Iranian-American is used interchangeably with Persian-American, partially due to the fact that Iran was officially called Persia prior to 1935; as well as the fact that "Iran" and "Persia" have been used interchangeably since classic times. There is a tendency among Iranian-Americans to categorize themselves as "Persian" rather than "Iranian", mainly to disassociate themselves from the Iranian government and the negativity associated with it, and also to distinguish themselves as being of Persian ethnicity, which is around 65% of Iran's population. Majority of Iranian-Americans are of Persian-speaking backgrounds, however there is also a significant number of non-Persian Iranians within the Iranian-American community, leading some scholars to believe that the label "Iranian" is more inclusive, since the label "Persian" excludes non-Persian minorities from Iran. The Collins English Dictionary uses a variety of similar and overlapping definitions for the terms "Persian" and "Iranian".
One of the very first recorded Iranians to visit North America was Martin the Armenian, an Iranian-Armenian tobacco grower who settled in Jamestown, Virginia in 1618. Mirza Mohammad Ali, who is also known as Hajj Sayyah is another Iranian who came to North America in the 1800s. He was inspired to travel around the world due to the contradiction between the democratic ideals he read about around the world and how his fellow Iranians were treated by their leaders. He began his travel as a 23-year-old looking for knowledge and to gain perspective on the lives of others to bring back with him to help Iran's progress. His stay in the United States lasted 10 years, and took him across the country from New York to San Francisco. He also met with a variety of influential American figures including Ulysses S. Grant who was a president during that time and met with him on several occasions. Hajj Sayyah was the first Iranian to become an American Citizen on May 26, 1875. He was imprisoned upon his return to Iran for making a stand against the living conditions there. He looked to the United States to protect him but to no avail. During the peak period of worldwide emigration to the United States (1842–1903), only 130 Iranian nationals were known to have immigrated.
The first wave of Iranian migration to the United States occurred between the late 1940s to 1979, or alternatively 1977. The United States was an attractive destination for students, for American universities offered some of the best programs in engineering and in other fields and were anxious to attract students from foreign countries. Iranian students, most of whom had learned English as a second language in Iran, were highly desirable as new students in the United States colleges and universities. By the mid-1970s, nearly half of all Iranian students who studied abroad did so in the United States. By 1975, the Institute of International Education's annual foreign student census figures listed Iranian students as the largest group of foreign students in the United States, amounting to a total of 9% of all foreign students in the country. As the Iranian economy continued to rise steadily in the 70s, it enabled many more Iranians to travel abroad freely. As reported by Bozorgmehr and Sabagh, consequently, the number of Iranian visitors to the United States also increased considerably, from 35,088 in 1975 to 98,018 in 1977. During the 1977–78 academic year, of about 100,000 Iranian students abroad, 36,220 were enrolled in American institutions of higher learning. During the consecutive 1978–79 academic year, on the eve of the revolution, the number of Iranian students enrolled in American institutions rose to 45,340, and in 1979–80 the number reached a peak of 51,310: at that time, according to the Institute of International Education, more students from Iran were enrolled in American universities than from any other foreign country. It is notable to mention that the pattern of Iranian migration during this phase usually only involved individuals- not whole families. Due to Iran's increasing demand for educated workers in the years before the revolution, the majority of the Iranian students in America intended to return home after graduation to work, including those who had received financial aid from the Iranian government or in industry as part of jobs or internships upon graduation. However, Due to the drastic events that followed very soon afterwards in the 1979 Revolution, matters changed and the students ended up staying in the United States as refugees. At the same time, these several thousand visitors and students that had been or still were in the United States during the revolution unintentionally became the basis of the cultural, economic and social networks that would enable large-scale immigration in the years that followed.
