Dozens of people, including American citizens, faced hours of questioning at the Washington entry point. Jamal Abdi of the National Iranian American Council says the reports could indicate a directive for heightened screening of people born in Iran.


Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.

Iranian American citizens have felt the brunt of discrimination at our borders since Trump ordered the assassination of Qasem Soleimani. It has been reported that dozens or hundreds of Iranians–most of whom are United States or Canadian citizens–have been held at the border for five, six, seven, eight hours, a whole day asking the same questions over and over. For many, it conjured up memories of the Japanese internment camps and reinforces resentment many Iranian Americans feel that’s directed towards them here. We’ll explore this and how the Iranian community and Americans in general can respond to the unraveling events the last several days. We also just found out breaking news that the United States has agreed, it seems, to move troops out of Iraq.

We’re about to have a conversation with Jamal Abdi, who is President of the National Iranian American Council. And Jamal, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.

JAMAL ABDI: My pleasure.

MARC STEINER: So let’s begin with this: This tweet came out and this letter came out from what seems like an official American document. It says that “the United States military sent us letters that there’s going to be movement to move troops out. They’ll see helicopters flying around the green zone and are doing this in deference the sovereignty of Iraq as requested by the Iraqi parliament.’ And this just came over the wire minutes before we began this conversation. So what are your thoughts on that?

JAMAL ABDI: I think that this was the inevitable path that we were on. I don’t know that I expected it to happen quite like this. And I would be curious if this is a bluff, what this actually really means, where are these troops being relocated? But you can’t rule anything out. I mean, this is a impulsive administration to say the least. And this comes a day after the President tweeted that he would sanction Iraq and they’d force troops to leave. I wouldn’t rule out that today, the President decided this is a good move for the part of his base that doesn’t want a war. And this looks like the US is actually doing what he claimed the strike on Soleimani would do, which is prevent a war. At a minimum, he would be extricating the US from a war.

It is very interesting though because Trump himself had referred to the US presence in Iraq sort of post the height of the struggle against ISIS, he kind of had a slip of the tongue and send that the US was in Iraq to watching Iran. And so for now, the US to kill the commander who arguably did more to defeat ISIS than any other single person, and then for the US to leave Iraq, it does potentially take away a one trip wire for any Iranian response. And even potentially, if your game is up, this potentially opens up opportunities for face saving for the Iranians if this can be spun as a reaction to threats from Iran.

MARC STEINER: Interesting. For them to stand down a bit as well, this might give them an excuse to do that. It also could increase the demonstrations that have been taking place in Iraq over the last several weeks. We’ll be talking about this week as well, with some of the leaders of those demonstrations, there were saying, “Iran out, US out, government step down, and let’s reform the government.” But this could also lead to a greater influence by Iran inside of Iraq, especially if it means that ISIS is emboldened, and they’d take the fight to ISIS.

JAMAL ABDI: Right. And the reason we’re in Iraq in these numbers to begin with is because of the supposed vacuum when the US left in 2011 and needed to come back to fight ISIS. So it poses a lot of questions. And that’s the only reason I would think about a bluff, because the prospect of the United States not being there and Iran gaining even more attraction; maybe this actually puts pressure on Iraqi politicians to do something about too much Iranian influence. But Iran is Iraq’s neighbor. It’s not going to necessarily go anywhere, so this puts some of the onus on Iran to0. What are you going to do now inside of Iraq with your presence inside of Iraq to deal with some of those issues?

MARC STEINER: So let me bring the discussion to home for a moment here and the National Iranian American council and what we’ve been seeing about what’s being taken place at the border where huge numbers of Iranians coming back from Canada to the United States have been stopped and really questioned for hours and hours and hours. Tell us more about what you know about this and what the response of you and your organization has been to this.

JAMAL ABDI: We began hearing reports of Iranian Americans traveling back to the United States through the border, the Vancouver, British Columbia and the Washington border. We started hearing those on Saturday night. Those reports then became a sort of a greater frequency and increasingly, it was clear these are credible reports on Sunday. And what we know is that at least at that particular entry point, there were as many as 60 people, all Iranian, most Iranian American, in some cases families that included both Iranian Americans and non-Iranians who were brought in. And in some cases, they were held for questioning and held for as long as 11, 12 hours.

