Iranian-American candidates weigh in on foreign policy

A woman outside the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, which is now abandoned and covered with anti-American Murals (Photo: REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl)

This election season Washington has an unprecedented number of candidates who are of Iranian heritage.

Sahar Fathi and Cyrus Habib for are running for State Representative (in the 36th and 48th districts respectively), and Shahram Hadian is running for Governor. Though Hadian isn’t likely to make it past the primary, Fathi and Habib both have decent chances to win and become the first Iranian-American to hold statewide office in Washington.

This is an interesting time for an Iranian-American to be running for elected office. The US news spotlight is pointed at Iran’s nuclear capacity, instability, and escalating tensions with Israel. Thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions will likely be one of the defining foreign policy issues in the upcoming presidential election as well.

Of course, in the offices these local candidates are running for they won’t have much say US foreign policy toward Iran.

Still, for me, the way they approach the complexity of their identities as Iranian-Americans, especially in a moment of potential conflict, can tell us a lot more about their ideas and character then yet another round of questions about job creation, transit or education policy.

So I asked them each a couple basic questions on the subject. Habib declined to answer, but here’s a little background on Hadian and Fathi and what they said about Iran and their identities as Iranian-Americans:


Candidate for Governor Shahram Hadian (Photo courtesy Hadian campaign)

Shahram Hadian left Iran when he was eight, just six weeks before the Shah’s government fell in 1979. He has great memories of pre-Islamic revolution Iran and that is why he has been so outspoken about what is happening there. His father had relationships with military personnel in the United States, which prompted his moving to the US. The last time he visited Iran was in 1981. He has not gone back because, due to mandatory military service for all males, he would risk being conscripted or having to pay a fine for not serving in the military. He speaks Farsi fluently.

How do you identify yourself culturally?

We are a multicultural state and there are many communities represented in Washington State. But what is very important when we represent the state is to focus on the fact that we are all Americans. Of course I share my story of how I became a Christian and came from Iran, that is a part of my story every time I speak and share. I think it is a very very important journey to tell in that it gives me a unique perspective of America, of what it is like as an immigrant coming here, the opportunities that I have had, my family, and things that I am concerned about of where America is going… This is an important part of the story, because as you are running for office, unfortunately, there isn’t much diversity.

What do you think of the potential military action against Iran?

I know what the ideology of the Iranian government is, you know. Having been born there, having left because of that oppressive Islamic government that came in and has turned my birth country upside down. I mean Iran pre-1979 is unrecognizable today with what the Islamic government has done there. I do believe that the greatest threat to the world is the stability of that region.

Of course having family there makes it much more personal, because as kind of attack whether Iran strikes first or Israel strikes first or America strikes first or whatever happens, it is very personal to me and I pray for the people of Iran. The very young population, I truly believe is seeking freedom, they are tired of Islam, they want to have a government that represents the people there. So I support that and hope and pray that Iran will find an internal solution and not see military actions. Because most people do not understand the ideology of that government; that they are a theocracy and strictly governed by their ideology, because it is not a policy issue, it is an ideology issue. And they seek chaos, they seek it. It is part of their warped ideology. So it is personal to me.

We are standing for America. My story is what America has meant to me, what its principles have meant to me and my family. Allowing me the freedom to come here and become a citizen. Allowing me the opportunity to become a Christian… As you are probably familiar with the story of the pastor in Iran [Youcef Nadarkhani] that is facing a death sentence for doing the same thing I have done, which is to leave Islam and become apostate. So how amazing is it that we get to be in this nation, to get to have free press, and freedom of speech. And those things are worth standing for. And that is one reason I am running, which is to make sure we maintain our freedoms, and the opportunity to represent those principles. Not just our state but to the world.


Sahar Fathi (Photo courtesy the Fathi campaign)

Sahar Fathi is the last young woman of color still standing in any state legislature race in Washington. She is aware of her uniqueness; a woman, lawyer, 28 years old, daughter of Iranian immigrants; these are all factors that set her apart, for better or for worse. Fathi speaks Farsi, has been to Iran at least six times, and has many family members that live there. She is running against four other candidates for State Representative in the 36th district, which includes most of North Seattle.

How do you identify yourself culturally?

I identify as a person of color, an Iranian-American, or Middle-Eastern. So, I identify as many things. I also identify as a child of immigrants.

I think there are lots of people who are scared to talk about what has happened post 9-11. But I do not think we have options anymore; when you are being treated differently, you have to be called a person of color at that point. I think there are many Middle-Easterners who would prefer to be called white because of the census and that is how we are categorized; we are Aryan. But the reality is that if you are not being treated with the same privileges as everybody else, then you are not actually in that classification.

My parents came from Iran in ’79, so I am a child of immigrants. Born in Boston. But I have been over to Iran at least five or six times, so I identify strongly with being Iranian and not just American. Well, we have lots of family still in Iran and close to no family in the states. So for me, its home.

What do you think of the potential military action against Iran?

I think that going in and invading any country is, on a principle level, especially if you do not live in that country, I think that it is not your right.

This is a moment when I say you need people from all backgrounds in government. If you are only coming from your perspective, you then truly do not understand what lies behind different things and you will feel entitled to make a decision that is really not yours to make.

I can hear people say oh it is a security measure and there is a part of me that wants to say ‘there is nothing about what you are about to embark on doing. Because if they actually do have nuclear weapons, eh, poor idea! [Laughs]. And there are many other countries that have them and you have not wanted to go in and bomb them. So lets talk about the reality of how you feel of Iran. Lets put it all on the table, so the people really understand whats going on.

Look at history, which we never do. Then we need to be cognisant of the fact that it is good to talk about what is going on in other countries, but picking on a country and have the outcome be that you are picking on its people who are already suffering instead of picking on the government that has poor policies, that is not alright.

And the last thing I will say is that I am a true blue democrat. I am a full democrat. There are a lot of times when I wish that the Democratic party would be stronger when talking about the Iranian government. There are many corrupt governments in the world and we have to be firm that government should not have unequal power. That is what we are fighting against. The power has to be in the people, where they are represented.

This post was produced with funding from City Club.

Alma Khasawnih was born in Amman to a Jordanian father and a Palestinian-Syrian mother. She immigrated to the US in 1996 and received a passport in 2002. The city she feels most affinity to in the US is Detroit, but she lives in Seattle now and wants to grow old in Barcelona.  Alma is a regular columnist for the Globalist and works with CD Forum as the Marketing & Outreach Coordinator.