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

In this, the fourth portion of my thesis, you’ll find the first of my two primary research methods: Mapping the Iranian Diaspora.

Mapping the Iranian Diaspora


Prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iranians left Iran motivated primarily for educational opportunities.[1] In the years following World War II, Iran’s oil revenues steadily increased and the middle class grew.[2] It was common for members of the Iranian middle class and above to send their children to top schools in Europe and the United States.[3] By 1974, Iranians were the largest single group of foreigners studying in the US.[4] By 1979, they were estimated to number between 45,000 and 60,000—but less than ten percent returned to Iran upon getting their degrees.[5] Instead, these graduates (or, to use Kunz’s term, this “vintage”) became politically active in the West, and once they were settled they often brought the families out of Iran to join them.[6] These students frequently and publically protested the Shah in the streets of their host country.[7] Over the years, this trend continued, such that by the 1978 school year, nearly 100,000 Iranians were studying abroad in locations ranging from the United Kingdom, France, Austria, West Germany, and most popularly, the United States.[8] In fact, by 1979, it is estimated that half of the Iranians studying abroad were doing so in the United States.[9] For a chart of Iranian immigration patterns in this period (and in the post-1979 period), see Table 1.

Iranian Immigration Over Time

In addition to protesting, this initial wave of the Iranian Diaspora was politically active in other ways. Some of them became journalists, and wrote articles criticizing the Shah’s regime.[10] They also published pieces lamenting the “Americanization” of Iran, condemning the government for selling out the Iranian people in return for foreign aid.[11] And these journalists frequently commented on the political situation developing inside Iran under the Shah in foreign newspapers for members of the Iranian Diaspora.[12]

In order to organize these political activities, these expatriates founded and/or joined several organizations, including the Tudeh (Communist) Party, the Support Committee for the Iranian Peoples’ Struggles, the Organization of Mojahedin of the People of Iran, the People’s Feyadin (or, Guerillas), The Confederation of Iranian Students, the Committee against Repression in Iran, and the Jazani Group.[13] An inspection into these groups, their publications, and writings about them reveals a very strong and common theme: they all concerned themselves with the goal of revolution against the Shah’s regime, typically in a militaristic fashion.[14] As one might assume from the nature of other communist parties at the time, the targeted demographic was often the working class or laborers.[15] However, equally important to note is that while these organizations were united in their derision of the Shah, they were divided over what the new regime would look like.[16] Rivalries among student groups, for example, prevented the development of a unified strategy and any kind of pooling of resources.[17]

Other forms of political expression were also published during this time period, including poems, plays, songs, and prose, again with the common and predominant theme of struggling against the Shah for freedom and revolution.[18] Additionally, writings by Iranian expatriates dealing with religion spiked during this time-period.[19] Ayatollah Khomeini joined the group of exiled Iranians in 1964, and from abroad he worked continuously to spread his message, which was both religious and political, and to undermine support for the Shah’s regime.[20] He spent 11 months in Turkey before settling for 14 years in Najaf, Iraq.[21] He regularly recorded speeches and sermons on cassette tapes while abroad, which were smuggled into Iran and listened to avidly by critics of the Shah’s regime.[22] During this time, Khomeini developed his theory of velayat-e faqi and Islamic Governance, which he subsequently used to undermine the political legitimacy of the Shah and rally supporters around him.[23] He was so successful at inspiring protests and riots that the Shah was able to convince Saddam Hussein of Iraq to exile Khomeini once again. This time, Khomeini settled in a Parisian suburb, Neauphle-le-Chateau.[24] Here, he worked tirelessly, giving speeches and doing interviews as often as possible, taking advantage of the radio and video technology in France to spread his message even quicker and more broadly than ever before.[25] The impact of Khomeini’s exiled activities on Iran domestically will be delved into in a later section, but for the time being, suffice it to say that throngs of people took to the streets in late 1978 and early 1979, which ultimately compelled the Shah to flee Iran.[26]

But not everyone who left Iran before 1979 was opposed to the Shah’s government, as Khomeini and his followers were. Some of the Iranians who left Iran during this time period were doing so in an anticipatory fashion. As public sentiment against the Shah grew, many “families closely associated with the monarchy” and members of ethnic and/or religious minority groups fled Iran for fear of hardline religious regime change.[27] But while this first wave of the Iranian Diaspora exhibited signs of fractured factionalism, the portion of it that was politically active and critical of the Shah far outnumbered the minorities who fled in anticipation of the Islamic Republic.


