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

Here is the next chunk from my thesis: the Lit Review.  While there is a trove of information out there on immigration and individual countries’ responses to it, there is very little on the role that diaspora communities play in international politics and lobbying.  I think the easiest way to make this point for my American readers will be the example of Cuban immigrants.  An understanding of America’s long history with immigrant groups, and specifically immigrants from Latin American countries, would only tangentially address the role of Cuban-Americans not just in American politics (they have one of the most well-paid lobbies in the country and were/are heavily invested in the sanctions regime), but in international relations.  My thesis hypothesizes that the same can be said for Iranian-Americans around the globe; that they play some role in the current standoff between Iran and the Rest.

And accordingly, it was this gap in diaspora-focus that my IR thesis aimed to fill.  Granted, finding Varadarajan’s dissertation filled that gap slightly, but her initial examples (e.g., China and Mexico) as well as her primary example (India) told only part of the story.  In her cases, the mother country is now actively trying to engage its diaspora community.  In Iran, however, the Islamic Republic actively tries to thwart and undermine (even at times, assassinating) those Iranians living abroad calling for regime change.

The more discerning reader will also notice that at various moments, the Lit Review makes sharp left turns, back, then left again.  This is fully indicative of the hitch-and-jerk process that plagued my thesis right around the midway point all the way through  to the end.

Literature Review

Migration and “Diaspora”

Man migrates. Nomadic tribes survived by moving. City-states relied on trade-routes. War, at its core, was the first mass mover of peoples. From the Vikings to Genghis Khan, from Alexander to Napoleon, conquest was a form of migration—one peoples moving across continents to conquer another. As ships became more reliable, the Age of Exploration dawned. Soon to follow these pioneers were regular people leaving their countries for one reason or another. Puritans were persecuted by Anglicans, and so settled Plymouth. Other Europeans, frustrated by their rigid socioeconomic hierarchies (or by uncontrollable hardship such as the Great Potato Famine), left on their own, putting their faith in new world riches.

Mangalam defines this pattern as “a relatively permanent moving away of a collectivity from one geographical area to another, preceded by decision-making on the part of the migrants on the basis of a hierarchically arranged set of values and resulting in changes in the interactional system of the migrants.”[1] Air-travel has only increased the rate of migration, and the internet has only highlighted opportunities abroad. But the basic motivations for moving away are the same today as they’ve always been.

Petersen identifies two types of motivation to move. The first is what he terms “innovative,” by which he means that migrants attempt to “achiev[e] the new.” The second type of motivation is “conservative,” in that it is a “response to changes in conditions” and aims to “[allow] the migrants to retain what they already had.[2] Petersen breaks migration down into five categories: (1) forced, such as the slave trade; (2) primitive, for those moving due to ecological conditions; (3) impelled, as a result of persecution; (4) free, and; (5) mass.

Relevant to our discussion of the Iranians who fled after the 1979 Revolution is the third type: impelled migration. Peterson sub-divides impelled migration into two groups: émigrés/exiles, who view their departure as temporary and expect to return home one day; and refugees, who understand when they leave that they will permanently settle in the new country[3].

But what about this term, “diaspora”? Well, just as migration is an ancient phenomenon, diaspora is a very old term. Its first recorded use dates back to the 3rd century BCE, making reference to the Jewish people exiled from Palestine.[4] Immediately, we can recognize the relationship between the term “diaspora” and a relatively homogenous group of people (sharing geography, religion, history, etc.) dislocated from their native land through movements of migration, immigration, or exile.[5] Over time, this classical definition—which hinged on geographical boundaries of the “conceptual homeland” being shared by the diaspora community—was diluted, as “transethnic and transborder” groupings (such as the Francophone community which is united solely by language) also came to be described with the term, “diaspora.”[6]

