Iranian-American sees hope on horizon for two countries

Sunday , July 19, 2015 - 12:00 AM

The recent deal to stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons — in exchange for an easing of the crippling economic sanctions against that country — means all sorts of things to all sorts of people.

For some, it’s an acceptable compromise to an otherwise untenable issue. For others, it’s the unacceptable sell-out of a superpower to a state sponsor of terrorism.

But for 52-year-old Morteza Emami, who was born and raised in Northern Iran and now lives in Northern Utah, it means one thing.

Hope.

Emami, director of International Student Services at Weber State University in Ogden, clearly loves both his native land and his adopted country. And he says he’s hopeful that this accord will mark a new era of trust and cooperation in U.S.-Iranian relations.

Emami said most Iranians are excited about the possibility that relations between their country and the U.S. are thawing.

“I admit it’s not a fix-it-all deal,” Emami said on Thursday, sitting in the student union of the Weber State University-Davis campus, in Layton. “But I’m hopeful for the people that this will be a new beginning for them.”

Emami’s studies brought him to the United States in June 1986, where he enrolled at what was then Weber State College. After studying electronics engineering, he remained at the school, eventually earning a master’s degree before working in various capacities at WSU.

Asked about the U.S.-Iranian deal, the 52-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen chose his words carefully; he still has family members living in Iran.

“Mistakes were made, I won’t say by whom,” he said. “… I’m not blaming one side or the other. There is plenty of blame on both sides.”

Emami, who jokingly calls himself a “jack” Muslim, does say that Iran has been portrayed in a negative light in the media ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which replaced a monarchy with an Islamic republic. And the resulting embargoes and isolation by much of the rest of the world have had devastating effects on the country over the last 35 years.

“In 1979, you could buy one U.S. dollar for seven toman (an Iranian currency),” Emami said. “That’s a 7-to-1 ratio. But after the revolution and embargoes, as recent as 2012, it had become a 900-to-1 ratio. That’s over the course of 32 years.”

And recently, it’s gotten even worse, according to Emami.

“In the last three or four years, the embargo has made that ratio one dollar to 3,300 toman,” he said. “What does that mean to the average Iranian? It’s really devastating, because they make their money in tomans, but spend it in dollars.”

Emami says sanctions have not only punished the average, low-income Iranian but also eliminated the nation’s middle class.

“It pretty much killed the middle class,” he said. “Iran has a huge low-income population and a very small upper class. Embargoes kill the middle class and they’re hard on the low-income. But the rich — with ties to the government — keep getting rich.”

Sanctions also made things like medicine extremely difficult to obtain.

“It was either too expensive, or just not available,” he said.

Contrary to the “Death to America” chants folks may see in the news, Emami says the average Iranian actually feels an affinity for the United States.

“When I was growing up, the U.S. was very well-liked by Iranians,” Emami said. He says that feeling continues today among Iranians not connected to the government there.

However, Emami admits there is one misconception about America among rank-and-file Iranians.

“People think when they come to the U.S. that life is Hollywood, that it’s easy,” he said. “Their misconception is that life in the U.S. is so easy, everybody is having fun all of the time. But we work hard in the U.S. We work long hours, and earn a good living because of that.”

As for how he’s been treated here in Utah as an Iranian-American, Emami admits there have been uncomfortable moments. But he also takes ownership of his own attitude.

“I’ve always told myself that’s mostly up to me,” he said. “I know there are times that no matter what I do people would have (negative) feelings toward me. But I can do a lot to change people’s perceptions.”

He calls Iranians a “hardy, hardworking people.”

“Most countries would not have survived an embargo that long,” he said. “They’ve done with very little all those years.”

The number of Iranians in the Ogden area is fairly small, according to Emami — not at all like the large contingent in, say, Los Angeles, where there’s a section of L.A. nicknamed “Tehrangeles.” At Weber State, the number of Iranians includes four faculty members, about five international students in this country on visas, and another five or so Iranian-American students, according to Emami.

Although travel between the two countries is not impossible — Emami visits Iran every three or four years to see family — it can be extremely difficult. His mother and siblings live there, but they’ve never been to the United States.

“I think my story is very similar to many Iranians — this human cost of coming to the U.S., and not having ties to home, family, country,” he said. “But I’m also one of the lucky ones; I can come and go. There are Iranians who haven’t been home in many years.”

Emami hopes with the easing of sanctions it will be easier to travel to and from Iran. For example, he and his wife have two daughters — a 2-year-old and a 5-month-old — and the grandparents in Iran have yet to see the younger child. Emami would love for his wife’s family to be able to meet the newest addition to the family.

“Although they do see her on Skype, almost every day,” he said.

Emami is hopeful for the future between the two countries, which are, after all, populated by very similar humans who just want to live their lives in peace.

“But unfortunately,” Emami says, “we focus on the differences more than the similarities.”

Emami also hopes the lifting of sanctions will lead to a greater cultural exchange between the two countries.

“It kills me not to see the history and culture of Iran being shared by the world,” he said. “We talk about taking faculty members to China, but I would love to see exchanges between faculty in the U.S. and Iran.”

Emami believes that the only way the U.S. and Iran will ever trust one another again is through the use of diplomacy and education, and “to forgive and forget.” He believes the U.S. war in Iraq was a mistake.

“Never for a second would I support a dictator like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he said. “That’s completely wrong. But look what happened. It didn’t solve anything. There’s a saying in Iran, ‘Show me a bad that leaves, and a good that comes in place of it.’

“I think diplomacy is the best policy,” Emami concludes. “Education is the best policy.”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.

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