American Exceptionalism: A Talk With a Political Refugee

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Iranian pro-government supporters march during a rally in support of the regime after authorities declared the end of deadly unrest, in the city of Mashhad on January 4, 2018. (Photo: Nima Najafzadeh / AFG / Getty Images)
Iranian pro-government supporters march during a rally in support of the regime after authorities declared the end of deadly unrest, in the city of Mashhad on January 4, 2018. (Photo: Nima Najafzadeh / AFG / Getty Images)

Shay Khatiri, an Iranian political refugee, sat down with Clarion Project for a remarkably insightful conversation on American exceptionalism. He reminds us of what it means to be American and also offers his insights into how America could effect regime change in Iran.

In Part 1 of our dialogue, we explored how the 29-year-old raised over $1.2 million for Jewish survivors of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. Khatiri raised almost triple as much as well-known community organizers like Linda Sarsour, and unlike Islamist giving campaigns, 100% of the money raised is immediately available to the synagogue.

In part 2 below, Clarion’s National Correspondent Shireen Qudosi chats with Khatiri to learn more about Shay and gather his unique perspective on key issues including immigration and a foreign policy strategy for Iran. 



Clarion: Tell us a little bit about your background. You’re a political refugee and a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. What’s the big picture vision you have for yourself?

Khatiri: I always think that I was born an American in the wrong country. I always felt like I belonged to something bigger than a country defined by my ethnicity. The United States is a country that is defined by its values. I love this country and want to serve it in any capacity. If that means working in the government or in the private sector, either way it’s fine. I just want to make a mark and leave this country slightly better than I found it. 

I study strategic studies, which means I will be working in national security. Ideally I would like to be a defense analyst and expert.


Clarion: As you know, a migrant caravan is headed to America’s southern border. What are your thoughts on America’s immigration policies as someone who is an immigrant himself?

Khatiri: I think countries should have borders and enforce them. I also don’t think that the caravan is a foreign invasion; it is crazy what makes you a centrist nowadays. This country has borders that should be enforced, but this country is also a country built by immigrants. We need to review those who are applying for immigration status in the United States, and either admit them or dismiss their cases according to the laws that we have.

I don’t agree with every single law that we have, and I would propose some changes and reforms. I hope we can get there as a country together to have new and better laws suited for our needs today on immigration. At this point, regarding the caravan, American people need to either enforce the laws that they have or ask for new laws as they see fit. 


Clarion: Speaking of laws and policies, as an Iranian American, you’re probably keenly aware of the feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia, including America’s shifting position now that we’re allied with the Saudis. What are your thoughts on the way that Iran is demonized. Does the theocracy deserve to be demonized by the American government? 

Khatiri: I’m politically very conservative, and I’m not at all a fan of this president and administration. But, one of the things I have really appreciated about them is that they’re willing to take a stand against Iran. The problem is that after two years they still have no real strategy except for sanctions, which are, in my opinion necessary, but they have no strategy beyond that. They need to have a strategy if they want to achieve their policy goals. 

I think the Iranian government needs to be subjected to a lot of scrutiny and demonization, because they are rogue and bad actors on the international level. Also, they’re a terrible actor on the domestic level. Just look at the executions per capita in Iran, which is higher than any other country. Look at the number of political prisoners in Iran. I do think this (Iranian) government and regime deserves all the demonization and even more.

One of the things that the Trump administration has done that is positive is the separation they have made between the Iranian people and the Iranian government. Also, the Trump administration is actively trying to engage in public diplomacy, engage the Iranian people. I think they should go further in that category.


Clarion: How can they go further? What would be your recommendation for engaging in greater public diplomacy?

Khatiri: As sad as it is, we live in 2018, so social media is a step. I have been very critical of the management of Voice of America (VOA) Persian for almost the past decade. A lot of people used to watch it, but they’ve stopped watching it because it has become very reformist-friendly.

Most people are disillusioned with the reformists in Iranian politics [see more below on this]. VOA needs to make  adjustments to engage the Iranian people … and talk directly to them.

Ambassador Haley did this on a few occasions and so has Vice President Pence. President Trump’s Nowroz (Persian New Year) message was one of the best I have ever seen.