The second phase of Iranian migration began immediately before and after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and became significant in the early 1980s. As Prof. Ronald H. Bayor adds, "The 1979 Revolution and the 1980–88 war with Iraq transformed Iran's class structure, politically, socially, and economically." The revolution drastically changed the pattern and nature of Iranian emigration to the United States, while the Iran-Iraq War that ensued closely afterwards, was also another factor that forced many of the best-educated and most wealthy families into exile in the United States and other countries. Once basically an issue of Brain drain during the Pahlavi period, it was now predominantly an involunatary emigration of a relatively large number of middle- and upper-class families, including the movement of a considerable amount of wealth (in liquidated assets). During and after the revolution, most students did not return to Iran, and those who did were gradually purged from the newly established Islamic Republic. Many students who graduated abroad after the revolution also did not return, due to ruling clergy's repression. As a result, the educated elite who left Iran after the revolution and the new graduates in the United States who chose not to return home created a large pool of highly educated and skilled Iranian professionals in the United States. Over 1.5 million Iranians have chosen to leave Iran for other countries due to the Islamic government's authoritarian practices.
A further notable aspect of the migration in this phase is that members of religious and ethnic minorities were starting to become disproportionally represented among the Iranian American community, most notably Bahai'is, Jews, Armenians, and Assyrians. According to the 1980 US Census, there were 123,000 Americans of Iranian ancestry at that time. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of foreign-born people from Iran in the United States increased by 74 percent.
The third phase of Iranian immigration started in 1995 and continues to the present. According to the 2000 US Census, there were 283,225 Iranian-born people in the US. According to the same 2000 US Census, there were 385,488 Americans of Iranian ancestry at that time. The 2011 American Community Survey (ACS) estimate found 470,341 Americans with full or partial Iranian ancestry. However, most experts believe that this is a problem of underrepresenting due to the fact that "many community members have been reluctant in identifying themselves as such because of the problems between Iran and the United States in the past two decades.", and also because many were ethnic minorities(as is the case with Jewish, Armenian, and Assyrian Iranians) who instead identify as the ethnic group they are part of rather than as Iranians. Higher estimations of 1,000,000 and higher are given by many Iranian and non-Iranian organisations, media and scholars. Kenneth Katzman, specialist in Middle Eastern affairs and part of the Congressional Research Service, estimates their number at over 1,000,000 (published December 2015). Professors Paul Harvey and Edward Blum of the University of Colorado and the University of San Diego estimate their number at 1,000,000 (published 2012), as well as Al-Jazeera. According to the PAAIA (Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans), estimates range from 500,000 to 1,000,000, numbers backed up by Prof. Ronald H. Bayor of the Georgia Institute of Technology as well. The Atlantic stated that there are an estimated 1,500,000 Iranians in the United States in 2012. The Iranian interest section in Washington, D.C. claimed to hold passport information for approximately 900,000 Iranians in the US, in 2003.
Today, the United States contains the highest number of Iranians outside of Iran. The Iranian-American community has produced individuals notable in many fields, including medicine, engineering, and business.
Although Iranians have lived in the United States in relatively small numbers since the 1930s, a large number of Iranian-Americans immigrated to the United States after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Data on this group is well documented with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). According to the 2000 US Census, there were 385,488 Americans of Iranian ancestry at that time. In the 2011 ACS, the number of Americans of full or partial Iranian ancestry amounted c. 470,341.
Federal data on Iranian Americans is not derived from the question of race in the Decennial Census, but rather from question of ancestry, which is collected through the annual American Community Survey (ACS). Data on Iranian ancestry from the annual ACS is available on the Census Bureau’s American Factfinder website.
As mentioned priorly above, most experts believe that the underrepresented number of Iranian Americans in the ACS is a problem due to the fact that "many community members have been reluctant in identifying themselves as such because of the problems between Iran and the United States in the past two decades." Higher estimations of 1,000,000 and higher are given by many Iranian and non-Iranian organisations, media and scholars. Kenneth Katzman, specialist in Middle Eastern affairs and part of the Congressional Research Service, estimates their number at over 1,000,000 (published December 2015). Historians Paul Harvey and Edward Blum estimate their number at 1,000,000 (published 2012), as well as Al-Jazeera. According to the PAAIA (Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans), estimates range from 500,000 to 1,000,000, numbers backed up by Prof. Ronald H. Bayor of the Georgia Institute of Technology as well. The Atlantic stated that there are an estimated 1,500,000 Iranians in the United States in 2012. The Iranian interest section in Washington D.C. claimed to hold passport information for approximately 900,000 Iranians in the US, in 2003.