What we’ve heard from some sources in the Border Patrol has been that it was a resource issue, and so people were not being quote unquote detained. So they were not taken to a detention facility, although they were held in this room for the secondary screening process, and they didn’t have their passport so they could leave, but they didn’t actually have passports to be able to go back into Canada or to try to come into the United States. So for all intents and purposes, they were detained, just not officially.

But what the Border Patrol says is, “This is not part of a national directive to detain or to deny entry for Iranian American or Iranian nationals or Iranian visa green card holders.” And I think that’s very technical language because we don’t have anybody who actually was denied entry. Everybody who went through this process eventually was able to get in. It’s just this long arduous process. And then, you take that and then we have been hearing reports of people at airports being brought in a secondary question. So I think what the fact pattern at least demonstrates is that there is some heightened threat level that has led to some directive for extra screening for persons who were born inside of Iran.

MARC STEINER: Yeah. And also, I mean, the fact that the federal government and the folks who control the border have said, “No, we’re not doing this. We’re not doing this on purpose to just Iranians.” Clearly, it isn’t true. So are there legal actions being taken by you or any other groups that you know of or any investigations taking place around this?

JAMAL ABDI: So there are a number of organizations working on this: Iranian American organizations, civil rights organizations, we’re all kind of in coordination. We’re also working with lawmakers like Pramila Jayapal and some others to try to get to the bottom of what is happening with CDP and to ask questions of them and put pressure on them to at least reveal some of this information to lawmakers. And the thing that we need to gauge is if this… I think there’s one suspicion that this was maybe a choke point issue at this one entry point and there haven’t been any actual civil rights violations per se. And we need to kind of see how this actually plays out before there is potential legal action or anything along those lines.

But this really echoes what our community went through in January of 2017, Trump’s first week in office with the Muslim ban, when you had CDP officials and officers and White House officials all saying different things and actually kind of looking to the President and the DHS Chief’s Twitter account to figure out what was the actual directive because nobody knew. And was even outright denying and pulling off of planes legal permanent residents of the United States. And that sort of opaque process continues today. And so, this isn’t unexpected, but it’s a scary development because this is where we feared this might end up going.

MARC STEINER: Well, it’s interesting. There was an interesting story this morning on the National Public Radio’s Morning Edition about the largest community of Iranians outside of Iran is around LA. And the divide in the community around what just happened with Soleimani. We have a brief clip from this just to talk about it for a moment.

MIKE DOLATI: The death of the murderers are the beginning of the freedom of Iran.

ROBERT GARROVA: Dolati says when he heard about Soleimani’s death, he immediately began handing out treats to his household in celebration. And in this crowd, Dolati wasn’t alone in his rejoicing.

MITRA SAMANI: To me, he was worse than Osama bin Laden. So that’s why we are very happy.

ROBERT GARROVA: Around the Persian bookstores and hookah lounges of this area, several younger Iranian Americans I spoke with were worried. That includes Nader Shoaibi.

NADER SHOAIBI: I’m just very surprised at how people are happy and might be celebrating this. I would think that this is just a clear sign that there’s going to be escalation in the conflicts. We had some guests over. And these were people in their, like, 60s and 70s. Frankly, people from that generation seem to think that there’s no other way than to do it but by force.

MARC STEINER: So I’m curious how you talk about this inside the Iranian community here in the United States, what this represents, and if it also might just represent a larger split in the entire United States between people in general no matter what our ethnic origin is. But what are your thoughts on that?

JAMAL ABDI: The Iranian American community, it’s complex and there are these divisions. I think the scientific data demonstrates that Iranian Americans, they don’t want war. They don’t support sanctions that punish ordinary people. The vast majority of the Iranian Americans who don’t support the Iranian government and want change there, want to be able to… I would love to be able to travel to Iran freely and not worry about being detained by that government. But I think one of the speakers is right that there is a bit of a generational issue and the generational issue is killing Soleimani isn’t necessarily a blow to Iranian regime who has used this to actually unify and project strength at a time when just a couple of weeks ago, there were massive protests inside of the country.

I’ll say this: and this is not to discredit the serious feelings people have about the Islamic Republic, but there has been over the past several years a pretty concerted effort to, through the opening of new TV channels–TV stations that are funded by Saudi Arabia, and in some cases are tied to Israel–that have tried to relay, propagandize to the Iranian diaspora to convince them really to support Donald Trump’s policies and to support outside regime change effort. And I think for a lot of people, especially the older generation, they’re sort of at a point where they’re fed up. They see this government that they hate having been in place for four decades now and it’s almost like, “Throw caution to the wind. We have nothing to lose, just topple them.”

