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The Current:
Spring 2007
Divided We Stand: Iranian Students and the Nuclear Dilemma
Sarah Morgan

When I was born in 1987, I was given my mother's last name, not my father's. As the daughter of an American mother and an Iranian father born in the years after the 1979 hostage crisis, my parents feared the consequences of giving me my father's Iranian name. The crisis had bred a general public fear. Twenty years later, the U.S. and Iran are again in a standoff, this time over the nuclear question. The media draw an endless string of stark contrasts—Bush versus Ahmadinejad, the Americans against the Iranians, the Great Satan opposing the Axis of Evil. Though it may serve the media to speak this way, the crisis is much less clear-cut for the Americans, Iranians and Iranian-Americans involved. On Columbia's campus alone there are many students who, despite being U.S. residents or citizens, have strong roots in, and feelings for, Iran. For these students, the geopolitical maneuvering between the two countries has deeply personal, and deeply complex meaning.

Over the past year, a series of panel discussions here about the nuclear issue have highlighted questions that challenge many students' complicated allegiances. Among these questions are: Is it Iran's sovereign right to go nuclear? What are the proclaimed intentions of the Iranian government and are they to be trusted? And the ultimate divider, should Iran go nuclear? At each event, the audience filled up quickly with Iranian expatriates, Iran scholars, and Iranian-Americans.

From these events, and from conversations with those in attendance, I gained insights into the diversity of campus opinion and into how students with complex allegiances seek perspectives on the conflict which balance their competing loyalties.

Before the United Nations levied sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi spoke at Columbia's School for International and Public Affairs (SIPA) about her new book, Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, and her experiences combating the restrictive regime of the Islamic Republic. Despite this stated purpose, questions from attendees shifted the discussion away from reform and to the issue of nuclear proliferation. The ease of the transition from reform to the nuclear debate surprised me. More and similar questions ensued. An Iranian expatriate asked pointedly if Ebadi believes it is Iran's sovereign right to continue pursuing its nuclear program. Ebadi's passionate affirmation of Iran's "right" visibly pleased the audience, which was now of the same mind as Ebadi on two accounts: agreement had merely transitioned from the importance of the rights of the Iranian people under their government to the rights of the Iranian nation in the international system. Support for reform, it seemed, had been overridden by another sentiment, one which was anti-imperialistic and pro-Iran. The thought had not occurred to me that the nuclear issue acted as a nationalistic unifier, but many in the audience made it clear that nationalist sentiments played a key role in their support for Iran's nuclear program.

Iranian communities abroad, including those at Columbia, have not been immune to the rising tide of nationalism. In discussions on Facebook groups such as "WE LOVE IRAN" and "Persian Pride" and in student blogs, Iranian students across the U.S. have expressed pride in the country's growing nuclear program. In a similar vein, the International Crisis Group think tank argues that, despite December's U.N. sanctions, Ahmadinejad "retains important political assets. Arguably most significant is the nationalist fervor born of Iran's nuclear program and the resulting international reaction." Students in and out of Iran feel compelled to unite around the nuclear issue. The way Ahmadinejad has framed the debate has proven itself a "win-win strategy," as Columbia professor Richard Bulliet called it in an Agence Global editorial last fall. The more Ahmadinejad infuriates the West, the more Iranians must rally to protect their nation.

Hani Mansourian, an Iranian SIPA student who arrived in the U.S. in August, has seen many compatriots in Iran struggle with the nuclear debate. He has worked on humanitarian relief in Iran, and his parents work with non-governmental organizations to promote social change. Based on his experiences, Mansourian acknowledged in an interview with Democracy Now! that, "the whole [debate] is basically pushing people to rally more around the government, the same government that they don't necessarily like, but because it's coming to the point that it's becoming a national issue." Whether or not they support the regime, Iranians living in Iran must choose between being branded as anti-nuclear, and therefore anti-Iran, or as pro-nuclear nationalists supportive of the regime's actions. Mansourian's conceptualization of the dilemma supports Bulliet's "win-win"—the "us against them" framing of the nuclear question has led Iranians to rally behind their homeland.

