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Caught Shopping While Iranian: Diasporic Solidarity and the Globalization of Collective Punishment

[Image by Valeriy Osipov via Flickr] [Image by Valeriy Osipov via Flickr]

In recent years, the Iranian New Year, Norooz, has become a fairly predictable time for US presidents to gesture towards “dialogue” and mutual respect between the United States and the Iranian people, while criticizing the repressive policies and nuclear aspirations of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). George W. Bush spoke often of the Iranian people’s right to live in a “free society,” and ended his presidency with an opulent haft sin display in the dining room of the White House. More recently, Barack Obama has taken to YouTube to deliver his missives to the Iranian people, and to frame his sanctions regime as an exercise in supporting human rights. At a time when US-led sanctions are creating an artificial shortage of medicine and contributing to soaring inflation in Iran, the Norooz message has become a handy public diplomacy technique for the US government, and another juncture where culture is leveraged as foreign policy. Obama expresses his support for human rights and freedom in Iran, and then wishes Iranians a happy new year (in Persian!), while the sanctions programs strengthened by his administration collectively punish civilians and inch the country towards humanitarian crisis.

Inducing regime change in Iran has long been a foreign policy fantasy among US officials, particularly if the bill could be footed in non-American and non-Israeli lives and suffering. Under Obama, sanctions have become the preferred policy tactic on his oft-cited table of policy options for pressuring Iran on its nuclear program. As was the case with Iraq in the 1990s, there seems to be consensus in the beltway that the astronomical human suffering was, in the words of Madeleine Albright, “worth it.” Despite the fact that the Iranian regime has not ceased uranium enrichment, along with evidence of the harmful effects of the sanctions program, there are factions in the Iranian diaspora that have also taken a pro-sanctions stance. Iranian American advocacy groups have issued statements and reports in support of the sanctions, qualifying their support by saying pressuring the regime through sanctions weakens its power and fuels greater demands for political and social freedoms. Another commonly heard refrain is that the sanctions are actually targeting IRI officials who are converting national monies into personal fortunes, and that the hardships facing the Iranian population is more reflective of decades of economic mismanagement by the regime than of the effect of the sanctions.

While diasporic support for sanctions exists, other Iranian American advocates and organizations have condemned the sanctions for imposing severe hardship on the Iranian people while maintaining a critical stance regarding the IRI. These fissures are productive of cultural politics of solidarity, in which the claim to membership in the Iranian nation is interrogated, as is loyalty to the “Iranian people.” These contests have become more visible as the effects of the sanctions manifest in settings and circumstances that go beyond Iran’s borders. Increasingly, we are seeing the sanctions being invoked at sub-state levels and by private sector actors to target Iranian nationals and US citizens of Iranian origin outside of Iran. As a result, there is a need for a deeper engagement with the movement of the effects of sanctions across borders; such an engagement yields important questions worth investigating on both the growing institutionalization of discrimination and the diasporic politics of solidarity.

Institutionalizing Discrimination

The US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is the governmental body responsible for enforcing and defining the Iran sanctions. Since the Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) of 1996, the sanctions have been targeted towards limiting companies from doing business with Iran or investing in the Iranian energy sector. In 2006, the ILSA was renamed the Iran Sanctions Act, and along with a series of presidential executive orders, the sanctions subsequently have been tightened to include (among other provisions) regulations at the individual level as well. While OFAC has issued clarifications and exemptions to the sanctions, commercial entities are left to their own devices to determine what constitutes violating the sanctions. This has resulted in the de facto outsourcing of enforcement from OFAC to companies to comply with export regulations. In practice, this means that malls and college campuses have become the front lines of US foreign policy, where sales clerks and bank tellers double as export control specialists. Given that Americans’ knowledge of culture, geography, and history has never inspired confidence, it is not surprising that shopping while Iranian is becoming seen as a threat to US national security.

Two recent events highlight how the sanctions are contributing to an institutionalization of transnational discrimination against Iranians and US citizens of Iranian origin. In June 2012, Sahar Sabet—a young woman of Iranian origin (and US citizen)—was not allowed to purchase merchandise at an Apple Store in Alpharetta, Georgia after an employee there overheard her speaking in Persian with her uncle and cited “bad relations” between Iran and the United States as the reason for refusing the sale. While media reports suggested that the iPad was for a family member in Iran, the purchase of the iPad was intended for Sabet’s older sister, a resident of North Carolina. The Apple employee in Alpharetta cited the company policy of not selling or exporting Apple goods to Iran and North Korea, and said that the policy will always be to “not sell to anyone from Iran.” Since this story broke, there have been reports of similar incidents at other Apple Stores.

In December 2012, TCF Bank sent notices to twenty-two Iranian students at the University of Minnesota who had accounts with the bank that their accounts were to be closed without explanation. It should be noted that TCF has a special (if not exclusive) relationship with the University of Minnesota. TCF Bank is the official U Card Bank and the only bank that can connect student U Cards to a checking account. When asked for comment by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, a spokesperson for TCF said “nationality had nothing to do with the decision” and “banks have to follow regulations that shut down accounts that appear to be connected with terrorist funding or money laundering.” TCF sent the notice of account closure before collecting any information from the students, in effect suggesting that being Iranian was reason enough to be suspect. Another Iranian student at the University of Minnesota was not permitted to open an account at TCF after the bank teller saw his Iranian passport. Subsequently, TCF has sent detailed questionnaires to the Iranian students, in an attempt to collect evidence after presuming a level of guilt on the part of the students. While TCF is the latest institution to target its Iranian customers, it is not the first. To take another example, TD Bank in Canada has similarly frozen or blocked the accounts of Iranian nationals and Iranian Canadians.

