the rest of the IR department staff, my friends in and not in my thesis seminar, and so many others.  It was an arduous adventure, and one that I am not exactly eager to undertake again.  My original, grandiose plan involved flying to Paris and interviewing Iranian expats there, but that didn’t happen.  So around the beginning of the spring semester–already well more than halfway into the process–Dr. Viden helped me change to a more practical course.  Honestly, I’m not terribly proud of the final product, and I certainly wouldn’t have given myself the grade that I received.  More than anything, my saving grace was the last-minute discovery of a PhD dissertation by Latha Varadarajan from the University of Minnesota, which dealt with diasporas in IR broadly and related to India specifically.  Her PhD served as a model for the approach I wound up taking in my thesis.

As you’ll see, it’s a dual-method analysis: (1) mapping of Iranian expatriates, and; (2) historical tracing of Iran‘s political, economic, and religious development since the lead-up to the 1953 coup against Iranian PM Muhammad Mosadegh.


The final nail in the coffin for the Pahlavi Dynasty arrived on the wings of Air France. In the months leading up to and throughout the Iranian Revolution of 1979, its leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, was in Paris, France. From abroad, in exile, he successfully led and orchestrated the popular movement against the ruling regime.

And just as Khomeini was compelled to leave Iran for criticizing the Shah’s government, so too have hundreds of thousands of Iranians been forced to flee the Islamic Republic since its inception in 1979. In fact, the former President of Iran, Abol-Hasan Bani-Sadr, as well as Masoud Rajavi, the leaders of the dissident group known as Mojahedin-e Khalq, both escaped Iran in 1981 and fled to France.[1] And hundreds of thousands of others have fled for religious, political, and other types of persecution. This community of expatriates is referred to as the Iranian Diaspora. But the pattern of Iranians fleeing their home country was set in motion long before 1979. This thesis delves back to the roots of the Iranian Diaspora by mapping its growth and evolution since the 1953 Mossadegh coup, because the subsequent regime of the Shah produced the first substantial wave of Iranians moving abroad.

Additionally, this thesis traces the history of Iran’s political development since that time, analyzing the political, economic, and religious elements surrounding regime change. The central driving question behind this thesis is: historically, what kind of impact has the Iranian Diaspora had on the Iranian regime, and vice-versa? The purpose surrounding the question is to evaluate the prospects for the Iranian Diaspora to produce any kind of regime change in the current Islamic Republic. By exploring both the community abroad and the circumstances at home, this thesis conforms to the model established in Latha Varadarajan’s work, The Domestic Abroad, in which she evaluates the relationship between diaspora communities and their native governments.

Outline of the Discussion Ahead

First, the author will justify the relevance of this thesis and clearly explain the connection between a study of a diaspora community to the field of international relations. At that point, the surrounding literature will be reviewed to place this work in context and in conversation with the ones that have come before it. The literature review will be followed by a section on the theoretical framework and variables involved in this thesis. The two principal analyses will then be conducted: mapping the Iranian Diaspora and tracing Iran’s historical development since the 1950s. The thesis will conclude by bring these two analyses into conversation with one another and determining the extent to which the Iranian Diaspora can exert influence on the Iranian regime.

Relevance of this Thesis for International Relations

map of the middle east

The concept of diaspora communities playing a role in international relations is quite understudied. The traditional conception of the field focuses primarily on nation-states as actors, with the recent addition of international organizations and even norms (e.g. the movement to curb climate change). As it relates to the Iranian issue, Realists would focus on the power struggle between the specific states and governments involved (i.e. America, Iran, Israel, etc.).[2] And while Izadi engages in a discussion of Iranian foreign relations from a Realistic perspective, it is highly indicative that there isn’t a single mention of or reference to the role currently being played by Iranian expatriates or the diaspora community.[3] On the other hand, Neoliberal Institutionalists would seek to better understand the roles that international organizations like the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency are playing.[4] And Constructivists would likely highlight the norm of nuclear sovereignty as a driving factor.[5] Within this framework, diaspora communities fall through the cracks—they’re culturally tied to their home country but are minority groups in their host country. Shain and Barth suggest that diasporas should be considered as constituting a shared space between Constructivism and Liberalism.[6] Because in today’s technologically advanced world, mobility is easier than ever, thus facilitating the growth rate of diaspora communities, which has resulted in their growing influence on the international stage.[7] As a testament to the increasing size of diaspora communities and the impact they began to have on their home countries, countries began recognizing and reaching out to them at the turn of the millennium.

