July 17, 2003
Local Iranians Avoid Spotlight as Protests Sweep Homeland
As student protests against the Iranian regime swept the streets of Tehran and other cities in the country, the large Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles followed developments with fervent interest, while keeping a low public profile.
Actively cheering on the protestors is Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who has introduced a bill, the Iran Freedom and Democracy Support Act, in the House of Representatives. One of the bill's provisions calls for assistance to satellite television and radio stations beaming pro-democracy broadcasts to Iran.
Likely beneficiaries of the act would be a dozen privately owned, Farsi-language TV and radio stations, centered in the San Fernando Valley, which have been sending anti-government messages to Iran for years.
Whether the stations helped trigger the demonstrations or are riding their coattails is a matter of debate, but there is little doubt that the broadcasts serve as a major communications network for the protest movement.
"The protesting students can't talk freely by phone among themselves, so if they want to coordinate a demonstration in Tehran, or with other cities, they get the information through broadcasts from Los Angeles," said Sherman in a phone interview from Washington, D.C.
The low-budget, round-the-clock broadcasts are frankly political, in contrast to the U.S. government-funded Radio Farda, which beams mainly pop culture and straight news programs to Iran.
The owners and programmers of the privately owned stations in Los Angeles are Muslim, Baha'i and secular Iranian expatriates, with a handful of Iranian Jews in advertising and administrative positions at best, according to George Haroonian of the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations.
There are a number of reasons for the low Jewish profile, according to other sources in the Iranian Jewish community, who did not wish to be identified by name.
"While we all hope for freedom in Iran, we perceive this as an Iranian, rather than a Jewish, issue," one source said. "On a practical level, if Iran were to become a democracy, many expatriate Muslims would probably go back but very few Jews."
In addition, there is an underlying fear that visible activity by Iranian Jews here might cause a new crackdown on the remaining Jews in Iran, just after the release of the last of 13 imprisoned Jews from the city of Shiraz.
Support for the low-profile approach is by no means unanimous in the local Iranian Jewish community.
"Whenever Jews are endangered anywhere, there is always a debate in this country whether a heads-down or a more aggressive stance would yield the best results," Sherman said.
As the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on International Terrorism, Non-Proliferation and Human Rights, Sherman has been one of the leading congressional advocates of tougher U.S. action against Iran.
Even if local Jews were to become more active in the pro-democracy movement, they would be relegated to a very minor role by the much larger Iranian Muslim community in Southern California, the congressman believes.
However, there is general agreement that a regime change in Tehran would be a blessing for the United States, Israel and the Jews of Iran.
"I have always maintained that in the Middle East, Iran is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism and a much greater threat than Iraq to America and Israel," Sherman said. "Future historians will wonder why we devoted our energies to eliminate the regime in Iraq, rather than in Iran."
An interesting insight by one observer noted that if the present protests succeed in changing the regime, this would constitute not a reversal but a completion of the 1978-79 revolution against the then-reigning shah.
"That revolution was started by a coalition of Islamic fundamentalist and liberal groups," Sherman said. "The revolution was then hijacked by the religious, frustrating the aims of the pro-democracy liberals."
"Iranian society has now learned what rule by the ayatollahs is like," he said. "If the pro-democracy forces can now win, it would bring the original aims of the revolution back on track."