It would not be entirely accurate to say that the sanctions are generating discrimination against Iranian nationals and those of Iranian origin, since discrimination and anti-Iranian sentiment in the United States are not new. More troubling are the ways in which these “new” ways of legal compliance reinforce forms of exclusion that map on to decades-old processes of marginalization of Iranians in the United States. Notably, national origin, political intent, and language are being openly acknowledged by retailers as selection criteria to determine who may or may not use their products and services. Without clearer guidelines and intervention from the federal government, it is clear that the sanctions are being over enforced and used indiscriminately by a growing number of private sector actors in the name of avoiding liability. What remains uncertain is whether this silence by the US government represents a calculated outsourcing of its dirty work to the private sector.

Wither Diasporic Solidarity?

Not surprisingly, these incidents have also generated debate among diasporic Iranians over whether to respond and how. After her ordeal, the nineteen-year-old Sabet (who described her experience as “very hurtful and embarrassing”) advised anyone Iranian not to say anything about Iran or being Iranian in Apple stores, to avoid being refused service. In several conversations with Iranian friends and acquaintances in Atlanta, I heard others angrily voice a desire to educate Apple (and a broader US audience as well) that Iranian Americans should not be subject to such treatment, since they not only oppose the IRI, but because they are also an accomplished, educated, and affluent ethnic community in the United States as well.

Playing up “model minority” attributes may be an understandable impulse in moments of increased public scrutiny and suspicion, but accommodating racist norms that presume all Iranians to be inherently untrustworthy is not an effective strategy to overcome institutional exclusion. One’s citizenship status, language, level of education, religious beliefs, or penchant for identifying as “Persian” over “Iranian” should not be the basis to individually opt out of discrimination. Moreover, meeting such exemptions alone does not refute a larger paradigm of guilt by association, which increasingly confronts Iranian nationals and citizens of Iranian origin alike.

In Minneapolis, the Iranian students at the University of Minnesota have received tepid support and are viewed with some wariness by the local Iranian community in the Twin Cities. Some here have proposed vetting the students to see whether they are affiliates of the IRI before offering their public support to the students. The claim that vetting the students in such a manner is a non-issue—if they have nothing to hide—echoes claims made by US law enforcement officials who defend the use of profiling practices.

It is also indicative of a historical amnesia on the part of those Iranians who have lived in the United States for decades, but somehow have forgotten the history of surveillance and harassment that Iranians in the United States have been subjected to in the past. The Minnesota students are not the first Iranians to come to the United States as international students and have to prove they weren’t Iranian spies as well. Following the hostage crisis of 1979, Jimmy Carter implemented an “Iranian Control Program,” which targeted nearly sixty thousand Iranian students studying in the United States, interrogated them on a case-by-case basis, and ordered the deportation of over three thousand individuals who were found to be out of legal status.

Borrowing from Marx, if such measures were tragic in 1980, then what is happening now is farcical. Those claiming to need proof of innocence of the Iranian students before supporting their right to access their own funds and pursue their education are reproducing this history and unwittingly demonstrating that rights in the United States remains tiered, with different registers and protections available to different groups. What kind of solidarity can be spoken of when it is contingent upon those most affected by the sanctions having to prove their innocence? Why the attendant belief that US citizens of Iranian origin need to act and self-represent in particular ways to be seen and accepted as good Americans? Why validate the view that anyone who happens to be in the United States with an Iranian passport is an extension or affiliate of the Iranian regime? Taking such positions affirm that being Iranian is reason enough to be suspect, and so Iranians have to do more to prove themselves worthy of the right to immigrate, live, bank, shop, and go to school in the United States.

Any “community” is diverse in its political views and in its willingness to speak and be seen in particular ways. Diasporic ambivalence towards the sanctions—and the effects they produce—indicates the contested nature of solidarity among Iranians, as well as ethical and ideological stances that constrain the possibilities of collective action against collective punishment. In this case, “solidarity” has so far amounted to a patronizing declaration of “let’s wait and see,” which justifies the trampling of Iranian international students’ rights and interests in the United States and increasing hardship in Iran in the name of winning “liberty” there. David Cole has mapped this "their liberties our security" argument, in which non-citizens’ rights are seen as expendable in the name of US national interests and security. Introducing and examining the role of diaspora into this idea highlights the complex ways in which Iranians in the US may also serve as key figures in upholding this discourse, which has the dubious distinction of hurting Iranians in Iran and increasingly constraining their own right to equal protection under the law in the United States. Of course, this position may change the next time the educated, affluent (and self-important) US citizen of Iranian origin gets treated like an ”ordinary” Iranian, Arab, or Muslim.

Simplifying solidarity to binaries of pro-US/anti-IRI and pro-IRI/anti-sanctions—and casting the players therein as “good Iranians” versus “bad Iranians”—eliminates alternate meanings and agentive possibilities. Moreover, such binaries render invisible the growing number of voices who critically interrogate indiscriminately punitive US policy towards Iran along with the repression and brutality of the IRI. Thankfully, the Iranian American community speaks with many voices, even if they are not all heard equally.

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*This article benefited greatly from conversations with Samira Afzali and Geoff Johnson 

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