At first glance, the publication of This Flame Within: Iranian Revolutionaries in the United States just two weeks prior to the spark of what would become the “Woman-Life-Freedom” protest movement may seem to have been unpredictably timely. As Iranians in Iran and around the world took to the streets and social media in autumn 2022, and as they have since navigated deep fragmentations (old and new) in diaspora, Manijeh Moradian's words written prior to these events felt especially prescient:

At this bleak moment, it is all the more important to recuperate a history of thousands of young Iranians who imagined, and even glimpsed, a future for Iran that was neither a monarchical client state nor a theocratic dictatorship. A methodology of possibility allows us to generate new meanings from the [Iranian Student Association]'s fraught and flawed legacy, to claim the mistakes as much as the successes as part of a diasporic inheritance for future generations to parse and transform.1

As the book demonstrates, the ongoing geopolitical circumstances, subject formation processes, and diasporic relations—and their overlapping intersections—that have been co-constitutive in the last fifty years suggest that her timely analysis could have prompted this same reaction at many moments in the last several decades. The “bleak moments” have been numerous and the need for imagined possibilities and futures ever present; the future, as it were, is now, and again.

In This Flame Within, Moradian undertakes an ambitious project to at once reframe the conventional history of Iran-US relations, explore the history of Iranian political activism, and rethink the history of the Iranian diaspora in the United States. In doing so, she employs what she calls a “methodology of possibility” that takes seriously the web of affective, material, and ideological dimensions of subject formation within revolutionary movements. In recuperating two decades of diaspora and transnational organizing undertaken by Iranian young people in the 1960s and 1970s, especially as students in American colleges and universities, Moradian examines how and why many of these students left Iran as “imperial modern minorities” and returned as anti-imperialist revolutionaries.

While the book directly intervenes in the study of the 1978–79 Iranian Revolution and contributes intersectional approaches to the study of Iranian history and activism, it also makes critical interventions in the field of Iranian diaspora studies, provoking important revisions to the periodization, classification, and taken-for-granted assumptions about this diaspora, as well as contributing nuanced insights into the twentieth-century history of Iranian America.

Arguing for a reperiodization of the Iranian diaspora, particularly its Iranian American communities, Moradian offers a rich account of Iranian experiences in the United States prior to the revolution. She notes that by the late 1970s, Iranian students constituted the largest foreign student population in the United States at the time, a population she describes as a “foreign student diaspora” (22). Matthew Shannon also used “student diaspora” to describe this group in his 2017 book Losing Hearts and Minds: American-Iranian Relations and International Education during the Cold War. Defined and redefined from the 1990s forward, the term diaspora is most commonly reserved for populations who have dispersed (by force or by choice) from a homeland (real or imagined) with the intention to reside in new homes while producing and maintaining relations, practices, and identifications with both the homeland and with their fellow diasporans outside of it.2 Transnational practices like communication, trade, remittances, frequent travel, cultural production, and participation in homeland politics enable these relations and constitute key sites for the formation of diasporic subjectivities. While many such practices were undertaken by Iranians in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, most of these students viewed their presence as a temporary period abroad on the path to social and economic mobility in Iran. For this reason, while it is generally agreed that the 1979 revolution was the catalyst driving the large wave of Iranian emigrants and asylum seekers to populate what would become a global diaspora, most studies of this diaspora have not included a focus on the hundreds of thousands of students who attended universities abroad prior to the revolution. Similarly, apart from Moradian and Shannon, studies that have explored the earlier, if relatively smaller, flows of young Iranians in the two decades preceding those events have not used the term diaspora to describe them, reserving it for the communities that formed in the 1980s and afterward.3

