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Iranian-Americans Call Out U.S. Senator Graham For 'Terrible' Ancestry Gaffe

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham

A number of Iranian-Americans have responded with anger after U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham quipped in an interview that it would be "terrible" if DNA testing revealed that he had Iranian ancestry.

A South Carolinian who has been hawkish on Iran and was a vocal critic of the 2015 nuclear deal that was subsequently abandoned by fellow Republican President Donald Trump, Graham quickly sought to clarify his comments by saying that his joke was directed at “the Ayatollah, not the Iranian people.”

But some prominent Iranian-Americans had already decried the perceived slight as “racist” and “disgusting."

Iranian-American executives, including Twitter chairman Omid Kordestani, criticized the comments.

“Please start upholding the best values of our great nation and its institutions and stop mimicking the divisive and simpleminded voices! An apology is in order,” Kordestani tweeted on October 17, before word of Graham's follow-up interview in which he said the remark was "a joke."

CNN’s chief international anchor, Christiane Amanpour, reacted to Graham’s original comments in a series of tweets where she wrote, “Whatever you think of the regime, no need to tar all the people.”

“In fact, just look around to see Iranian-Americans powering major sectors of U.S. life and economy, from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, from science and surgery to architecture and engineering, from art and culture to yes, even the media,” she added.

Hadi Partovi, CEO of nonprofit, which seeks to expand access to computer-science programs inschools, also criticized Graham’s comments as insulting.

“Some of the greatest businesspeople, scientists, athletes, and leaders in America are of Iranian descent," Partovi said. "By calling us terrible you insult everything that makes America great."

A California-based venture capitalist of Iranian descent, Pejman Nozad, tweeted a thread of "facts about Iran" that included a list of political, intellectual, and cultural accomplishments in Persian history, as well as some of the "endless" achievements of Iranian-Americans.

Graham's initial remark came during an October 15 interview on "Fox & Friends" during which he was asked about an announcement by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren that she had taken a DNA test that indicated some native American ancestry in response to repeated taunts from candidate, then president, Trump.

"I'll probably be Iranian. That would be, like, terrible,” Graham said on the show.

Follow-Up Interview

Brian Kilmeade, a co-host of the show, reacted by saying, “Well, they have great people, just bad leaders,” to which Graham responded: “Yeah, bad leaders. I’m not in the ayatollah branch.”

It was an apparent reference to current Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last say on political and religious matters in Iran, and the religiously dominated leadership that took power in the 1979 revolution.

In a follow-up interview with Fox, Graham said, “If you know anything about me, name one person who’s been a bigger defender of the Iranian people to fight back against their oppressor."

“It was a joke,” Graham said, before adding in a reference to the 3-year-old nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers that exchanged curbs on Iranian nuclear activities for a relaxation of sanctions.

“The Iranian people are brave and cultured. To my liberal friends who are offended by my statement, [at] least I didn’t vote for an agreement that gave $150 billion dollars to the man who kills Iranians in the street,” Graham said.

Under the deal, U.S. officials are estimated to have released some $100 billion in previously frozen Iranian assets.

The Trump administration withdrew from the deal in May and announced the reimposition of sanctions and a renewed effort to punish companies and countries that do business with Iran.

Iranians were also the target of a recent U.S. travel ban on a handful of mostly Muslim countries over objections from critics who called it religiously based discrimination against would-be visitors to the United States.

Iranian-American organizations, including the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and The Public Affairs Alliance Of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), also criticized Graham's comments.

“The Iranian-American community will not forget such casual racism, nor will it forget which party has enacted policy on the basis of such racism by banning our family members from Iran," the NIAC’s president, Jamal Abdi, said in a statement.

In a letter to Graham, PAIAA Executive Director Leila Austin said her organization hoped that the senator would refrain in the future “from broad generalizations that are likely to mischaracterize an entire group of Americans and run counter to U.S. foreign policy objectives.”

While the reaction inside Iran to Graham’s comments appeared muted, the conservative news site suggested that while U.S. officials have stated repeatedly that sanctions are targeting the Iranian establishment, not the people, their comments and actions suggest the opposite.

“We have witnessed many times comments and actions by them that highlight contradictions in their behavior,” Tabnak said. “It appears that the U.S. approach toward Iran has entered a new phase that targets the identity of the Iranian people through a racist view."

U.S. officials for decades have sought to distinguish their criticism of the Iranian government from a broader appreciation for the Iranian public and its history and culture.

The 2015 nuclear deal under President Barack Obama took years to complete and drew sharp criticism from hawkish elements in the United States who insisted it emboldened and enriched a government that had thumbed its nose for years at nuclear nonproliferation efforts, sowed instability through terrorism and support for radical elements in the Middle East, and trampled the rights of its own people.

There did not appear to be any public comment from Iranian officials over Graham's remark or subsequent apology.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.