These are actions that require so few resources, and they’re not risky at all. But they could have a lot of rewards.


Clarion: Why is the Persian new year so important? 

Khatiri: The Persian New Year is very important because Iranians have historically celebrated it before the country became a Muslim nation. They’ve been trying to portray themselves as Muslims on an individual level, but Persians or rather Iranians as a nation. This regime has tried to [do the opposite and] stop that and make them Muslim on a national level and Iranians on an individual basis. Iranians have been resisting that. They have always celebrated Nowroz as a national holiday, and especially now more than ever. Nowroz is the only national holiday that comes from Iranian heritage — and not Muslim heritage – that is recognized by the government. 

So now Iranians try to celebrate it as much as possible and hold it as dear. They want to demonstrate that they’re Iranians and celebrate that heritage, so it is very important to them. Also, it is the only  instance that the president of the United States directly talks to the Iranian people. That has been a tradition for decades.

Clarion: You mentioned there’s disillusionment among the Iranian people with the reformist agenda. Could you explain that? 

Khatiri: For the past decade and probably more, the problems of Iranian people and the domestic problems of Iran have been blamed on the sanctions and the hardliners. After Hassan Rouhani [who was billed as a “reformist”] became president, Iranians were hoping for change, especially after the Iran deal lead the way to a hundred billion dollars.

But those funds were not spent at all to improve the quality of life in Iran. The reformists, now in power, also achieved close to nothing in improving Iran’s economic conditions or civil liberties.  

Economic conditions have gotten even worse. Iran’s inflation rate right now is somewhere around several hundred percent. I don’t have the exact amount, but just by the rise in prices that I hear and the calculations I’ve made, in my estimate it is around a 500% inflation rate. Iranians have also figured out that the back and forth between the Iran regime and the reformists is just a game.

Neither faction is capable of making their lives better. For that matter, they don’t even now believe that either faction is willing to do that. The people look at the foreign policies of the new government for the past five years and the foreign policy has been the same as before [they came to power].

The Iranian people don’t like the fact that they are struggling economically, while the regime is using the money in Syria, Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip. I’m not saying that there are no tragedies in those areas, but people are saying there are tragedies here in Iran too, and they are in no position financially to help others.


Clarion: What do you see as the future for Iran. A lot of folks here in the U.S. and in the administration are pushing for this theory of an Iranian revolution brought forward from the ground, from the people. As we’ve seen historically, that sort of regime change agenda just doesn’t work. What do you see for Iran? 

Khatiri: Actually, I disagree that the regime change agenda doesn’t work. It depends on how it’s executed. It has worked in the past in Chile after President Reagan pushed Pinochet to step down. Chile is now the most vibrant democracy and has the most vibrant economy in Latin America. 

It worked in South Korea when President Reagan again pushed for regime change there to end military dictatorship in the Philippines. It worked in Indonesia when Paul Wolfowitz was an ambassador there. [Yet,] it has also not worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. It depends on how we execute it.

Also, a regime change that comes with U.S. support and is initiated by the Iranian people has a lot of promise in it. At the end of the day, Iranians do not have the resources to overthrow a regime that has tanks and is willing to use those tanks as we saw in 2009 to kill its own people. If the United States could provide resources to prevent the Iranian government from killing it’s own people who stand in protest, and let Iranians decide for themselves, I think there would be a lot of promise in that regime change, which would end up being more like Chile than it would be like Iraq or Afghanistan.

As for pushing for regime change from inside, one of the criticisms that the Trump administration has from the Iranian people is that they keep saying regime change is not a policy of their government or their administration. That is something that has left a lot of Iranians dissatisfied.

I think that nobody is calling for an Iraq- or Afghanistan-style invasion, but that doesn’t mean that since you’re not going to war, that they only remaining option is doing nothing. Doing nothing could also lead to Syria, and that is probably the greatest human tragedy that we’ve had in the last decade.

I think there are things to be done, but the administration needs to develop a prudent strategy instead of hoping for change and just pushing sanctions.

Clarion: I hope the administration is listening to you. This has been a very enlightening conversation. I’ve learned a lot, and I think they would learn a lot from you. 



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Shireen Qudosi

Shireen Qudosi is Clarion Project's National Correspondent.