After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the number of Iranians fleeing the country increased dramatically (again, see Table 1).

Iranian Immigration Over Time

Just in France, the number of Iranian expatriates nearly tripled in the first year after the Revolution.[28] Germany and America saw even more dramatic increases.[29] The case of expatriates in France is particularly illustrative, since in the first few years following the Revolution, “Paris [was] host to almost all of the leaders of the Iranian opposition.”[30] Leaders who opposed the Islamic Republic settled in Paris because they believed that there was something intrinsic about the location where Khomeini dispensed his propaganda and that they could replicate that effort to foment yet another regime change.[31] The group that was the most organized immediately following the Shah’s ouster was the People’s Mujahidin, which, under the leadership of Massoud Rajavi, was able to organize a 150,000 person rally just months after the Revolution’s success.[32] As a result, in 1981, Khomeini targeted the group and forced the majority of its ranks to leave Iran.[33]

And there were several other leading opposition groups rising in France at the time. After Shahpour Bakhtiar was exiled from Iran for being the Shah’s last prime minister, he founded the National Iranian Resistance Movement.[34] This group started two Persian-language newspapers in France, which gained circulations of over 10,000 copies.[35] They also founded a radio station in 1981 that was based out of Iraq.[36] As of 1986, a group whose sole purpose was to reinstate the Pahlavi Dynasty produced two newspapers of its own, as well as a radio station that was based in Cairo, Egypt.[37] Ultimately, however, by 1985, these groups suffered from a great deal of internal disagreement, which significantly impaired their ability to put forth a concerted effort against Khomeini’s regime.[38] And by this time, the French media began to depict the new wave of Iranian immigrants in a negative light.[39] In fact, in 1987, France expelled dozens of activists with the People’s Mujahidin, in a move that was widely regarded as sympathetic towards Khomeini’s regime.[40] Ten years later, the United States joined in condemning the group, with the Clinton administration deciding to officially classify the People’s Mujahidin’s armed faction a terrorist organization.[41] And by 2002, the European Union followed suit.[42]

Demographically speaking, this vintage of Iranian expatriates was highly educated. As of 1985, nearly 80% of the Iranians living in France reported having at least one university degree, 20% of whom were professional, and 33% of whom were women.[43] Unfortunately, and despite the majority of immigrants coming from wealthy backgrounds in Iran, many expatriates reported having difficulty finding work in France.[44] More than 45% of respondents reported no job activities. Still, the plurality of working French-Iranians described themselves as “self-employed professionals and businessmen.”[45]

This flight of the highly trained and educated Iranians can be seen in other host countries as well. The Iranian Ministry of Culture and Higher Education published that in the aftermath of the 1979 Revolution, when the universities were finally reopened, nearly half of the professors in Iran had fled.[46] And other professions were similarly deflated: the Iran Times wrote that by 1983, 33% of all doctors and dentists had left Iran.[47] Along with their skills and expertise, these highly trained and educated expatriates also took with them considerable sums of capital and potential investment. While the precise sum is impossible to calculate, some studies estimate that in the few years leading up to and immediately following the 1979 Revolution, Iran lost between $30 and $40 billion in capital.[48]