Beyond the Iranian case, scholars have hotly debated the use of diaspora to describe temporary migrant groups like students. Seeking to broaden scholarly focus on flows of knowledge from “brain drain” to also consider “brain gain” and even “brain circulation,” researchers have employed the notion of “knowledge diasporas” to examine how students and migrant laborers have formed transnational networks of knowledge production and distribution.4 Further, if the core of what it means to “live in diaspora” is to live away from a homeland while engaging in the transnational networks and relational processes of maintaining identifications to here, there, and “elsewhere” (as has been suggested by scholars like James Clifford and Lok Siu), Moradian establishes that the students she interviewed decades later (now more easily recognizable in the common definitions of diaspora) were in the 1970s already “diasporic.” As Clifford put it, “The empowering paradox of diaspora is that dwelling here assumes a solidarity and connection there. But there is not necessarily a single place or an exclusivist nation. . . . [It is] the connection (elsewhere) that makes a difference (here).”5 Iranian students were not only present “here” in key moments of change in the United States; Moradian shows that their “affects of solidarity” meant they were active participants in political actions seeking to bring about the equality and justice to which US narratives of racial liberalism and doctrines of friendship had paid lip service. As such, while deeply engaged and active in solidarity work in their communities “here” (e.g., in Berkeley, New York, and Washington, DC), they also maintained a sharp focus on the homeland “there” in Iran, for example through sustained activism against the shah, which itself was often organized in close coordination with other Iranians “elsewhere” (e.g., ISA networks and conferences in France, Germany, and beyond). Unlike the simplistic understandings of international students as temporary, detached foreigners who return quickly upon graduation without having affected the society in which they studied or having created long-term transnational relationships or other ties, these layered and active engagements of Iranian students “here, there, and elsewhere” and the subjectivities they produced are hallmarks of the diasporic condition. Thus, although the applicability of diaspora to this population is not a main thrust of her argument, Moradian's usage is provocative but empirically grounded; her oral history interviews and archival research convincingly demonstrate the utility of applying this concept to members of the Iranian Students Association in the United States (ISA) in the 1960s–1970s. Even if her interlocutors may not have had this language at the time, Moradian's inclusion of these students as part of a diaspora effectively reframes the presence of Iranians in the United States prior to the revolution while naming their practices and subjectivities as diasporic, an important reclassification in our understandings of Iranian American history.

Deepening this reformulation of the history of the Iranian American diaspora, Moradian brings into focus a number of key transitions of this early period, two of which stand out for their impacts on “here, there, and elsewhere” and thus upon diasporic practices and subjectivities: the transition of an American public from a population taught to see Iranians through the genteel if exoticizing lens of “Cold War Orientalism” into a population seething with xenophobia and yearning for deportations, violence, and ostracization of Iranians (75–76); and the rapid transition of Iranian foreign students into revolutionary activists. Moradian's excavation of a detailed, evidenced account of this dual set of transitions builds on newspapers, ephemera, archival materials, and oral histories and replaces the broad strokes of previous retellings.

The importance of this contribution should not be underestimated. With regard to the first transition, second-generation Iranian Americans too young to recall the hostage crisis have been told by their parents’ generation of experiences of a time when life in the United States was suddenly made not only emotionally difficult but physically dangerous. But whether due to trauma, the fuzziness of memory, or a combination of the two, these personal recollections often lack detail and can unintentionally obscure a macro view of trends that occurred across the United States. Broad-strokes tellings may protect older Iranian Americans from retraumatization and can nevertheless facilitate analyses of how the hostage crisis affected diaspora politics and media, which remain fruitful lines of research.6 But quotidian and recorded details of this time like the violent slogans and slurs Moradian uncovered in her interviews and in newspaper publications (e.g., “This Thanksgiving, roast an Iranian”), are critically important reminders of the depths to which “Irage” had permeated US society in the 1980s and which, in many ways, continues to underpin animosities that remain unresolved today. Moradian carefully presents a multiscalar and geographically diverse view, incorporating the experiences of Iranians at tiny colleges in rural Texas, large state schools in Oklahoma, and the core sites of organizing in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. This approach is both effective and invaluable in building a clearer historical record of this turbulent, formative period of the Iranian American diaspora.

As for the second transition—of Iranian foreign students into revolutionary activists—Moradian reminds us of the “vicissitudes of dictatorship and imperialism” that have animated Iranian American history (248). She actively resists the tendency among scholars and observers of Iranian and diaspora history to focus on rupture—especially, for example, the tendency to view 1979 as the point of rupture against which diaspora history should be measured. Moradian insists instead on attending to continuities. For example, key to understanding the twenty years of sustained student organizing under study is the “special relationship” between Iran and the United States that existed for much of the twentieth century prior to the revolution, which became “an indirect mode of imperialism that relied on notions of mutual interest and diplomacy rather than military invasion or occupation” (71). Through this focus, her concept of “imperial model minorities” allows us to see how tens of thousands of young Iranians traveled abroad for a Western education not just as a promised means to Western-style prosperity and economic and social mobility in an otherwise deeply stratified society but also, for the US imperial project, as a means to inculcate the taken-for-granted goodness of American values, education, and models of capitalist development in a generation of Iranians. When many of those students could not reconcile this “goodness” with formative memories of witnessing or experiencing repression and state violence in Iran, encounters with leftist ideas and civil rights activists in the United States enabled the transition to revolutionary activism that she deftly describes. Here, Moradian draws our attention to continuity, reminding us that the vicissitudes of this special relationship are integral for understanding not only 1960s and 1970s Iranian American activism, but all Iranian migration to the United States for the last seventy-plus years writ large: “Whether U.S. interests were in alignment with the goals of the Iranian state or not, it was the interactions between state repression and imperial aggression that created the conditions for Iranian migration to the United States from the 1950s through to our current moment” (18). Her deeply considered attention to the role of American interests as “an indirect mode of imperialism” is central to rethinking Iranian American history.