Today, the term is rather ambiguous because it is used as a catchall of sorts. Since the 1980s, interest in and study of diasporas has increased exponentially.[7] As the world globalizes and people move more and more, the diaspora debate is heating up. Brubaker writes that “as the term has proliferated, its meaning has been stretched to accommodate…various intellectual, cultural, and political agendas.”[8] However, this thesis does not aim to contribute to the debate over what the term means. This thesis is neither sociological nor anthropological nor even linguistic. Rather, this thesis answers Brubaker’s call to action by focusing on the political activity, struggles, and goals of the Iranian Diaspora (as opposed to concentrating on any one semantic definition of the group and its boundaries).[9]

In her PhD dissertation and in her subsequent book, Varadarajan introduces this concept of the “domestic abroad” (her turn of phrase to describe diasporas and their influence) as a variation of transnationalism. [10]  These two works proved to be invaluable in conducting this literature review, as there are virtually no other works dedicated solely to the study of diasporas as players within the field of international relations. Admittedly, Varadarajan’s works focus on the Indian diaspora. But the framework which she establishes was pivotal for analyzing the Iranian diaspora. And like Varadarajan, this author does not seek with this work to contribute to the debate of precisely what a diaspora community is (and what it isn’t). Rather, this thesis adopts the same outlook at Varadarajan’s dissertation, which applies “the term [diaspora] to refer to emigrant communities—populations that are seen as originating from a nation-state that is different from the one they are residing in.” For the purposes of this research, the term diaspora suffices to describe Iranians who have fled their country in response to the Islamic Republic and its oppressive treatment of dissidents. As such, diaspora fits into the framework of migration laid out by Mangalam and Petersen. Given its historical reference to the Jewish people, diaspora can most closely be associated with forced, impelled, and mass migration. Furthermore, Brubaker’s analysis emphasizes the political orientation of diasporas, which is to say that “rather than speak of ‘a diaspora’…as an entity, a bounded group [it is] more precise to speak of diasporic stances, projects, claims [and] practices.”[11]

This political angle of the term diaspora is certainly helpful for the purposes of this thesis, as concept of the Iranian Diaspora is considered, specifically. Petersen breaks down Mangalam’s broad definition of migration, also identifying two types of motivations for moving. In this framework, Iranians feeling the Revolution of 1979 certainly qualify as a migration. And they fit under Petersen’s “impelled” group, because while they had some decision-making power, “their will [was] unimportant compared to the social forces that cause[d] and direct[ed] their migration.”[12] As far as Petersen’s motivations for moving are concerned, one can easily envision Iranians of both molds: émigrés planning to return and refugees planning to settle.

In addition to external and internal forces pushing the move, there is the question of timing. Kunz’s work describes the flight patterns of migrants, isolating two variants. One is termed “anticipatory movement,” when the migrant “leaves his home country before the deterioration of the situation.” The second migration flight pattern is “acute movement,” which typically occurs after political upheavals or military campaigns.[13]

Fathi goes on to characterize the nuance in Kunz’s understanding of the timing behind migration:

Refugees’ flight is often in response to events that bring about dramatic changes in the society. These changes usually progress in stages, and individuals react differently to each stage. For instance, some are in favor of the changes as declared at the beginning, but they become disillusioned later when the programs are abandoned or are not translated into action “properly.” Again, when the refugees of today depart, the refugees of tomorrow hope to stave off further changes by working for a compromise. Thus, “[a]s the political situation ripens for each, they will leave the country as a distinct ‘vintage,’ each usually convinced of the moral and political rightness of his actions and implicitly or openly blaming those who departed earlier or stayed on.”[14]

This thesis will outline the various “vintages” of the Iranian Diaspora in the years since the Mossadegh coup in 1953 and the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Creating the Iranian Diaspora

So how has this migration of Iranian expatriates impacted their identity as a community? This is an important question to answer, because as Shain and Barth write, diasporas exhibit “identity-based motivation.”[15] Goodman discusses the construction of identities as involving “both the passive experience of ‘being made’ by external forces and the active process by which a group ‘makes itself’.”[16] As Cornell and Hartmann go on to explain: “This involve[s] not only material circumstances but also the intervention of claims imposed by other persons or groups, and typically entails a complex interaction involving cultural assertion and challenge, the reproduction or transformation of cherished ideas of self, and even the repudiation of identities over time.“[17]

