The past few weeks of tension in the Middle East have made Iranian Americans a target in their adopted home. U.S. authorities have subjected ethnic Iranians—some of them American citizens—to terrifying, confusing ordeals at the border. And a group of Republican senators is now calling on Washington to investigate the largest Iranian-American civic organization in the country for its political views.
The threat of war between the United States and Iran is not as strong as it was immediately after the January 3 assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the infamous Iranian spymaster and guerrilla commander. But the damage to domestic civil liberties could linger for months or even years to come.
As of 2018, there were 467,466 self-identified Iranian Americans, according to the U.S. Census. Many of these families fled to America after 1979, when revolutionaries overthrew a U.S.-backed monarch and installed the present-day Islamic government. Needless to say, they do not tend to be fans of the current Iranian regime.
That hasn't stopped the Trump administration from treating people of Iranian origin as a potential fifth column.
Mohammadshahab Dehghani, an economics student at Northeastern University, had a valid visa to study in the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents detained Dehghani when he arrived at Logan Airport in Boston at around 5:30 pm on January 19.
The agency held him "incommunicado" for over 24 hours, according to Iman Boukadoum, a senior staff attorney at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee who assisted with the case. Dehghani was not allowed to contact either a lawyer or his family, and Northeastern University discovered Dehghani's fate only after CBP called his roommate to say that he would likely be deported.
A federal judge issued a writ of habeas corpus on January 20 ordering CBP to delay the deportation for two days, but Dehghani's deportation flight took off a few minutes later anyways. The judge threw out the case soon after that, as Dehghani was no longer in his jurisdiction.
"They knew that a federal lawsuit had been filed," Boukadoum says, but CBP agents refused even to let lawyers serve a legal notice that they were representing Dehghani. "It was effectively just obstruction and obfuscation."
A CBP spokesperson refused to explain why the agency deported Dehghani, referring Reason to a statement claiming the Iranian student "was deemed inadmissible" to the United States for unspecified reasons. The agency's decision is especially puzzling in light of the "extreme vetting" Dehghani went through to get his visa in the first place. According to Boukadoum, the process took nine months.
Trump instituted a "temporary" travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority nations shortly after taking office in 2017. Citizens of five of those countries—including Iran—can now enter the United States only through a waiver program with a 6 percent acceptance rate.
"The issuance of a visa or participation in the visa waiver program does not guarantee entry to the United States," CBP said in a statement that misspelled Dehghani's name.
An investigation by The Guardian found that U.S. authorities have deported at least 10 Iranians students with valid visas since August.
The Trump administration now appears to be imposing extreme vetting on U.S. citizens of Iranian origin too.
The weekend after Soleimani died, CBP agents reportedly detained dozens of Iranians and Iranian Americans for up to 10 hours at border stations across the country. The bulk of the detainees were detained at the Peace Arch border station in Washington State while returning from a Persian-language pop duo's concert in Vancouver, according to a statement by four Iranian-American organizations.
"All of them were subjected to the same kind of questioning that we've seen on an extreme vetting questionnaire," including questions about their family history and social media accounts, says Ryan Costello, policy director of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).
"Mikhail," an American citizen whose name has been changed here to protect his job, was returning to the United States from a ski trip on January 3 when CBP agents stopped him at Calgary Airport in Canada. (U.S. border authorities have a presence in several foreign airports.) Mikhail says that one of their questions shocked him: "Did you serve?"
"I feel so American, for the life of me, I thought he meant did I sign up for Selective Service?" says Mikhail, in unaccented English. It turns out that CBP wanted to know if he had served in the Iranian military.
Iran currently institutes the draft for adult males, and last year the Trump administration declared the Revolutionary Guards, a branch of the Iranian military, a terrorist organization. But Mikhail left Iran at age 12 in 1978. And even if he somehow served in the Iranian military as a preteen, he would have been fighting for what was then a pro-U.S. regime.
"You can choose your nationality. You can't choose your place of birth," Mikhail says. "You take the [U.S. citizenship] oath. You take the passport. This is the only country that is home to you."
NIAC policy director Ryan Costello claims the question about military service was a "uniting question" that interrogators asked Iranian-American travelers across the country that weekend.
Border agents also asked some detainees about their political views, including their views on Soleimani, according to Boukadoum.
Boukadoum notes that the border is where authorities often test out their "most radical" policies, which they might not be able to enact on Americans inside America.
"This is just a continuation of post-9/11 border security policy," she says. "CBP has so much unfettered power."
CBP initially denied that it was "detaining Iranian-Americans and refusing their entry into the U.S. because of their country of origin," claiming instead that the holdups at Peace Arch were because of "increased volume and reduced staff during the holiday season."
But a CBP spokesperson later told Reason: "CBP has understood Iran and its proxies to be a very capable adversary for some time. Consistent with our statutory authorities, CBP leverages all available tools and information to ensure that individuals who seek entry into the United States are appropriately screened."
The Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has opened an investigation into the incidents, according to Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D–Wash.).
The treatment of the Iranian-American community as a potential enemy within the country hasn't stopped at the border.
Mana Mostatabi of NIAC says her group has seen an increase of reports from concerned Iranian Americans: "Their kids are being bullied in school. They're being called 'sand n-word,' and [people are] threatening to push the families across the border and shoot them, or rape their mothers."
Meanwhile, a group of Republican senators—Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Mike Braun of Indiana—wrote a letter to the Department of Justice asking them to investigate NIAC as unregistered agents of the Iranian government.
"The Senators' accusations of dual loyalty targeting our organization, particularly amid heightened risks of war, are disgusting and dangerous," NIAC shot back in a statement, pointing out that the group is funded by American citizens and foundations.
Several organizations from other immigrant communities, including the Japanese American Citizens League and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, signed a petition defending NIAC.
The Republican senators' letter cited meetings between members of Congress and Iran's then–U.N. Ambassador Mohammad-Javad Zarif that former NIAC president Trita Parsi helped facilitate over a decade ago.
"This was at a time when there was a risk of war between the United States and Iran during the end of the Bush administration," Parsi says. "Members of Congress had asked me if I could help make connections to Zarif, because they wanted to prevent war, and I had gotten to know Zarif because I interviewed him for my dissertation.
"I would commend anyone else who right now is helping facilitate dialogue between the United States and Iran so that we don't have this ridiculous war," adds Parsi, who is now executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
The three Republican senators also accused NIAC's staffers of "amplifying [Iranian] regime propaganda in the United States" and "deflecting blame from the Iranian regime" based on their emails and tweets criticizing U.S. foreign policy.
Ironically, Iran's regime has attacked NIAC on opposite grounds. Javad Karimi-Ghodousi, a Conservative member of Iran's parliament, accused Zarif in September 2018 of working with George Soros and NIAC on a U.S.-backed "soft regime change" campaign.
Iranian authorities arrested Parsi's close friend Siamak Namazi in 2015 and sentenced him to 10 years in prison for collaborating with a foreign government. Iranian state TV even ran a documentary last year attacking both Namazi and NIAC. The film highlighted Parsi's links to nefarious forces pushing "liberal democracy" and "capitalism" on the world.
Mostatabi calls the attacks on NIAC from both American and Iranian hardliners an example of "horseshoe theory"—the idea that extremists on opposite sides of the political spectrum are closer to each other than to moderates.
"I'm not surprised, but this is still shocking," Mostatabi says. "This sets a dangerous precedent for any immigrant community and any community that challenges the policies of the Trump administration."