But there’s a real disconnect between that and the reality on the ground inside of Iran and the way people are suffering and really the fact that another revolution or especially an outside force like the United States working to topple that government is not going to produce a democracy. If anything, these types of actions that we see now empower the most hard line interests inside of Iran. And really over the past 40 years, the way that the United States has dealt with Iran has really put its thumb on the scale where I believe Iran would have had a natural organic democracy movement and the ability to have real civil society to really push Iran into the direction of democracy and things along those natures. And these actions really undermine that and short circuit that.

MARC STEINER: Yeah. To close out here, I think that the demonstrations that are taking place in Iran, hundreds of thousands of Iranians in the streets demanding democracy and pushing against the theocracy. And then, you have the similar demonstrations taking place throughout Iraq that were Shia, Sunni Christians altogether in that. So making this push and the assassination of Soleimani kind of damped down both of those things for different reasons. So now, people in Iran are standing up for their country because somebody was assassinated. On the other hand, the demonstrations in the streets of Iraq have also changed because of this. So talk a bit about, as we close here, what you and the national Iranian American Council, what your positions will be and what are you going to do around all of this?

JAMAL ABDI: Yeah. Well, I do really think that most… our membership is as engaged as ever. I think most of Iranian Americans are really scared right now. I mean, it’s one thing to say “I hate the regime. And so, I support Donald Trump being tough on them.” It’s even one thing to say, “Okay. I support Donald Trump assassinating people.” And not really looking at the consequences. But then, you have Donald Trump talking about bombing Iranian cultural sites. And this to me is beyond the pale. I mean, it doesn’t matter what your political adherences are or it doesn’t matter where you come down on the debate about, “Is it better to engage Iran? Is that getting any better longterm? Or is it better to sanction and punish the ordinary citizens?” We should all be able to agree, bombing cultural sites is not okay and actually, it’s an attack on not just Iranians, but anybody who has Iranian heritage. I mean, that’s part of my identity as well. That’s unacceptable.

At this point, with the way that our government is functioning right now, there are unfortunately not a lot of hard institutional checks we can put on the President. Over the years, presidencies have accrued these massive powers to engage in these foreign policy and these wars that are devastating. We are looking to pass legislation though out of the House and really force the issue in the Senate and force a vote so that we can at least send a sign and sort of win the political battle that the President needs to take a step back. He needs to follow regular processes and we can’t allow for this escalatory cycle to happen without checks and balances functioning.

And then in the Senate where, because of the partisan balance and the Republican majority there, I think it’s pretty unlikely, though not out of the question that the Senate would pass legislation that states that the President doesn’t have the authority for war with Iran. But if it doesn’t, at a minimum, we can make sure people are held accountable because as this moves forward, there’s going to have to need to be accountability so that these mistakes can’t keep on repeating. And so to that end, people around the country are being mobilized. We’re working with groups like Move On and Win Without War and there’s a national day of action coming up this week. And then, in the following weeks to really make sure that the public is telling lawmakers and showing the President that we don’t want a war and they need to deescalate.

MARC STEINER: When is that national day of action–before we close?

JAMAL ABDI: So national day of action is this Thursday.

MARC STEINER: I want to make sure we cover that as well. Well, Jamal Abdi, thank you so much for taking the time to join us. Pleasure to talk with you. Look forward to doing it again really, really soon.

JAMAL ABDI: Any time. My pleasure.

MARC STEINER: Thank you very much. Jamal Abdi is President of the National Iranian American Council. And I’m Marc Steiner here on The Real News Network. Let us know what you think. Take care.


Jamal Abdi

Jamal Abdi joined the National Iranian American Council as Policy Director in November 2009, directing NIAC's efforts to monitor policies and legislation, and to educate and advocate on behalf of the Iranian-American community. Abdi joined NIAC's team following his work in the US Congress as Policy Advisor to Representative Brian Baird (D-WA). As one of a small number of Iranian Americans working on the Hill, he served as a Congressional advisor, liaison, and expert on foreign affairs, immigration, and defense. Prior to coming to DC, Abdi worked in his home state of Washington as a field organizer for national Congressional elections, coordinating and establishing grassroots campaign efforts in Seattle and Bellevue. @jabdi