By Mohammad Rafi, Responsible Statecraft: In the recent days since the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, an excess of information has been spread about how Iranians living in the diaspora feel about this pivotal event. The aftermath of his killing has made a military escalation between Iran and the United States more likely than before. It is no surprise that a wide variety of opinions on the killing and the possibility of war can be found among the over 80 million Iranians living in Iran, and among the estimated 2-4 million Iranians living outside the country. However, the killing of Soleimani has united Iranians who showed up in large numbers at funeral processions in numerous Iranian cities, despite some Iranians living outside Iran dismissing them as having been forced to attend by the Iranian government. Moreover, parts of the social media sphere have created an alternative narrative that leaves the impression that a majority of Iranians living outside Iran support American interventionism.
On Twitter, it might appear to the untrained eye that there is a consensus among Iranians living in the diaspora (especially in the U.S and Germany) about the need for some sort of military intervention by the United States to remove the current Iranian leadership. Short videos have been circulating on Twitter showing Iranians in the diaspora stating their joy over the killing of Soleimani, claiming to speak for all Iranians. These clips are retweeted by conservative commentators like Dinesh D’Souza (who has 1.4 million followers and just so happens to be a convicted felon pardoned by Trump) and viewed by millions of people, who may be left with the impression that the killing of the second-in-command of a sovereign nation was a justified act and that the Iranian people unvaryingly welcomed the assassination of Soleimani.
The goals and motivations of those who post videos commenting on Soleimani’s death or the rising tensions in the Middle East are rarely questioned. The possibility that many of these Iranians may be weaponizing their personal traumas to justify their positions is lost to most observers. The long history of violent crackdowns on Iranian protestors by Iran’s leadership must be condemned, but it does not change the fact that Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and “Maximum pressure” approach is responsible for the current state of affairs. The fact that some pundits selectively seek out Iranians who fervently oppose the Iranian leadership, all while neglecting to provide any context, is seldom noted. Indeed, Iranians who are willing to parrot talking points in defense of President Trump’s actions are often given large platforms by conservative commentators who are known Trump apologists. These Iranians’ words are positioned as authentic and gain credibility because they are disseminated by “influencers” with large followings on Twitter. This situation promotes a distorted narrative that posits that most Iranians are not only happy about the killing of Soleimani, but would also welcome further American violations of Iranian’s national autonomy.
It’s difficult to survey all Iranians living outside Iran so the assumption that the majority of them hope that Soleimani’s killing will catalyze a larger military intervention that would bring about regime change isn’t necessarily based on actual evidence. That said, polling does show that Iranian-Americans do not support heavy-handed American intervention, because they seemingly understand that U.S interference in domestic Iranian affairs does not end well — for Iranians. What is lost to most neutral observers of Iran is that many disaporic Iranian supporters of American intervention are motivated by self-interest, rather than by a genuine concern for the welfare of all Iranians. For example, many Iranians who support the killing of Soleimani yearn for a return of the monarchy in Iran. Although the Pahlavi monarchy enjoys little meaningful support among the majority of Iranians, members and supporters of the family make their existence known on social media, where their presence feels larger than life.
It is understandable that many Iranians who have suffered at the hands of the current Iranian regime oppose the theocratic state. But this is not reason enough to speak for an entire country, denying the agency and voices of its millions of diverse inhabitants. It is therefore crucial to recognize that individuals outside Iran who are advocating for an aggressive intervention or a war against Iran are primarily driven by their own ideological convictions, rather than by genuine care for the wellbeing of the people of Iran. We should allow Iranians to speak for themselves, rather than assume they can be spoken for by self-appointed representatives with questionable motives.
Attempts by governments and individuals to steer public opinion are certainly not a new phenomenon. But with technology dominating the 21st century, the pace at which the narrative can be distorted is mind-boggling. We have reached a point in which it has become virtually impossible to distinguish genuine expressions of concern by Iranians from voices that are pushing for an escalation of the conflict to further their own ideological interests, without consideration for the 80 million Iranians who deserve to be heard on their own terms.
First published in Responsiblestatecraft.
Mohammad Rafi was born in Iran, raised in Germany, and educated in the United States. He received his Ph.D from the University of California, Irvine with a dissertation on Germany’s ideological influence on Iranian nationalism. He is currently a scholar in residence at the Jordan Center for Persian Studies (UC Irvine) and a lecturer at Chapman University.