Avoiding the regime’s draft during the Iran-Iraq War was also a substantial impetus for Iranians to leave their home.[49] As the regime began to implement its hardline religious rule, families and young women began to leave in increasing numbers due to the reduction in women’s rights.[50] In the 1987-1988 time period, a survey was conducted of Iranians living in Los Angeles, a popular destination for Iranian expatriates. The results of this survey confirm that the number one reason for fleeing Iran was “disapproval of revolution or of new regime.”[51] As they are in France, Iranian immigrants in the United States are highly educated: of those aged 25 and above, nearly 30% hold a graduate degree or higher.[52] According to the Iranian Studies Group, Iranians are therefore the most educated of 67 different ethnic groups in the United States.[53] And in Los Angeles alone, as of 2006, there were “20 television stations and five radio stations broadcasting in Persian,” reaching audiences across the United States, Western Europe, and even Iran.[54] This high number of media outlets is due to the fact that the United States is home to the largest subset of the Iranian Diaspora in the world (see Table 3).

Size of Iranian-Born Population in 2000

Los Angeles is also a microcosm of the broader diversity within the Iranian Diaspora: it has been host to public demonstrations by pro-Shah factions, by the leftist Tudeh party and Fedayeh group, as well as a few supporters of the Khomeini Regime.[55] Additionally, Los Angeles was the site of the “first television broadcast representing the Iranian Diaspora.”[56]

As for the People’s Mujahidin, they protest annually in Washington, DC, turning out thousands against the Islamic Republic in 1988.[57] In 1988, a contingency with both pro-Shah and leftist elements showed up to protest the Iranian President’s speech at the United Nations “in a desperate attempt to focus US media attention on the current events in Iran.”[58] Students, medical professional, businessmen, and anti-war activists joined forces to highlight the role of the Iranian Government in the ongoing atrocities of the Iran-Iraq War.[59] But ultimately, the US media paid very little attention to the events.[60] Thus, even when the factions of the Iranian Diaspora do come together, still they are unable to have their intended impact. As of 2006, Iranian exiles in the United States were still highly divided.[61]

In 2009, however, and Iranian protests started to get more coverage by US media. That year, CNN covered the optimism of Iranian-Americans who held dual citizenship and were excited to vote in the upcoming presidential elections.[62] And after the election was contested and opposition protestors were brutally oppressed, The Wall Street Journal published an article highlighting that “thousands of Iranians in exile are traveling to New York from cities across the U.S. and Canada to take part in demonstrations…against the Iranian government.”[63] This protest came in the wake of Iran’s Green Movement—a peaceful protest against the electoral fraud of the 2009 presidential elections—and its subsequently violent oppression at the hands of the Iranian regime following the disputed presidential elections in the summer.[64] And just a few years earlier, some officials in the United States began to even question their relationship with the People’s Mujahidin. Congressman Tom Tancredo, among others, suggested leveraging the group as part of the broader foreign policy objective to weaken the Islamic Republic.[65] Part of the reason for this shifted role is the impact of technology.[66] Just as technology helped to increase the rate of movement around the world and therefore the growth of the Iranian Diaspora, so too has the internet age allowed for the creation and coordination of Iranian expatriate organizations like never before.[67] The difference in US media reception to the 1988 UN protest and the one in 2009 are highly illustrative: the Iran-Iraq War produced drastically more deaths and human rights violations, but the protest over the Green Movement in 2009 received nearly world-wide attention, “creating a sense of global connection.”[68] And in 2012, Al Jazeera published an article with interviews of Iranian expatriates and their take on that year’s parliamentary election in Iran, given the community a direct platform for political engagement.

The internet also enables these various subsets of the Iranian Diaspora to have access to one another like never before. The webpage, ParsTimes, is dedicated to cataloguing and documenting various organizations of the Iranian Diaspora. For a breakdown of their regional distribution outside the United States, see Table 4 in the Appendix.

Iranian Diaspora Organizations by Regional Distribution non-US

For a breakdown of the types of organizations in the United States, see Table 5.

