The great minds from Iran


The director of the Mars Project. The first female space tourist. The first woman honored with the Fields Medal (the highest honor in mathematics). The inventor of LASIK. The inventor of the gas laser. The inventor of Fuzzy Logic. 

All Iranian Americans of Muslim descent.

YouTube. Bizrate. Shopzilla. Uni-Mart. 

All companies founded or co-founded by Iranian Americans of Muslim descent. 

CEOs, presidents and vice presidents at Google, Apple, Uber, Twitter, Siemens, Expedia. Presidents of Carnegie Mellon University and the Carnegie Corp. of New York. Professors at Harvard, Columbia, Penn, MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Caltech, UCLA, Virginia Commonwealth. 

Christiane Amanpour of CNN. Davar Ardalan of National Public Radio. Farnaz Fassihi of The Wall Street Journal. Cyma Zarghami of Nickelodeon. Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics. 

I could go on, but you get the point. 

Most of these remarkable men and women were born and/or raised in Iran to families of Muslim heritage. I don’t know how many of them are practicing Muslims, or even identify as Muslim anymore. All I know is that they, or their parents, could have worked and raised families in Iran, but chose not to. 

What would their lives have been like, I wonder, how much would they have been able to accomplish in Iran? And what would the United States look like had these men and women been denied entry into this country? 

So much for the wisdom of a blanket ban on people of certain backgrounds entering the United States. There’s a bigger point we’re missing about Iran and its people than the government is not the people: Just as the “troubles” with extremist Islam began in Iran with the victory of the mullahs over secular forces, the antidote to so much of what’s going on these days can also be found in Iran.

Let me explain. 

Between 4 million and 5 million Iranians have left Iran since the mullahs’ revolution.  Another 77.5 million still live there. Of the combined 80 million-plus Iranians in the world, only one, Mohammad Reza Taheri-Azar, who in 2006 drove his SUV into pedestrians on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to “avenge the death of Muslims worldwide,” has so far been identified on the list of known terrorists. 

Yet we know that the government of Iran has been and continues to be a major state sponsor of terrorism; that the mullahs are a scourge upon the country and the world; that they pay for, train, embolden, and inspire chaos and violence mainly to empower and enrich themselves. They’re very effective, very resourceful and proficient. To trust them to even wish to do the right thing (like, say, not spending some of the money gained through the nuclear deal on training more terrorists) would be naïve at best. 

If they’re so good at making terrorists, why is their success rate in doing so with their own people so dismal?

In part, it’s because the Iranian nation, with its culture and disposition, its tolerant, forward-looking, gracious character, far outdates the arrival of Islam, and, in many ways, outweighs the influence of the mullahs. Iranians are entirely different from, and historically at odds with Arabs. An Iranian Muslim has little in common with an Arab Muslim or an Indonesian or African Muslim. In many ways that matter, most Iranians have greater affinity for the West than they do for any of their neighbors. So the mullahs of Iran can incite and empower Arab members of Hezbollah to blow up themselves in defense of fellow Arabs, but they’d be hard pressed to find many Iranians willing to lay down their lives for the Palestinian cause or the coming caliphate.

But the bigger, more relevant factor at play is that, when it comes to Islamic zealotry, Iranian Muslims have been there, done that, and suffered the consequences. They, better than most, know what harm an extremist religion can do to its adherents and cheerleaders. Many of them or their parents once  either welcomed or didn’t resist the ideology that today fuels so much of the rest of the Muslim world. For that, they paid with their lives, or freedom, or opportunities. 

Thirty-six years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini and his allies managed to convince many Iranian Muslims that the battlefields of the war with Iraq led believers to the gates of heaven. A million deaths later, those promises ring absurdly hollow for the survivors. So does the fairy tale of the men of God being endowed with greater purity of soul and intentions than secular leaders: While the rest of the country has been chafing under economic hardship, only one mullah, Ayatollah Khamenei, has estimated holdings of  $95 billion in the West — most of it in the United States. After inflation, this is around 30 times more than the shah is believed to have been worth.  

Internet access in Iran might be spotty and limited, but not enough for these and similar facts to remain hidden from a population that is 82 percent literate. 

Which brings me back to the person or opportunity question. 

A couple of years ago, I met a group of Iranian poets and writers touring the United States for a cultural exchange program sponsored by the State Department. It was the last event at the last stop of their trip, and the travelers were tired and talked out and, more than anything, disheartened.

“I see all of you,” a woman among them said to me when I asked what it was like to be a writer in Iran. By “you” she meant writers of Iranian origin living in the U.S. “And I realize my own life has been wasted.” 

That word, “wasted,” has remained with me since. For every Iranian expat whose accomplishments one celebrates, there are many more men and women of equal and greater ability whose potential will go to waste. The brain drain the mullahs caused with their draconian laws in Iran is a loss that will never be corrected. The brain drain that still goes on within the country is perhaps the single most devastating testimonial that the people of Iran could make against religious extremism. For all I know, this woman I spoke with is a brilliant poet; maybe she’s even widely read and respected in Iran. Nevertheless, the fact that she feels stifled and duped by the Islamic Republic would make one hell of an anti-recruitment ad for the pro-caliphate folks of the world. 

Before the mullahs came, Iran was on a fast track toward modernization and discovery. All those students the shah’s government sent to the United States to study, all the scientists it supported and encouraged, all the artists it tolerated — all of that was crushed or stifled in favor of Shariah law.

What if we were to hold up the Google executives and female space tourists of Iranian-Muslim origin and hailed them not as exceptions, but as models for what the people of Iran could have achieved had the mullahs not arrived? What if they became poster children for the kinds of opportunities that exist under secular, “Godless” governments? What if their stories were told to the 1.6 billion Muslims of the world, the vast majority of whom are not extremist, and let everyone draw their own conclusions?


Gina Nahai’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”

+