According to research done by the Iranian Studies Group, an independent academic organization, at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Iranian Americans are most likely far more numerous in the United States than census data indicate. The group estimates that the number of Iranian Americans may have topped 691,000 in 2004—more than twice the figure of 338,000 cited in the 2000 U.S. census.
According to extrapolated U.S. Census data and other independent surveys done by Iranian-Americans themselves in 2009, there were an estimated one million Iranian-Americans living in the U.S., with the largest concentration—about 72,000 people—living around Los Angeles. For this reason, the L.A. area with its Iranian American residents is sometimes referred to as "Tehrangeles" or "Irangeles" among Iranian-Americans. Regarding Iranian-Americans of Armenian origin, the 1980 US Census put the number of Armenians living in Los Angeles at 52,400, of which 71.9% were foreign born: 14.7% in Iran, 14.3% in the USSR, 11.5% in Lebanon, 9.7% in Turkey, 11.7% in other Middle Eastern countries (Egypt, Iraq, Israel, etc.), and the rest in other parts of the world. Beverly Hills , Irvine and Glendale all have large communities of Iranian Americans; 26% of the total population of Beverly Hills is Iranian Jewish, making it the city's largest religious community.
Half of the nation's Iranians reside in the state of California alone. Other large communities include New York/New Jersey, which have 9.1% of the U.S.' Iranian population, followed by Washington, D.C./Maryland/Virginia (8.3%) and Texas (6.7%).
Approximately 6,000-10,000 Iranian Americans reside in the city of Chicago, while up to 30,000 reside in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Nearly many Iranian Americans identify as irreligious or Shiite Muslim, and a full one-fifth are Christians, Jews, Baha’is, or Zoroastrians. Additionally, there are also some Iranian Mandaeans, but they are very small in number.
A 2012 national telephone survey of a sample of 400 Iranian-Americans, commissioned by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans and conducted by Zogby Research Services, asked the respondents what their religions were. The responses broke down as follows: Muslim: 31%, atheist/realist/humanist: 11%, agnostic: 8%, Baha’i: 7%, Jewish: 5%, Protestant: 5%, Roman Catholic: 2%, Zoroastrian: 2%, "Other": 15%, and "No response": 15%. The survey had a cooperation rate of 31.2%. The margin of error for the results was +/- 5 percentage points, with higher margins of error in sub-groups. Prominently, the number of Muslims decreased from 42% in 2008 to 31% in 2012.
According to Harvard University professor Robert D. Putnam, the average Iranian is slightly less religious than the average American. In the book, Social Movements in 20th Century Iran: Culture, Ideology, and Mobilizing Frameworks, author Stephen C. Poulson adds that Western ideas are making Iranians irreligious.
There are religious and ethnolinguistic differences among the Muslim, Jewish, Baha'i, Zoroastrian, Christian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Kurdish, and Assyrian groups. Calculating the percentage of Christian Iranian-Americans is difficult because most Iranian Christians are of Armenian or Assyrian origin, and, apart from identifying as Iranian, a number amongst them also strongly self-identifies as Armenian or Assyrian, rather than as (or apart from) Iranian.
The majority of Iranian-Americans are ethnic Persians, with sizeable ethnic minorities being Iranian Azerbaijanis, Iranian Armenians, Iranian Jews, Iranian Kurds, Iranian Assyrians, and others.
According to Hakimzadeh and Dixon, members of religious and ethnic minorities such as Bahai'is, Jews, Armenians, and Assyrians were disproportionately represented amongst the early exiles of the 1978–79 revolution.
Nearly all Iranians who reside in the United States are either citizens (81%) or permanent residents (15%) of the United States (2008 survey). Iranian-Americans regard their culture and heritage as an important component of their day-to-day life and their overall identity within the United States.
