The successful movement to save Soviet Jewry offers some valuable lessons for Iranian Americans seeking democracy in the Islamic Republic

Soon after coming to power, the Nixon White House began to seek rapprochement with the Soviet Union—this was a “Russian reset,” 1970s-style. The United States would soften the Soviet Union, the administration’s thinking went, by building closer economic ties with the totalitarian superpower and engaging its leaders. But just as President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger began implementing this new strategic posture, a small group of American Jewish activists threw a wrench into the détente machine.

The activists sought to secure the right of thousands of Russian Jews—at risk of cultural extinction after years of forced assimilation under Communism—to leave the Soviet Union. Moscow should not receive most-favored trade status from the United States, American Jews insisted, unless and until their Soviet brethren were allowed to emigrate. Under immense pressure exerted by this movement, Congress would eventually pass the Jackson-Vanik amendment in 1974, which conditioned trade with the Soviet Union on Russian emigration policy. In the process, the movement transformed the nature of American foreign policy, helping to establish “the principle that human rights supersede national sovereignty, that democracies are morally bound to intervene in the internal affairs of dictatorships,” as the former activist Yossi Klein Halevi, now an Israeli author and journalist, has written.

Most Iranian Americans are likely unfamiliar with this inspiring saga. But they could learn a lot from its example. They, too, face a totalitarian adversary in the form of Iran’s clerical regime, which has trapped millions of their countrymen for over three decades. And just as the Soviet Jewry movement had to overcome the hostility of a U.S. administration obsessed with realpolitik, Iranian-Americans today are frustrated by a White House seemingly unmoved by the plight of dissidents in Iran. Like American Jews, Iranian Americans are a notoriously fractious bunch, divided by numerous ideological and generational fault lines—and torn between an assimilationist imperative and the urge to preserve their unique cultural and linguistic heritage in the United States.

Unlike the organized American Jewish community, Iranian Americans have been ineffective at mobilizing support for their cause of advancing democracy in Iran or even formulating a coherent political message. Disputes over the meaning and significance of historical traumas—from the 1979 revolution to the failures of the reform movement ushered in by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami—have frequently divided the Persian diaspora. Iranian American activism, moreover, has fundamentally failed at reaching a broad, mainstream audience.

Given the similarities between these two communities, the Soviet Jewry model may help Iranian Americans rethink and revitalize their own efforts to ensure that democratization and human rights are central pillars of U.S. policy toward Iran. Of course, there are contextual differences: Jewish activists in the 1970s and ’80s had the benefit of a Soviet dictatorship open to engagement, whereas the regime in Tehran relishes its isolation and defiance. Nevertheless, Iranian Americans can pick up quite a few lessons from the astonishing successes of the Soviet Jewry movement, which ultimately led to the downfall of Communism in Europe.

Balance the Particularistic Against the Universal

Almost as soon as they launched their movement, the Soviet Jewry activists were faced with a difficult branding dilemma. As Gal Beckerman explains in When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone, his magisterial history of the movement, these activists were animated by profoundly Jewish impulses. “The movement involved the whole soup of Jewish psychology—Holocaust guilt, fears of assimilation, all of these very particularistic Jewish concerns,” Beckerman told me. “But if it were limited to that, you would have just had a very small group of protesters screaming.” Aware of the risk that their movement might play as a narrowly ethnic one in the wider culture, the activists consciously grounded their message in the language of universal human rights and fundamental American ideals, such as religious freedom and freedom of movement. To broaden their impact, they reached out to civil rights leaders from outside the community and carefully framed their cause as a mainstream one.

Iranian Americans have struggled with this difficult balancing act. Too often, their rallies, advocacy literature, and messaging come across as part of a debate within the community. Last year, for example, I helped organize a rally in Boston to mark the first anniversary of the disputed 2009 presidential election in Iran. Benefiting from the counsel of some veteran, non-Iranian activists, we took steps to appeal to the broader Boston community. We billed the event as an “interfaith solidarity vigil,” secured the endorsements of civic leaders from Boston’s various ethnic communities, including the largest Latino-rights organization in Massachusetts, and began the rally with the U.S. national anthem.