The nationalist sentiment on campus, however, is not as clear-cut as it originally seemed at the Ebadi event. With much of the support for Iran's nuclear quest fueled by nationalism, some Iranian students studying at Columbia feel conflicted in their allegiances, a feeling which has affected their position on the issue. Cyrus Samii, an Iranian-born SIPA student, explained that being "a dual national means that there are people on both sides about which I care deeply. Thus, being a dual national definitely intensifies my interest in seeing the standoff between the US and Iran settled through peaceful negotiations." For Nazee Moinian, an Iranian-born Jew and a U.S. citizen, the debate is affected by the cross-section of three identities. In SIPA's blog, themorningsidepost.com, she wrote, "as an Iranian/American Jew, who has emotional ties to Iran, the country of my birth, spiritual ties to Israel, the country of my religion, and actual (and patriotic) ties to the U.S., my adopted country...one cannot escape President Ahmadinejad's inflammatory words delivered coolly with a condescending smirk." Caught between Iranian threats to Israel and the U.S. and Israel's threats to Iran, Moinian has only begun to juggle the uncertain futures of the nations to which she is intimately connected.

In November, another event revealed the intricacies of the nuclear debate to students on campus. When Iranian Ambassador to the U.N. Javid Zarif visited SIPA for a talk on the Iranian nuclear program, he did not use Ahmadinejad's nationalist tactics but instead proclaimed the innocence of the Iranian nuclear program. His manner was "smooth" and "disarming," Moinian wrote on the SIPA blog in a post describing the event. Unlike the Ebadi event, Zarif's address to the Columbia audience was specifically about the nuclear issue. Zarif's assertion of Iran's peaceful intentions was met with skepticism. Perhaps suspicion stemmed from Zarif's high position in the government and his smooth, disarming delivery. Or perhaps Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric was simply too strong to be disregarded. Either way, the questions implied that, no matter how hard Zarif tried to deflect scrutiny, the audience assumed that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

Much like Zarif's skeptical audience, some Iranian students on campus agree that there is little doubt concerning the weapons-oriented nature of the program. A SEAS '09 Iranian-American student, who asked not to be named due to dual-citizenship considerations and her upcoming travel to Iran, described what she saw as the simplest reason to discredit such peaceful proclamations: "Iran has so much oil that it is not within their financial interest to pursue nuclear power instead." Cyrus Samii contended that Iran's intentions are more subtle. He believes that "they definitely want nuclear energy and the capability to develop weapons, but not necessarily a stockpile of warheads." "Nuclear weapons capability" means that there would be enough highly enriched uranium to create weapons, if necessary, but that Iran would not develop weapons stockpiles unless provoked. Another Iranian-American student, Sheena Shirakon, CC '09, who has worked extensively through a non-profit organization to promote dialogue amongst Iranian diaspora communities, noted that whether or not Iran has nuclear weapons in the future, the possibility itself is "leverage for negotiations" and it is "not in their interest to get rid of that card."

A February debate hosted by SIPA's Journal of International Affairs raised the question of whether Iran should go nuclear. Some Iranian students outside of Columbia, on blogs and Facebook discussion boards, attempted to answer this question. They expressed support for the Iranian nuclear weapons program as a particular response to inequality within the international community. "If the U.S., Israel, and Pakistan can have nukes, why can't Iran?" they ask. This argument is nationalistic. And it implies that sovereignty alone justifies the pursuit of nuclear weapons. But I was skeptical of this. Would those advocates for a nuclear Iran who use the sovereignty argument endorse the proliferation of nuclear weapons in every sovereign state—including, for example, North Korea?

A number of the students who support Iran's ambitions emphasized the deterrence factor as an essential facet of their acceptance of a nuclear Iran. Nazee Moinian believes that Iran will never actually use their nuclear weapons because of the probable consequences, "so, let them [acquire nuclear weapons]." She was adamant in her conviction that Iran's government would act rationally with nuclear weapons and would use them solely to deter U.S. regime change policy. Cyrus Samii, in a twist on the same logic, claimed that Iranian nuclear weapons "would clearly be a defensive capability with considerable lag time to strike capability." Samii's response assumes, then, that these weapons would be important only for their capability to deter attack, not as an offensive option.