Four benchmarks are generally used traditionally to measure assimilation: language proficiency, intermarriage, spatial concentration, and socio-economic status. Per these criteria, one can determine with a significant degree of confidence that the Iranian American community has made significant strides in successfully assimilating to a new culture and way of living. According to a survey commissioned by the PAAIA in 2008, only 21 percent of Iranian Americans reported interacting mostly with other Iranian Americans outside of their workplace, demonstrating that most of them have successfully integrated into United States society.
Intermarriage rate is very high among Iranian Americans. It has been estimated that nearly 50 percent of Iranian Americans who married between 1995 and 2007 married non-Iranian Americans. Research has furthermore indicated that Iranian Americans who are Muslim are more open to intermarry than those who are members of religious or ethnic minorities, such as Jews and Armenians. Women are less likely to intermarry compared to men, which, according to the PAAIA, is likely because as a group they are more likely to adhere to traditional Iranian values, including marriages that are approved by their families and within Iranian cultural norms. Regarding language profiency in the United States amongst its immigrant groups, the first generation principally speaks their native language, the second generation speaks both English and their parents' language, and the third generation typically speaks only English, while maintaining knowledge of some isolated words and phrases from their ancestral tongue. The Iranian American community follows this pattern.
The Small Business Administration (SBA) conducted a study that found Iranian immigrants among the top 20 immigrant groups with the highest rate of business ownership, contributing substantially to the U.S. economy. According to the report, there were 33,570 active and contributing Iranian American business owners in the U.S., with a 21.5% business ownership rate. The study also found that the total net business income generated by Iranian Americans was $2.56 billion. Almost one in three Iranian American households have annual incomes of more than $100K (compared to one in five for the overall U.S. population). Ali Mostasahri a founding member of the Iranian Studies Group, offers a reason for the relative success of Iranian-Americans compared to other immigrants. He believes that unlike many other immigrants who left their home countries because of economic hardships, Iranians left due to social or religious reasons like the 1979 revolution. About 50 percent of all working Iranian Americans are in professional and managerial occupations, greater than any other group in the United States (Bayor, 2011).
As further stipulated by Prof. Ronald H. Bayor, from the very beginning, Iranian immigrants differed from other arrivals by their highly educational and professional achievements. According to Census 2000, 50.9 percent of Iranian immigrants have attained a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 28.0 percent national average. According to the latest census data available, more than one in four Iranian-Americans holds a master's or doctoral degree, the highest rate among 67 ethnic groups studied.
A 1990 University of California, Los Angeles study showed that by education and occupation, native-born and Iranian-Americans of Armenian origin "tend to have the highest socioeconomic status... while those from Turkey have the lowest", although Turkish Armenians boast the highest rate of self-employment. In 1988, The New York Times article claimed that Middle Eastern Armenians, which includes Armenians from Iran, prefer to settle in Glendale, California, while Armenian immigrants from the Soviet Union were attracted to Hollywood, Los Angeles.
A study regarding Americans of Armenian descent showed that Armenians from Iran (Iranian-Armenians) are known for fast integration into American society; for example, only 31% of Armenian Americans born in Iran claim not to speak English well, while those Armenians from other nations were shown to have less steady successes of integration.
The earliest Iranian professionals in the U.S. before the 1979 revolution were the physicians. They were mostly young temporary trainees who worked as medical interns or residents. Some established themselves to continue practice beyond the residency stage. Their motives to extend their stay in the United States were more geared towards professional reasons than economics. Researcher from Johns Hopkins University in 1974 reported in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) that in 1971 the number of Iranian physicians in the U.S. was 1,625.
In 2013, another report was published in Archive of Iranian Medicine (AIM) that post revolution the number of Iranian Medical School graduates in the United States had grown to 5,045. Later, those who migrated to the U.S. after the 1979 revolution were mostly experienced physicians who came with their families and intent to stay permanently. As of 2013, there are a 5,050 Iranian Medical School Graduates in the United States.
Prior to revolution the 1,626 physicians migrated to the United States were 15% of all medical graduates of Iranian medical school graduates while the 5,045 medical graduates who migrated post Islamic Revolution represent only 5% of total Iranian Medical Graduates. This is not indicative of the entire United States, merely of the areas in which most of the Iranian American population is concentrated.