When it comes to Muslims in particular, Rahnema puts it bluntly, asserting that “much of the Islamic world is in turmoil.”[18] And while the Arab Spring highlighted this cry for representative government, the flight of Muslims to the West in search of freedom and opportunity has proceeded rather steadily in the post-colonial era. But Rahnema asserts that these Western governments failed to properly integrate them, resulting in increasing marginalization and alienation of Muslims, trends only exacerbated by September 11, 2001, which subjected all Muslims “to intensified racism and Islamophobia.”[19]

Gest adds that “Muslim communities have elicited reactionary government policy, inflammatory discourse, and an extraordinary amount of attention.”[20] That being said, he argues that “Europe is the center of a revivalist Islamic movement.” Ramadan speaks for this perspective, seeing Europe as the ideal environment for Muslims of diverse backgrounds to rally around their shared religious beliefs and develop a “pure faith” that is evolved beyond divisive ethnic and cultural rituals of the past.[21]

But Mossallanejad reminds us that often times, those fleeing Shari’a law are either observers to or victims of “religiously consecrated tortures.”[22] Thus, because they are also met with racism in this post-9/11 world, there’s pain on both ends of Muslim diaspora for the migrants, which invariably impacts their experiences in and assimilation into new countries.

It is now appropriate to shed light on the persecution surrounding the Iranian Revolution. While the highlights of 1979 have been chronicled frequently, less common is an accounting of the brutal treatment of Iranians as the clerics seized power. It is important to understand this angle of the Revolution in order to fully grasp Kunz’s ideas of ‘vintages.’

The fall of the Shah and Khomeini’s rise were almost instantaneous. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi fled Iran on January 16, 1979, and by mid-February, Khomeini’s supporters had control of the “administrative, police, and judicial functions in several cities.”[23] After the Shah’s appointed prime minister resigned and when into hiding, Khomeini appointed a provisional government, which oversaw a national referendum of the Islamic Republic, approved on March 31.[24]

All the while, former regime officials and army officers were being systematically executed. Throughout April and May, over fifty civilians and military officers were put to death by firing squad. Individuals outside of government were also executed for corruption and treasonous activities. As early as March 20, over 20,000 political opponents were imprisoned.[25]

And it wasn’t long before Khomeini began to publicly pressure dissidents. On March 23 and again on June 5, “Khomeini warned the secular critics and Western-oriented intellectuals who ‘opposed Islam’ to take heed or be destroyed like the Shah”.[26] Ethnic minorities such as Azeris, Kurds, and Baluchis demonstrated and boycotted during this time, even fighting in Tabriz.[27] In August, over 20 newspapers and magazines were shut down, and much of the staffs were arrested on charges of espionage.[28] On November 4th, the American Embassy was seized and 66 Americans were taken hostage for what would be 444 days.

In addition to this domestic persecution, Iranians were soon subjugated to the Iran-Iraq war, over 130,000 war deaths, and nearly 2 million refugees.[29] This, more than anything else, solidified Khomeini’s dominance, which allowed the clerics to turn on former allies during the Revolution: Iran’s Western-oriented, secular, and middle-class groups, who hoped “to take control of the revolution after the Shah was gone.”[30]

Thus, the history of the Iranian Revolution and the impending Diaspora fits into the foregoing scholars’ frameworks, all the way from Mangalam’s wide-scope definition down to Kunz’s ideas of “vintages,” or waves of migration varying depending on the type of Iranian in question. Certainly, proponents of the Shah who fled before 1979 would be termed “anticipatory movers.” On the other hand, those intellectuals who initially supported the Revolution only to be turned on can be categorized as “acute movers.” And of course there are all sorts of types of Iranians in between, from religious and ethnic minorities to young Iranians studying abroad in 1979. Fathi hypothesizes that this diversity within diaspora results in adversarial politics and infighting.

