Shortly after John Ghazvinian’s flight from Cairo landed at JFK International Airport in New York last week, federal customs agents pulled him aside for additional questioning.
A plainclothes officer asked if he had family in Iran, which he does. Then she asked: What did Ghazvinian think about the conflict between Iran and the United States?
“I don’t really see the relevance of that,” Ghazvinian, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen, said he answered. “It feels a little political.”
The officer dropped the subject and waved him on.
Ghazvinian is interim director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of a new book that examines American-Iranian relations since the 1700s.
The officer was polite, Ghazvinian said in an interview. But “it felt like a weird question for sure in that setting.”
It’s the kind of interaction that has jangled the nerves of Iranians in the Philadelphia area and beyond during days of rising and falling geopolitical tensions, following the Trump administration’s drone-strike killing of a top Iranian general.
They’re concerned they could become targets of harassment, and their livelihoods put at risk. And they fear their tax dollars could help fund American military operations that hurt or kill family members in Iran.
“All I can say is that the community is shaken,” said Roya Salehi, chairperson of the immigrant-advocacy group Grannies Respond, founded in 2018 by several New York state grandmothers outraged over the separation of migrant children and parents at the Mexican border.
She noted that dozens of Iranian Americans were detained and questioned last week while trying to cross into Washington state from Canada, which “certainly reinforced worst predictions of what may come next.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, asked specifically about Ghazvinian being stopped in New York, issued a statement: “Social media posts that CBP is detaining Iranian-Americans and refusing their entry into the U.S. because of their country of origin are false.”
Leaders of the Philadelphia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which works to advance civil rights and enhance understanding of Islam, have been checking with the Iranian community to see if they need help amid the tension.
For some it’s already too late.
Arash Hosseini, who holds a new doctorate in civil engineering after graduating from Temple University last month, said two job offers disappeared after the drone strike.
One company told him it had State Department contracts, and worried his Iranian citizenship could become a hindrance. During an interview with a third firm, Hosseini said, he was asked about his political views.
“It was a bit tragic for me,” he said, declining to name the employers. “The United States and Iran are like my two hands. One is the country where I was born, and the other is the country that gave me the opportunity to grow.”
For now the conflict seems to have stopped short of war, though analysts warn that tit-for-tat retaliations could resume. The killing of Qasem Soleimani escalated the struggle between Washington and Tehran for influence in the region — and frightened Iranians here.
“Many of us still have family members and loved ones back in Iran,” said Sarah Siah, board president of the Iranian Cultural Society of America in Gladwyne. “None of us favors another bloody war in the region that may cost the lives of many innocent people. We hope and pray for peace and stability.”
The Philadelphia region is home to a small number of Iranians, an estimated 4,200 who were born there or have Iranian ancestry. Nationally, the Iranian American population is estimated at 500,000 to one million, about half of whom reside in California.
They compose what may be the most highly educated ethnic group in the country. More than 57% of Iranians over age 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree, almost double the percentage of the U.S. population.
Mohammad Shahhosseini and his wife are both studying for graduate degrees at Penn State — and rattled by the news of hostilities.
“I talk to my family two or three times a week, normally,” said Shahhosseini, who is working toward a fine arts degree. “During the past week, I try to call them each day, every day.”
He and his wife, who studies architecture, have been comforted by supportive text messages from professors and colleagues.
“ ’You guys are not alone. We are here,’ they said, which is so nice,” Shahhosseini said.
As a group, Iranians are relatively new arrivals to the United States. Thousands fled here in the late 1970s amid the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the shah, a close U.S. ally, and installed clerics led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The defining event of the two nations’ bitter, 40-year relationship remains the 1979 Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and the subsequent 444-day captivity of 52 American hostages.
“Death to America” became Iran’s rallying cry.
The hostage crisis helped make Jimmy Carter a one-term president, and marked the modern start of aggressions.
In 1987, the U.S. launched “Operation Earnest Will” to protect oil supplies moving through the Persian Gulf amid the Iran-Iraq war, sparking exchanges of gunfire in the shipping lanes during the so-called Tanker War.
The next year, the Navy warship Vincennes shot down a civilian Iranian passenger plane over the Strait of Hormuz, killing all 290 on board, after mistakenly identifying the airliner as a fighter jet.
Iranians were enraged. Many still believe the attack was deliberate.
In the 2000s, Iran’s nuclear program was badly damaged by a cyberattack believed to have been carried out by U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies. Proxy battles between American- and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, which Soleimani had been instrumental in directing, continue today.
Trump administration officials say they killed Soleimani to prevent an “imminent” attack that would have endangered American lives in the region, but declined to provide details of the underlying intelligence.
“It’s stressful on so many levels, and unclear how this will impact our lives,” said Zahra Fakhraai, who fears for her mother, sister, and other family in Iran. “There are lives at stake. The lack of empathy is heartbreaking, from all sides. It’s tit-for-tat for politicians. But for people, it’s their lives.”
Fakhraai grew up in an Iran at war with U.S.-backed Iraq, a time when death and destruction became commonplace. She remembers her grade-school exhilaration when the fighting ended, and the rare chocolate delicacy of a Kit Kat bar, unimaginable in wartime, came into her hands.
Fakhraai later earned a master’s in physics, moved to Canada, and got her doctorate. And now, as a lawful permanent U.S. resident, she is an associate professor of physical chemistry at Penn.
She’s relieved that the sides seem to have de-escalated, but no one knows how long that may last.
Ghazvinian, the Penn Middle East Center director, thinks the killing of the general won’t lead to full-scale military conflict but “to more low-grade, imperfectly managed provocations.”
“In reality, the United States has been at war with Iran for many years,” said Ghazvinian, author of America and Iran: A Passionate Embrace, from 1720 to the Present. “There has rarely been a moment of true peace in the past three decades.”