Though Iranian-Americans have historically excelled in business, academia and the sciences, they have traditionally shied away from participating in American politics or other civic activities.
Iranian-Americans don't seem to engage in American Politics, the fact that only 10 percent of Iranian-Americans voted in the 2004 election according to surveys in large American cities is evidence of this. The group that published this information urged Iranian-Americans to come together and vote in order to make a difference in how the United States foreign policy operates with regards to Iran.
An August 2008 Zogby International poll, commissioned by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, found that approximately one half of Iranian Americans identified themselves as registered Democrats, in contrast to one in eight as Republicans and one in four as independents (2008).
The same poll indicates that more than half of Iranian Americans cite domestic U.S. issues, including issues that are not unique to Iranian Americans, as the most important to them. In contrast, one quarter of Iranian Americans cite foreign policy issues involving U.S.-Iran relations and less than one in ten cite the internal affairs of Iran as being of greatest importance to them.
From 1980 to 2004, more than one out of every four Iranian immigrants was a refugee or asylee. The PAAIA/Zogby poll also cites that almost three-quarters of Iranian Americans believe the promotion of human rights and democracy in Iran is the most important issue relating to U.S.-Iran relations. About the same percentage, however, believe diplomacy is the foreign policy approach towards Iran that would be in the best interest of the United States. 84% support establishing U.S. Interest Section in Iran. Nearly all Iranian Americans surveyed oppose any U.S. military attack against Iran.
According to a survey conducted in 2009, more than six in ten Iranian Americans have immediate family members in Iran, and almost three in ten communicate with their families or friends in Iran at least several times a week. An additional four in ten communicate with their families or friends in Iran at least several times a month. This study indicates an unusually close relationship between Iranian Americans and Iranians.
As of 2013, U.S. laws require U.S. persons to obtain a license from OFAC to engage in transactions related to the sale of their personal property in Iran. Similarly, US persons will need a license from OFAC to open a bank account or transfer money to Iran.
The U.S. government does not have diplomatic or consular relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and therefore cannot provide protection or routine consular services to U.S. citizens in Iran. The Swiss government, acting through its Embassy in Tehran, serves as protecting power for U.S. interests in Iran. The Iranian government does not recognize dual citizenship and will not allow the Swiss to provide protective services for U.S. citizens who are also Iranian nationals. The Iranian authorities make the determination of a dual national’s Iranian citizenship without regard to the dual national’s personal wishes. In 2016, the U.S. Department of State warned U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Iran. In some instances, foreigners, in particular dual nationals of Iran and Western countries including the United States, have been detained or prevented from leaving Iran.
According to the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, nearly half of Iranian-Americans surveyed in 2008 by Zogby International have experienced or personally know Iranian Americans who have experienced discrimination due to their ethnicity or country of origin. The most common types of discrimination reported are airport security check, social discrimination, racial profiling, employment or business discrimination and discrimination at the hands of immigration officials.
In 2009 Martin Kramer, a Harvard professor, warned about the dangers of allowing Iranian Americans to get too close to power during the 2009 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference:
Business/technology: Iranian-Americans are among the most educated and successful communities in the U.S., according to a report by Iranian Studies group at MIT, Iranian-Americans have founded and/or participated in senior leadership positions of many major US companies, including many Fortune 500 companies such as GE, Intel, Citigroup, Verizon, Motorola, Google, and AT&T. Pierre Omidyar, founder/CEO of eBay is of Iranian origin, as well as the founder of Bratz Isaac Larian. Hamid Biglari is Vice-Chairman of Citicorp. Bob Miner was the co-founder of Oracle Corporation and the producer of Oracle's relational database management system. In 2006, Anousheh Ansari, co-founder of the Ansari X Prize, became the first female tourist in space. Ansari is also the co-founder and former CEO of Prodea Systems Inc. and Telecom Technologies, Inc. Other well-known Iranian-American entrepreneurs include designer Bijan Pakzad, entrepreneur Sam Nazarian, business executive Hamid Akhavan, former CEO of Unify GmbH & Co. KG (formerly Siemens Enterprise Communications), Omid Kordestani of Google, CEO of YouTube Salar Kamangar and Sina Tamaddon of Apple Inc., and Shahram Dabiri, Lead Producer for the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft from 1999 to 2007.
