‘America is not the enemy, the enemy is right here’
While Iran’s leaders demonize America, their children study here
Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, has described the United States as a “threat to the entire world.” But his daughter Fatemeh Ardeshir-Larijani is safe in Ohio, where she recently completed the first year of her residency in internal medicine. In relative obscurity, she studies at the University Hospitals of Cleveland, which U.S. News & World Report has ranked among the nation’s best.
Dr. Ardeshir-Larijani is one of several children of Iranian leaders who attend America’s universities and pursue opportunities in U.S. job markets. Nevertheless, their parents belong to a regime that persistently calls for America’s destruction. Meanwhile, Iran’s economy flounders, human rights abuses remain pervasive, water shortages threaten millions of lives and the ruling mullahs enrich themselves at the expense of the Iranian people. At the same time, when American students visit Iran, they may find themselves taken hostage, like Xiyue Wang of Princeton University, who received a 10-year prison sentence on spurious espionage charges last year. The Larijani family occupies a storied role in Iranian politics. Before Mr. Ali assumed the speakership in 2008, he was the secretary of Iran’s national security council and a chief nuclear negotiator. One of his brothers, Sadegh Amoli, is the head of Iran’s judiciary, which the Trump administration sanctioned in January for committing serious human rights abuses. Another brother, Mohammad Javad, is the secretary of the judiciary’s inaptly named High Council on Human Rights, which seeks to discredit Western criticism of Iran’s human rights record. All three are confidants of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who routinely calls America the “Great Satan” and warns about the adulterating influence of Western culture.
Yet even as they demonize the United States, key Iranian officials often fail to mention that their children enjoy the freedom it provides. This reality constitutes yet another face of the regime’s corruption. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted in an address to Iranian-Americans in July, Sadegh Amoli Larijani “is worth at least $300 million. He got this money from embezzling public funds into his own bank account.” Mr. Khamenei, for his part, presides over a business empire worth approximately $200 billion.
Eissa Hashemi is a doctoral student at the Los Angeles branch of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. His mother is Massumeh Ebteka, the vice president of Iran for women and family affairs, who first attained international prominence as a spokesperson for the students who seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, taking dozens of personnel hostage for 444 days. Asked by a reporter during the crisis whether she could “personally lift up a gun, put it to the head of one of these people, and kill him,” Ms. Ebteka responded without hesitation. “Of course,” she said. “Oppression and tyranny must be destroyed.”
Ehsan Nobakht Haghighi is an assistant professor of medicine at George Washington University, while Niloofar, his sister, is a clinical assistant professor of nephrology at UCLA. But their father, Ali, is a member of Iran’s parliament, while their uncle, Mohammad Bagher, is a vice president of Iran and the head of the Plan and Budget Organization. Similarly, Ali Fereydoun is a lead performance engineer at McGraw-Hill Education in New York, according to his LinkedIn profile. But his father, Hossein, is President Rouhani’s brother and aide.
There are surely others, though the total number remains unknown. Moreover, some prominent Iranian officials themselves studied in the United States, acquiring skills that have facilitated their service to the regime. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, for example, earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at San Francisco State University and the University of Denver. This experience equipped him well to cloak Tehran’s extremism in the language of tolerance and humanitarianism. His son, Mahdi, attended the City University of New York, then returned to
Iran in 2013. Likewise, Ali Akbar Salehi, the chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization and Mr. Zarif’s predecessor as foreign minister, received his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, albeit before the Islamic Republic assumed power in 1979. Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former nuclear negotiator who held a variety of other foreign affairs positions in the regime, earned his undergraduate degree in engineering from Sacramento State University. Today, he is a scholar at Princeton. This history underscores a fundamental truth about Iran’s rulers. For all their denunciations of America and the West, they implicitly recognize that America offers the freedom, prosperity and opportunity their own country so desperately lacks. The Iranian people grasp this reality, which is one reason they continue to protest on the nation’s streets. Still, the Trump administration should handle the situation cautiously. At a minimum, the State Department should maintain a current roster of regime offspring who study and work in the United States. Their presence here is a privilege, not a right. Yet Washington should not visit the sins of the father upon the son. One day, if they haven’t already, the children of Iranian leaders may come to see what so many protesters in Iran have repeatedly chanted over the past year: “America is not the enemy — the enemy is right here.”
For all their denunciations of America and the West, they implicitly recognize that America offers the freedom, prosperity and opportunity their own country so desperately lacks.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.