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Iranian Americans Anxiously Follow Events In Iran


The United States is home to a community of prominent Iranian American activists, writers and journalists. In the past week, they have seen their native country edge closer to the brink of war with the United States before pulling back. NPR's Melissa Block has been speaking to some of them about their fears and their hopes.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Azar Nafisi, author of the best-selling memoir "Reading Lolita In Tehran," left her homeland for good more than 20 years ago. Now, from her spacious, book-filled apartment in Washington, D.C., she anxiously follows events in Iran through texts and calls. Nafisi jotted down notes from a recent conversation with a friend in Tehran.

AZAR NAFISI: And she told me in wonder and shock, we are watching the game played between two lunatics. Whoever wins, one thing is certain - the Iranian people are the losers.

BLOCK: Nafisi says the Iranian people have once again become pawns in this deadly game between two adversaries, a game that's especially perilous now after the U.S.-targeted killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

NAFISI: No one can accuse me of collaborating or being in favor of the Islamic regime. For the past 40 years, I have been fighting it. But that does not mean that you just, as Mr. Trump so graphically called it, terminate Mr. Soleimani.

BLOCK: Instead, Nafisi says, you bring war criminals to justice.

NAFISI: You do not act the way they act. If you believe that they are assassins, you don't assassinate.

ROYA HAKAKIAN: Look. I don't like extraterritorial, extrajudicial assassinations by anyone anywhere.

BLOCK: That's Iranian American writer Roya Hakakian. Sure, she says, rule of law would be best, but...

HAKAKIAN: While all of us would've much rather seen him on trial so that he would be held accountable for all the crimes he had committed, seeing him gone as an evil force in the region, in my view, was a good thing.

BLOCK: After Soleimani was killed, many expected the worst. Iranian American journalist Omid Memarian kept in close contact with friends and family in Iran.

OMID MEMARIAN: They woke up at the middle of the night. They were terrified. They didn't know what's going to happen. We were so close to getting engaged in a war that both sides basically did not want.

BLOCK: Now, even though both sides appear to have de-escalated tensions, Memarian says it's naive to think that anything is resolved.

MEMARIAN: This is just the start. It didn't end anything. And things are much more complicated now than two weeks ago.

BLOCK: More complicated and more dangerous to Iranians opposed to the regime, says Hadi Ghaemi, an Iranian American human rights activist based in New York. Ghaemi is among many who fear that a major wave of repression is coming, that Iranian authorities are using Soleimani's death to whip up nationalistic fever and as a pretext to crack down on even the mildest dissent.

HADI GHAEMI: The Revolutionary Guards would love to put the country on a war footing, where civilian institutions like the parliament are sidelined and any form of dissent is equated with treason or being a fifth column of the enemy.

BLOCK: One example, Ghaemi says, just look at what happened when a website fairly close to the regime said Soleimani had been killed - rather than using the official word, martyred.

GHAEMI: The judiciary came down immediately and shut down the website and said they had insulted Soleimani by simply calling him killed instead of martyred. That is the level of censorship and repression that is starting to take off. And that means that we have the potential to face a fully totalitarian system in Iran.

BLOCK: All the Iranian Americans I spoke with said don't forget the protests that swept Iran in November. Iran's security forces killed hundreds. Thousands more were detained, disappeared into detention centers. Where was worldwide attention then? - they wonder. Again, writer Roya Hakakian.

HAKAKIAN: When there is no war with Iran, that's a good outcome. That's a wonderful outcome. But then the next question we need to ask is that, what else happens inside Iran in the absence of war?

BLOCK: At her home in Washington, author Azar Nafisi pulls up a YouTube video that a friend sent her during those November protests.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).

BLOCK: We see a young Iranian woman standing on a bridge, furiously cursing Iran's rulers. She rips off her hijab and waves it in the air. Nafisi says this is where her hope for Iran lies.

NAFISI: Not just with people who are politically active but with ordinary people who are resisting in their own specific and unique way.

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.