Last week, Representative Donald Norcross (D-NJ) remarked in a press conference that, “We have a saying in New Jersey, when we are dealing with somebody like Iran: when their lips are moving, they’re lying.” Norcross’ remarks followed those of Senator James Risch (R-Idaho), who recently claimed that you cannot translate the phrase “good faith” to Persian (Farsi) because Iranians are incapable of acting on it. These comments are unacceptable and damaging, but sadly, not at all unusual.
What the two statements have in common is that they don’t just question the Iranian government — an undemocratic institution that people in Iran have little real say in — but rather cast all Iranians as unable to act in good faith or tell the truth. These statements, in essence, seek to subtly dehumanize Iranians, painting them as caricatures rather than real people.
When it comes to Iran, racist tropes have become so commonplace, so acceptable, that most people hardly even notice them.
Watching the press conference with Norcross took me back to when I was told that my grandmother and uncle had been denied visas to my wedding. We’d gotten them a lawyer for the application, and the immigration agent told my family that they wouldn’t have gotten a lawyer if they didn’t intend to overstay their visa. The implication was clear: Why would they have used due process if they weren’t lying?
I wasn’t surprised when no journalist asked Norcross about the comment, and that instead of bristling, Representatives Eliane Luria (D-Va.), Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) and Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) simply laughed. These racist tropes have become so commonplace, so acceptable, that most people hardly even notice them.
THE UNPRODUCTIVE APPROACH TOWARD IRAN
Simply asserting that all Iranians are liars undermines the very idea of diplomacy. How could you possibly engage in negotiations with people who are incapable of truth? It also allows opponents of a diplomatic agreement with Iran to sidestep any good faith engagement with the verification processes that are included in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), especially around independent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verification. It also ignores the much more crucial policy point, which is that Iran was, by and large, complying with the deal, and it was in fact the Trump administration that broke the agreement unilaterally. This isn’t to say that we should simply trust the Iranian government. We shouldn’t. We should, however, have a conversation about what we need to monitor in order to have confidence — and that conversation is only possible if it’s done in good faith and without bigotry.
Especially now, as the negotiations are entering their final phases and there are tough calls to be made about issues such as lifting the terror designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It’s crucial that we be able to have clear policy discussions about the best way to hold the IRGC accountable instead of just acquiescing to the status quo that the Trump administration left behind.
HURTING IRANIANS, NOT THEIR GOVERNMENT
Comments like the ones Norcross and Risch made also have much more insidious impacts on people in Iran and Iranian Americans. Over the last week, I’ve sat in meetings with Iranian Americans who shared stories of losing loved ones because they couldn’t access medicine due to US sanctions. They’ve told me how hospitals struggled to provide care during the pandemic. Many talked about being torn away from loved ones by the Muslim Ban. Yet, the suffering of Iranians is rarely linked with the US policy of “maximum pressure,” which continues to be one of collective punishment on a people who already have little say in their government.
Even if we remove the impact of sanctions on people in Iran from the conversation, and instead focus the debate on the Iranian government’s proxies and other terrible impacts in the region, it’s critical to take into account the evidence that the policy of maximum pressure has actually increased authoritarianism and deepened these challenges, instead of thwarting them. Here, the bigotry in the debate isn’t just one that’s causing suffering in Iran, but also one that could exacerbate tensions in the region — and is a fundamental risk to US national security too.
The most beguiling aspect of this is that there’s very little conversation about how this kind of dehumanizing rhetoric also underpinned the Muslim Ban. I was one of the people affected by the Muslim ban; not nearly to the extent of others, but impacted nevertheless. The Muslim Ban meant that my mother would not have been allowed to get a US visa, and would have missed the birth of my first child.
I was incredibly grateful for the outpouring of support and the thousands of people who were there along with me. I remember when Democratic members of Congress showed up to the airport. I remember the work of various unions including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). I remember the taxi workers striking in solidarity. This is why Norcross’ comments, a proud unionist and Democratic representative, were hurtful. Instead of stepping away from tropes that Trump used to explicitly fan division, Norcross endorsed them.
I want to have a real debate about Iran to talk through how we solve the nuclear issue and support the incredibly brave people who risk everything for change on a daily basis. More importantly, I want to know how we can tackle the Iranian government’s behavior in the region so that everyone can experience what they deserve — peace, dignity and the opportunity to thrive. That debate is only possible if we put the bigotry aside and stop questioning the humanity of people like me.