For example, in 2000, Mexico’s newly elected president acknowledged the significant population of Mexicans living abroad, stating in a speech that he intended to “govern on behalf of all 118 million Mexicans,” which included the 18 million Mexicans living abroad, primarily in the United States. [8] In January 2003, India hosted the first “Day of Indians Abroad,” at which over sixty panelists advocated for increasing the ties between Indians at home and the roughly 20 million Indians (including second generation immigrants) living abroad. [9] The Deputy Prime Minister, L.K. Advani, cited India’s economic growth and increasing power on the international stage as a driving force behind the shift in a policy that previously ignored Indians living abroad. [10] Varadarajan writes that in addition to Mexico and India, “China, Russia, Turkey, South Korea, the Philippines, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Hungary, Poland, Italy, and Greece are among a large group of nation-states that are actively involved in constituting sections of their diasporas as not just part of a larger de-territorialized nation, but a new constituency that is connected to, and has claims on the institutional structures of the state.”[11] A 2003 article in the Economist demonstrates how diaspora communities have begun to exert influence on and be used by their countries of origin.[12]

So the link between diasporas and international relations is clear. This thesis will contribute to that study by focusing on the Iranian diaspora in particular. It is a relevant study precisely because it is of the type that so readily falls through the cracks in International Relations. After all, it stands to reason that Iranian expatriates are relatively more motivated than other groups to devote time, energy, money, and effort towards the regime in Iran—it’s their home, their culture, and their families. Beyond just their motivation, these tightly-knit groups are uniquely positioned with very detailed knowledge of their home country. And when it comes to a state like Iran, one under unprecedented sanctions on top of operating as an incredibly non-transparent nation, this knowledge becomes highly valuable for other professionals seeking to work to solve problems at the international level. Take, for example, the international problem posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The predominant takeaway from talks, both among Western diplomats and with Iranians, is that it’s incredibly hard to decipher the true intentions coming out of Tehran.[13] Political structure considerations aside (Western media focuses on the office of the presidency because it’s a relatable office for Western offices, notwithstanding the fact that it’s a relatively weak position in comparison with the Supreme Leader), there’s a degree of cryptic-ness that seems to continually confuse any ambassador or emissary on the other side of the negotiating table. However, Iranian expatriates, given their direct and first-hand knowledge, are keenly aware of both of these variables. They know most accurately where the real power resides in the Iranian government, as well as the cultural difference between Iran and the West (or, even, Iran and the Rest).

This thesis is modeled after the work of Varadarajan in her PhD dissertation and subsequent book, “The Domestic Abroad.” The first aim of this thesis, therefore, is to map the Iranian expatriate community since the time of the 1953 Mossadegh coup (to be discussed in detail later). The second is to trace Iran’s history since then, with specific attention to the political, economic, and religious changes over time. Finally, this thesis will bring these two strands of analysis into conversation with one another and determine, based on the evidence and data, what kinds of prospects there are for the Iranian Diaspora to play a role in a future regime change for the Islamic Republics.

[1] Fred Halliday, “An Elusive Normalization: Western Europe and the Iranian Revolution,” The Middle East Journal. Vol. 48, No. 2 (Spring 1994), 313.

[2] See both Morgenthau and Mearshimer for the basis of Realist thought.

[3] Halliday, 37-56.

[4] See Keohane for the underpinnings of the Neoliberal perspective.

[5] For an overview of Constructivism and its views, see Wendt,

[6] Yossi Shain and Ahron Barth, Diasporas and International Relations Theory,” International Organization 57 (2003): 451.

[7] Ibid., 449.

[8] Gregory Rodrizuez, “Vincente Fox Blesses the Americanization of Mexico,” Los Angeles Times, 10 December 2003.

[9] Latha Varadarajan, The Domestic Abroad, Oxford (Oxford University Press 2010): 4.

[10] “Session with the Deputy Prime Minister,” Address by Mr. L. K. Advani, 95-96.

[11] Latha, The Domestic Abroad, 5.

[12] “A World of Exiles,” The Economist, 2 January 2003.

[13] See Chubin and Litwak for an example.