This is how the media turned an Iranian into an Indian

Tehran in India! Who knew?
Tehran in India! Who knew?
Image: Reuters/Parivartan Sharma
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President Barack Obama’s appointment of Azita Raji as the next US ambassador to Sweden has led to a tug-of-war. The point of contention weren’t her  qualifications, but her origin. On the two sides of the debate are the Indian press that declared Raji to be an Indian-American, and the Iranian groups suggesting that she was actually a Tehran-born Iranian.

The Times of India tweeted:

Trita Parsi, who is the founder and current president of the non-profit National Iranian American Council, sent out this congratulatory tweet:

However, a look at her bio on the White House website sheds light on what the Indian press missed in the excitement to add to a feather in India’s cap of Indian-Americans in top diplomatic capacities:

Raji was born in Tehran, Iran, and spent her early years growing up and studying in Iran and Western Europe. She attended and graduated from an international high school in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she was a competitive downhill skier and chess player, before coming to live in the United States for the first time, to attend college at age 17. Throughout her life she has lived, studied, and worked in the Middle East, Latin America, Western Europe, and the Far East, and is fluent and literate in several languages, including Farsi and French. She has drawn from her wide global awareness and cultural perspective throughout her life and career. Raji currently resides in Northern California with her family.

Raji’s biography has no reference to India, or even Southeast Asia. It clearly states that Raji was born in Iran, where she spent her early years. Logic suggests that if she had any Indian connections, the White House would have pointed that out. So, it seems that the Indian media didn’t bother confirming the facts.

A Pakistani forum, too, was quick to jump on India’s version of the story and call an Indian-American’s nomination for the diplomatic position a “result of aggressive Indian lobbying.”

The confusion caught the attention of the Iranians, who tweeted asking whether the Indians were trying to “claim” her:

Lost in the debate about Raji’s origins is the question of whether—be she Iranian-American or Indian-American—she has any qualifications to be ambassador to Sweden. Her bio on the White House website betrays none. A former investment banker, California-based Raji served as national vice-chair of finance, and she was one of the top bundlers who raised millions for Obama’s presidential campaign in 2012.

She was earlier reported to be seeking a top position in Italy, and it looks like she wasn’t sent too far away from where she wished. Regardless of the origins of Raji, it appears that in the Obama administration, race is no hindrance to landing a plum diplomatic posting.

(Quartz has asked the White House for clarification of Raji’s origins; we will update this piece when we’ve heard back.)