The U.S. Election's Iranian-American Vote: What's It Look Like?

The diaspora is as divided on its choice as the rest of the country. 


Iranian American children during protest against Iran's nuclear program in Washington. (Shaun Heasley/Reuters)

On election day in the United States, Portland-based journalist Goudarz Eghtedari will abstain from voting; D.C.-based businessman Shahriar Etminani will cast his vote for Republican candidate Mitt Romney; and California-based attorney Mike Kazemi will vote for the Democratic incumbent, Barack Obama.

The three differ when it comes to who they think should be the next president of the United States, but they share one thing in common -- all are Iranian-Americans who moved to the United States shortly before or after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

They are among the estimated 1.5 million Iranians who live in the United States, and their votes tell a lot about how one of the campaign' major foreign-policy issues has played out among the relatively small, but significant, voting bloc.

For many Iranian-Americans, how the next administration deals with Tehran is a key determinant of how they will cast their ballot on November 6.

Both Obama and Romney say that Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon is not an option. And both candidates have said that military strikes aimed at curbing Iran's controversial nuclear activities should be a last resort.

But the differences between the two candidates when it comes to Iranian nukes are in the details.

Obama has said that as long as he is president, Iran will not obtain a nuclear weapon, while Romney has emphasized that a "nuclear-capable Iran" is unacceptable, even if it doesn't actually possess the weapon.

Obama has touted his role in implementing "the strongest sanctions against Iran in history" in an effort to persuade Iran to abandon its controversial nuclear program. The sanctions are widely believed to have crippled the Iranian economy and facilitated the collapse of the national currency.

Meanwhile, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has said that he would have put harsh sanctions in place earlier and has pledged that, if elected, he would further tighten the sanctions.

'We Haven't Engaged'

For journalist Eghtedari, neither candidate is pursuing an Iran policy that would win his vote. He says it is painful to watch from afar how the sanctions are harming average Iranian citizens while Iranian leaders are left unscathed.

Eghtedari campaigned in 2008 for Obama but is now feeling disillusioned and frustrated with what he describes as a lack of real change in the United States' relationship with Iran.

"We need to really engage them and we haven't engaged them," Eghtedari says. "Engagement is something that Europe did in the 1990s with Iran, [to] be economically involved with them. We have to open up ourselves and get involved so we have a ground place to be able to influence the situation in the country."

But for businessman Etminani, engaging the Islamic republic is out of the question. He wants to see an uprising that would bring the regime down.

His vote for Romney is very much determined by the U.S. reaction to the mass street protests that followed the disputed reelection of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Obama initially said the United States was troubled by the violence that accompanied the protests. Later, he condemned the beating and imprisonment of protesters.

Etminani believes Obama's actions were insufficient. He says Obama decided against offering direct support to the Iranian opposition movement because his administration hoped to negotiate with the Islamic republic and didn't want "to antagonize" the regime.

The next time Iranian people rise up, Etminani says, he wants to see "tangible help."

"But based on what President Obama has done, it's pretty much guaranteed that he will not do that because he's made zero indications that he is willing to do that," Etminani says. "So you have a chance of zero or a small possibility. Based on the last three years, I think it is more likely that Governor Romney will take that route than President Obama would."

Step Backward

Attorney Kazemi disagrees. He believes that Obama's policies toward Iran have been relatively effective in raising the heat on the regime and backing it in a corner.

He would view a Romney presidency as a step backward.

"Governor Romney has the same policies that have led to the expensive, bloody, and unnecessary war in Iraq and failure in Afghanistan," Kazemi says.

Kazemi believes if Romney were elected, the chances of war with Iran would likely increase.

"I believe that war would be a silly approach or outright stupid because it is, on the one hand, exactly what the regime in Iran desires," Kazemi says. "Because as soon as the bomb drops, that would lead to some kind of consolidation of their power and further suppression of the [opposition] movement in Iran under the banner of national security and national interests."

A 2011 survey by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), which polls the Iranian-American community, found that there had been a significant decline in the diaspora's opinion of Obama when it came to his handling of Iran. Despite this, however, 55 percent of Iranian-Americans indicated that they were inclined to vote for Obama in the 2012 election.

And while the United States' Iran policy is a key issue for Iranian-Americans, U.S. domestic issues such as the economy are also likely to play a determining factor in their vote.

Differences in Voting Patterns

Morad Ghorban, director of government affairs and policy at PAAIA, says the 2009 Iranian election and its aftermath led to a spike in the interest of the Iranian-American community in Iran and the U.S. policy toward Iran.

The situation appears to have changed since.

"When we asked the same question again in 2011, those numbers have basically evened out with each other so about half say domestic issues are the most important, the other half say Iran-U.S. related issues are the most important issue."

​​Maboud Ansari, a professor of sociology at William Paterson University in New Jersey, says there is a difference in the voting preferences of first- and second-generation Iranian-Americans.

"It seems that the second-generation Iranians, who make up about half of the Iranian-American community, will vote for Obama because of job security and also because he didn't pursue a war policy," Ansari says. "The second-generation Iranian-Americans are in favor of creative diplomacy."

Ansari, who has authored several books on Iranian-Americans, says the vote of first-generation Iranian-Americans is likely to be divided, with some voting Republican and others for Obama because of his domestic health-care policies.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.