Iranian Diaspora Organizations in the US

Applications for Assylum by Iranians


The increased interaction between various subsets of the Iranian Diaspora is epitomized by the group, Iranian Alliances Across Borders, which was founded in 2003.[69] The first “Conference on the Iranian Diaspora”

brought together over twenty five professionals and scholars from the Iranian Diaspora community in the United States for a series of panel discussions over two days on the state of the Iranian Diaspora and its goals moving forward.[70] And starting in 2007, the conference grew to become international in scope, including presentations from the London Middle East Institute and the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University.[71] By the 2012 conference, the international appeal grew to include presenters from the Middle East, Europe, Australia, and Asia, on top of a vibrant North American contingent.[72] Today, while the Iranian Diaspora is still divided and diverse, technology has enabled it to interact to an unprecedented degree.

[1] Sam Sasan Shoamanesh. “On the Iranian Diasporac” Global Brief. 1 November 2009.

[2] Shirin Hakimzadeh, “Iran: A Vast Diaspora Abroad and Millions of Refugees at Home,” Migration Information Source. September 2006.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jerrold D Green. “Pseudoparticipation and Countermobilization: Roots of the Iranian Revolution,” Iranian Studies 13 (1980): 36.

[5] Hamid Mowlana, “U.S.-Iranian Relations, 1954-1978: A Case of Cultural Domination,” an unpublished paper presented at the Middle East Studies Association Annual Conference, Salt Lake City (November, 1979): 5.

[6] Hakimzadeh.

[7] Green, 37.

[8] Hakimzadeh.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Wolfgang Behn, The Iranian Opposition in Exile: An Annotated Bibliography of Publications from 1341/1962 to 1357/1979 with selective locations, (Weisbaden: Harrassowitz, 1979): 12.

[11] Behn, 17.

[12] Ibid., 78-102.

[13] Ibid., 20-33.

[14] Behn, 20-33.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Fathi, 43.

[17] Ibid., 58.

[18] Ibid., 43-59.

[19] Ibid., 113-125.

[20] “Imam Khomeini.” The Portal of Imam Khomeini, Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Ayatollah Khomeini,” History of Iran, Iran Chamber Society.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Imam Khomeini.”

[26] Ibid.

[27] Hakimzadeh.

[28] Fathi, 103.

[29] Hakimsadeh.

[30] Fathi, 104.

[31] Jean Gueyras, “The Iranian Exiles Who Plot Khomeini’s Downfall,” Le Monde, 13 January 1985.

[32] Eric Rouleau, “Khomeini’s Iran,” Foreign Affairs, 59 (1980): 18.

[33] Fathi, 103.

[34] Ibid., 112.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Fathi, 113.

[39] Ibid., 112.

[40] Youssef M Ibrahim, “France Expelling Iranian Opponents of Khomeini,” The New York Times, 8 December 1987.

[41] Elizabeth Bryant, “Opposition a stick against Iran?” UPI, 7 February 2006.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Fathi, 106.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid., 105.

[46] Hakimzadeh.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Hakimzadeh.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Fathi, 125.

[52] Hakimzadeh.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Fathi, 163-165.

[56] Amir Bagherpour, “The Iranian Diaspora in America: 30 Years in the Making,” Tehran Bureau, sponsored by the Public Broadcasting Service.

[57] Ibid., 164.

[58] Ibid., 166.

[59] Ibid., 166-167.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Elizabeth Bryant, “Iran Exiles Seen Hopelessly Split; Agree Only on Opposing Current Regime,” The Washington Times, 21 June 2006.

[62] Azadeh Ansari, “Iranian-Americans Cast Ballots on Iran’s Future,” CNN, 16 June 2009.

[63] Farnaz Fassihi and Christopher Rhoads, “Iranian Diaspora Joins to Protest Ahmadinejad,” The Wall Street Journal, 18 September 2009.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Bryant, “Opposition a stick against Tehran?”

[66] Nima Naghibi, “Diasporic Disclosures: Social Networking, Neda, and the 2009 Iranian Presidential Elections.” Biography 34 (Winter 2011): 56.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Ibid, 57.

[69] “Our Mission,” Iranian Alliances Across Borders.

[70] “Conference 2004,” Iranian Alliances Across Borders.

[71] “Conference 2007,” Iranian Alliances Across Borders.

[72] “Conference 2012,” Iranian Alliances Across Borders.