Domestic Politics and the Internet

Varadarajan explains that the political system of the native country is extremely important when assessing the relationship between the government and the diaspora.[31] Namely, when a ruling party lacks any viable opposition, there is no need to convince other factions to support its domestic politics.[32] Furthermore, without real challengers to power, there is no need to reach out to a broader electorate and pool of potential voters.[33] Varadarajan contrasts the examples of Mexico and China to illustrate this principle: being that Mexico is relatively more democratic, it engages more with its diaspora than does China.[34]

But there is also some research which suggests that the internet challenges these boundaries and enables diasporas to have an impact on their host country. Alinejad documents the rather large role of bloggers, seeing as “Farsi is the world’s fourth most popular blogging language.”[35] Blogging is a particularly interesting form of activity, because of the way it challenges borders: bloggers can nostalgically engage in their home culture from the comfort of their own home in whatever country they happen to reside. So too, does diaspora challenge borders. Ghorashi and Seremitakis make the link by arguing that “nostalgia, rather than representing a connection to a dislocated past, is the (trans)formative influence of the past on the present,”[36] Thus, because blogging can foster this connection to Iran, it can serve as both an impetus for political activity, as well as being political activity in and of itself.

Tololyan elaborates on the intersection of Diaspora, differentness, and political activity:

Diasporicity manifests itself in relations of difference. The diasporic community sees itself as linked to but different from those among whom it has settled; eventually, it also comes to see itself as powerfully linked to, but in some ways different from, the people in the homeland as well. In the countries of settlement, either such difference is sustained by persecution and the rejection of assimilation by the majority among whom the diasporic community settles or, when assimilation is permitted ,even encouraged, the diasporic community chooses to do cultural and political work in order to sustain crucial kinds of difference…In long-lasting mobilized Diasporas…their cultural and political reproduction is organized, institutionalized, funded, and also carried out by the work of artists, performers, political entrepreneurs, clerics, and other elites working with a more or less co-operative population.[37]

Ghorashi and Boersma establish the link between the communication in the virtual world and political activity in the real world, thus proving the hypothesis that interaction within the community is aided by technology and that it materializes into tangible action. They chronicle the evolution of virtual networks as first “a safe place for many members of the Iranian diaspora to connect,” which led to “increasing transnational online and offline exchanges between Iranians outside and inside Iran.”[38] One example of the product of this interconnectivity and interaction is the Science and Art Foundation, which is a registered charity in France that has installed computers in schools across Iran.[39]


This research fits well into the pre-existing scholarship on migration and diaspora studies, with particular relevance to Petersen’s “Émiré/Exile Impelled Migrant,” as well as Kunz’s “vintages” or waves of immigration flights. Furthermore, the literature in the field makes clear that diasporas can be political actors on the international stage. Equally important to consider are the domestic politics of the host country so as to understand the relationship between the government at home and the expatriates abroad. As such, this research contributes to the subsection of international relations focusing on diasporas by analyzing the Iranian Diaspora specifically.

[1] Fathi, 8.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Fathi, 9.

[4] Branziel and Mannur, 1.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Rogers Brubaker, “The ‘Diaspora Diaspora,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 28 (2005): 2-3.

[7] Brubaker, 1.

[8] Brubaker, 1.

[9] Brubaker, 13.

[10] Latha, The Domestic Abroad, 6; Latha, Producing the Domestic Abroad, 6.

[11] Brubaker, 12-13.

[12] Fathi, pg. 9.

[13] Ibid., pg. 10.

[14] Kunz, 137.

[15] Shain and Barth, 451.

[16] Moghissi, 54.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Moghissi,. 23.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Gest, 8.

[21] Ibid., 9.

[22] Moghissi, 68.

[23] Fathi, 4.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Nikazmerad, pg 353.

[26] Fathi, pg 5.

[27] Nikazmerad, pg 327-368.

[28] Fathi, pg 5.

[29] Iran Times, 1988-1989.

[30] Fathi, pg 5.

[31] Varadarajan, The Domestic Abroad, 11.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Alinejad, pg. 44.

[36] Ibid., pg 45.

[37] Tololyan, pg. 650.

[38] Ghorashi and Boersma, pg. 677.

[39] Ibid., pg. 678.