Finally, Moradian deftly mobilizes the dozens of oral histories she collected—which she beautifully describes as excerpts of the “living archives of memory”—to trace the power, presence, and continued circulation of what she calls the revolutionary affects that remain in diaspora today. The intergenerational circulation of diasporic memory she describes is continued through her oral history. As she passes along to readers the “diasporic inheritance” she received in these interviews, she offers us a seat next to these Iranian Americans as they share their memories—including details that, as some of her interviewees hint, these individuals’ own children have never heard about. Longer quotes and excerpts of interviews, joined with Moradian's careful descriptions of the gestures, facial expressions, pauses, and even flat affects she observed, make for compelling examples of how what she calls “the melancholic attachments of resistant nostalgia” intermingled with revolutionary affects and powerful formative experiences of fear, violence, repression, and resistance (37).

Through these oral histories, Moradian seeks to recuperate hidden—or, drawing on Avery Gordon, “fugitive”—knowledges in the form of “memories of freedom and collective transformation,” which, she argues, are absent from dominant narratives of loss in the Iranian diaspora, even though they “[haunt] the diaspora from the margins” (273). While some may quibble with what constitutes “normative Iranian American identity since 1979” (250), it is undeniable that nostalgia for the shah and his family has been a part of a larger nostalgia for a pre-1979 past deemed the good old days by many Iranians in diaspora. This normative sense of nostalgia rests on loss and grief, but it does so in significantly different registers from the resistant nostalgic recollections of Moradian's interlocutors. As she notes, “not at all members of a displaced population are grieving the same losses” (247). In the face of the innumerable casualties and tragic events of 1979–88, she argues, “it has been socially and politically unacceptable to feel nostalgia for the fleeting moments of freedom and democracy that preceded the onset of state repression under the Islamic Republic” (268). Because memories like these become marked as taboo, and because their “forbidden, expelled, proscribed” character also becomes unconsciously internalized by those who otherwise might share them (263), the space of the oral history interview opened the possibility of sharing what otherwise could not be grieved publicly in exile. More specifically, to work against these internalized taboos, Moradian employed a “methodology of possibility” that enabled the inclusion of “the collective feeling of hope or possibility . . . as a legitimate object of study,” thereby recuperating these hidden knowledges (25). Resistant nostalgia emerged as a key mode for her interlocutors, whereby their feelings of grief and memories of loss commingled with euphoria, hope, and beauty from the early days of the revolution. Those feelings of possibility, she contends, can be powerful tools in maintaining resistance to the lie that the Islamic Republic was—or is—the only possible alternative to Western imperialism.

Ultimately, Moradian successfully spurs a rethinking of Iranian American history, a reperiodization of diasporic subjectivity and subject formation, and a recovering of difficult, painful, but also joyful and hopeful revolutionary affects. The intersectional Iranian diaspora studies framework she proposes draws on women-of-color feminisms and applies them to Iran and its diaspora with a sense of urgency: “By illuminating the multiple sources of oppression and inequality that structure US and Iranian societies, we can refuse to side with either government and open up new spaces of mutual connection and solidarity” (20). Though written before the events of autumn 2022, Moradian's book outlines crises of thought from five decades of expressed and unexpressed revolutionary affects that have re-emerged in 2022–23 in the form of rehashed debates, fragmentations, and frustrations. Moradian's interlocutors’ experiences of the unpredictability of revolution and the lessons she draws from intersectional feminism offer a set of timely reminders (“bringing revolutionary affects of hope and possibility into the present”): that we can at once critique gender oppression as well as imperialism, economic sanctions, and racism, and that the hopes and possibilities that Moradian's interlocutors expressed can become pathways out of otherwise bleak moments on the unpredictable course of revolutionary activism.

Notes

1.

Moradian, This Flame Within, 26. Hereafter cited in the text.

4.

Numerous scholars have studied brain drain and the circulation of knowledge in and through the Iranian diaspora after 1979; however, consideration of Iranian students prior to the revolution as constituting a knowledge diaspora is as yet relatively new. See Brooks and Waters, “International Studies.” 

5.

Clifford, Diasporas, 322.

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