For years after the advent of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Iranian-Americans kept their heads down, focusing on professional practices and business pursuits in enclaves in northern New Jersey and in Washington, D.C.; Dallas; and "Tehrangeles" – which boasts the largest concentration of Iranians outside Iran. But Iran's captivating yet ultimately unsuccessful "Green Revolution" in June 2009 awakened a hope for change that has led to a rise of political activity in the US, many Iranian-Americans say. Increasingly, the activity of a community that maintains very close ties to Iran is aimed at influencing US-Iran relations.
The case of Mr. Hekmati, age 28, a former US Marine and video-game specialist who, according to his family, went to Tehran last summer to visit his grandmothers, suggests the close-knit nature of Iranian-Americans' relations with their homeland. By some estimates, as many as a quarter of the approximately 1 million Iranian-American US citizens and residents visit Iran every year.
"A lot of people thought it was actually pretty crazy for someone to go to Iran who had been working for the US [military]. It's hard to see how anyone could expect to keep their identity unknown," says Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, a New York-based Iranian journalist and blogger who came to the US after being jailed for his work in Tehran in 2004. "It was risky, but it shows how even for people born in the US, it's important to go back to Iran."
That closeness to family back in Iran is a large part of what drives Iranian-American opinion on US-Iran relations. They don't want bombs falling on Tehran, and for the most part they don't want ever-tighter sanctions that, opinion polls show, they believe will hurt the general population without prompting the mullah-led regime to change course.
"When Iranian-Americans go to Iran, they are visiting parents and siblings and first cousins. It's not distant cousins in some ancestral home, and that has an important influence on how they view relations between the two countries," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) in Washington. "Surveys show that sanctions are not supported by the majority of the people, and as for a military attack," he adds, "that idea gets less than 5 percent support."