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Persian Letters

Saturday 17 November 2018

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 Code.org, 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 Tabnak.ir 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.

Iranian students protest the verdicts against them over the recent protests in Iran on June 17.

A recent crackdown on students in Iran has come under criticism by university professors and others who hold President Hassan Rohani responsible for the pressure and are calling on him to take action.

More than 100 students were reportedly detained during protests over the economy in late December and early January that evolved into demonstrations against the establishment that included chants targeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Some of the detainees reportedly never took part in the protests, which spread to some 80 cities.

Two of the detained students, Sina Darvish Omran and Ali Mozaffari, were subsequently sentenced to eight-year prison terms after being convicted on charges including acting against national security, Iranian media and rights activists have reported.

Omran and Mozaffari, who were reportedly arrested by the Intelligence Ministry in December 2017 and held in solitary confinement, also face two-year bans from political and social-media activities.

At least three other students have been reportedly sentenced to prison, with their terms ranging from six months to one year and including bans on leaving the country.

More than 100 university professors have signed a letter to Rohani criticizing the recent arrests and sentences, stating that the crackdown had created concerns that "some are trying to silence dissenting voices in the universities."

"It seems that most of the detainees are individuals involved in legal activities, and perhaps some had criticized your government's work on campuses," the letter published on July 16 by Iranian news sites said.

"We want you to act upon your promises to defend the rights of the people, support a [safe] space for students for criticism, and protect [them]," the letter said.

The signatories called for a "secure" environment at universities, rather than a "securitized" one.

Earlier this month, more than 60 university groups across the country criticized pressure against students, calling in a joint statement for the release of student detainees, an end to their prosecution, and clarification of the role of the Intelligence Ministry, whose head is chosen by the president.

"Not only does the 'moderate' government of Hassan Rohani not react to the arrests, but the footprint of its Intelligence Ministry is seen in the arrests and the sentences," the statement said.

Students at several Iranian universities have protested the pressure against them in recent weeks, according to media reports and social media.

A video posted online on June 28 shows students at Tabriz University of Medical Sciences singing a protest song while holding signs such as one that read, "Students don't belong in jail."

The students are wearing mouth-covering masks, apparently to highlight the attempts to silence critics.

Rohani, who earned the '"relative moderate" moniker upon becoming president in 2013, has faced increased demands in his second term to resist pressure from hard-line conservatives who oppose his campaign promises to give Iranians more rights and lessen state interference in their lives.

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About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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