Philanthropy: Many Iranian Americans are active philanthropists and leaders in improving their community. In 2006, the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center was the recipient of a 10 million dollar donation from an Iranian American couple based in Houston, Texas. The University of Southern California was also the recipient of a 17 million dollar gift from an Iranian-American, as was San Francisco State University which also received a 10 million dollar gift from an Iranian-American couple., and Chicago's Swedish Covenant Hospital ($4 million), Portland State University ($8 million), and UC Irvine ($30 million).
Science/academia: Well-known Iranian Americans in science include Firouz Naderi director at NASA, Ali Javan inventor of the first gas laser, Maryam Mirzakhani the first female winner of the Fields Medal, Nima Arkani-Hamed a leading theoretical physicist, Gholam A. Peyman, the inventor of LASIK, Lotfi Asker Zadeh, Vartan Gregorian, Cumrun Vafa, Babak Hassibi, Nouriel Roubini, Pardis Sabeti, Vahid Tarokh, George Bournoutian, and Rashid Massumi, M.D., a pioneer in the fields of electrophysiology and cardiology. Prominent Iranian Americans in American higher education include Rahmat Shoureshi, researcher, professor, and provost of New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) and Nariman Farvardin, president of Stevens Institute of Technology.
Media/entertainment: Well-known media personalities of America, of Iranian descent, include Christiane Amanpour of ABC News and CNN, Daron Malakian, member of rock band System of a Down, Susie Gharib of Nightly Business Report, Asieh Namdar, Roya Hakakian, Yara Shahidi and Rudi Bakhtiar. In literature, Cyrus Copeland, the Iranian-American author of Off the Radar, a chronicle and investigation of his father's imprisonment for alleged spying on behalf of the CIA. There are several Iranian American actors, comedians and filmmakers, including the Academy Award nominee and Emmy Award winner Shohreh Aghdashloo, actresses Catherine Bell, Sarah Shahi, Nadia Bjorlin, Nasim Pedrad, Desiree Akhavan, Sheila Vand, Necar Zadegan, Rosie Malek-Yonan, and Bahar Soomekh, comedians Max Amini and Maz Jobrani, filmmakers Bavand Karim and Kamshad Kooshan, actor Adrian Pasdar, producer Bob Yari, Farhad Safinia, author and performer Shahram Shiva, and Daryush Shokof. There are also notable American YouTube personalities of Iranian descent, including that of JonTron.
Sports: Professional tennis player Andre Agassi, NFL football players T.J. Houshmandzadeh, David Bakhtiari and Shar Pourdanesh, professional wrestlers Shawn Daivari and The Iron Sheik, professional mixed martial artist Amir Sadollah, professional soccer players Sobhan Tadjalli, Alecko Eskandarian and Steven Beitashour, and professional baseball player Yu Darvish.
Politics: The son of the late Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, lives in the United States, as well as several high-ranking officials in the Shah's administration such as Hushang Ansary and Jamshid Amouzegar. Goli Ameri is the Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as well as the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs from 2008 to 2009, during which she was the highest-ranking Iranian-American public official in the United States. Beverly Hills elected its first Iranian-born Mayor, Jimmy Delshad, in 2007. Bob Yousefian served as the mayor of Glendale, California from 2004–2005. In November 2011, Anna M. Kaplan was elected Councilwoman in the Town of North Hempstead, New York, becoming the first Iranian-American to be elected to a major municipal office in New York State. Cyrus Amir-Mokri is the highest ranking Iranian-American official in government as of 2012, who was appointed as the Treasury Department Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions by President Obama. Also, in November 2012, Cyrus Habib, from the 48th district in Washington State, became the first Iranian American elected as a state legislator. Alex Nowrasteh is a well-known political commentator, policy analyst, and economist.