Those Columbia students who are against Iranian nuclear proliferation return to the difficulties Iran already faces and base their arguments largely upon the consequences of the nuclear weapons pursuit on Iran domestically and internationally. A Kurdish Iranian at SIPA, Kamal Soleimani, suggested that Iran faces issues larger than the nuclear question and that it should focus on more important issues like the country's low quality of life, its faltering economy, and the potential for it to become "another Iraq" if the U.S were to invade. Sheena Shirakhon believes that the risks involved are too high and that Iran's insistence is "unreasonable." She argues that nuclear proliferation will "alienate Iran from the international community" and will worsen economic problems, as sanctions may soon begin to do. Neither Iranian nor American nationalism, these students suggest, should not be allowed to drive the debate—it should be the well-being of Iranians within Iran that does so.

For students both for and against nuclear proliferation, U.S. policy toward Iran is highly relevant to the standoff. The threat of a U.S. invasion, however denied by the Pentagon, generates great fear among Iranians in Iran and furthers the sense among Iranians and Iranian-Americans that they must choose one side or the other. The optimistic deterrence theory of Nazee Moinian and Cyrus Samii becomes irrelevant if the U.S. feels provoked by Iran to carry out a preemptive strike on its nuclear facilities. Furthermore, the consequences of an aggressive U.S. attack would harm the very reform that Iranian students at Columbia support. Hani Mansourian, the SIPA student who recently immigrated to the U.S., made the following argument: "the external enemy would basically give rise to the nationalistic part of people, and the government can take advantage of that." U.S. "military escalation would postpone domestic change, strengthen more radical forces and possibly trigger Iranian retaliation that could spiral out of control," think tank International Crisis Group argues. By forcing Iranians to rely on their government and military for protection, U.S. military action would hand President Ahmadinejad, the ruling clerics, and Supreme Leader Khamenei the exact national unifier they want.

My own allegiances, admittedly, have not been as strongly tested as those of my peers at Columbia. Though I embrace Iranian culture and American culture equally, I am not an Iranian nationalist. Iran is run by a regime about which I have only heard the worst from my father, who fled the 1979 Islamic Revolution as a persecuted religious minority and has never returned. Further, I believe it necessary to prevent Iran's nuclear proliferation on the basis of two arguments that I was surprised did not come up in my interviews. First, the fact that some nations have nuclear weapons does not suggest that more should be added to this list. On the contrary, disarmament should be advocated, not for the good of any particular nation, but to avoid international crisis. In Iran's specific case, I do not believe a state whose government has openly supported and funded terrorism through groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas should be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. The possibility for nuclear technology to fall into or be purposefully placed in the wrong hands is just too great. Although a nuclear Iran seems disastrous to me, with members of my family still in Iran, the thought of a non-peaceful resolution to the conflict is frightening as well.

With a potential international crisis on the horizon, the future of US-Iran relations remains highly uncertain. For Columbia students, the debate has raised questions that try national loyalties and allegiances. These allegiances will continue to be tested as tensions rise. In her 2003 book on state sponsors of terrorism, Bush administration official Meghan O'Sullivan suggested that the answer to diminishing Iran-U.S. tensions lies in "promoting non-governmental seminars and conferences between academics and private citizens." Instead of resolving tensions, though, Columbia's seminars and conferences seem to have been more conducive to choosing sides and reinforcing existing convictions. Though these events provide thought-provoking insight, students often leave the events more conflicted, tense, and hopeless about the situation than when they entered. For these students, the difficulty is political, and personal, as they struggle to find answers to the questions that divide their hearts.


Sarah Morgan is a Barnard College sophomore majoring in Political Science. She is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Barnard Bulletin. She can be reached at sm2499@barnard.edu.


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