In the wake of the Feb. 14 Iranian protests for greater freedom, which took place throughout that country, Iranian Americans of various religious backgrounds in Southern California have been closely monitoring the developments and voicing support for those seeking democracy.
The Iranian Americans here have been in close contact with student opposition groups in Iran, and leaders said the recent demonstrations there were sparked, at least in part, by the recent success of the massive public protests in Tunisia and Egypt.
“After protesting the 2009 fraudulent presidential election in Iran, the people in Iran were again inspired this time by seeing people in Tunisia and Egypt rise up against their governments for freedom,” said Roozbeh Farahanipour, who heads the Los Angeles-based Iranian Marze Por Gohar political party, which opposes Iran’s government. “You’re seeing thousands of Iranians demanding regime change in Iran when they’re chanting in the streets,” said Farahanipour. Chanting, “ ‘Mubarak, Ben Ali and now it’s time for you to go, Seyed Ali!’ — which is a reference to the dictators of Egypt, Tunisia and Iran.”
Iranians organized another mass anti-government demonstration on Feb. 20 to commemorate the seventh day of mourning for two slain students, Sanah Jaleh, 26, and Mohamad Mokhtari, 22, who were killed during the Feb. 14 demonstrations when Iranian security forces attacked a crowd in Tehran.
According to various anti-regime Web sites in Iran, the demonstrators in Tehran were met by hundreds of anti-riot police and Basiji militia, who lined the streets and on several occasions fired directly into the crowd and beat protesters with steel batons. In one neighborhood, the Basiji took over a commercial building and dropped tear-gas canisters from the roof onto the protesters.
The Iranian government has barred foreign journalists from entering the country to cover the demonstrations, but social networking Web sites, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, have been flooded with video taken by protesters during the demonstrations. The videos show thousands of young men and women wearing surgical masks, throwing rocks at riot police, setting trash cans on fire, chanting slogans of “death to the dictator” and setting on fire posters of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Here in Los Angeles, on Feb. 14, about 50 Iranian Americans opposed to Iran’s regime protested in front of the U.S. Federal building in Westwood to mark the 32nd anniversary of the current Iranian government’s rise to power.
The local Iranian American community has also been glued to the various Persian-language satellite television programs broadcast here, hoping to get information on demonstrators and friends. Viewers of the Tarzana-based Pars Television were shocked last week when one unnamed pro-regime militia member called into the program from Iran and threatened viewers. During his call, he shouted at the show’s host in Farsi, saying, “My brothers and I will not have mercy on anyone! If anyone dares to stand up and question the authority of the Supreme Leader, we will kill each and every single one of them! My hope is that one day I will encounter you and your supporters to cut your heads off myself!”
Leaders of the Iranian Jewish communities in Southern California and New York have remained mostly quiet about the current situation in Iran and the fate of Iran’s Jews for fear that what they say may be used as an excuse by the Iranian regime to retaliate against the estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Jews still living there.
“The Jewish community in Iran can be considered as a sort of hostage population, and they may be facing new pressures soon, even though they were not involved at all” with the demonstrations, said Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist who heads the Los Angeles-based Committee for Religious Minorities in Iran. “This is because the paranoid Iranian regime, thinking Israel has had a hand in the riots, may pressure the Jewish community to stage pro-Palestinian and pro-Hezbollah demonstrations, issue statements and hold rallies, like they forced the Jews to do in 2009.”
Indeed, in January the Iranian government-sponsored Fars News Agency (FNA) reported that “the Iranian student Basiji militia, of the Abu-Ali Sina/Avicenna University in the western Iranian province of Hamadan were rioting outside the entrance of the Esther and Mordechai tomb and threatening to destroy it if Israel destroyed the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.” The news reports said Basiji militia had removed the mausoleum’s entrance sign, covered the Star of David at the mausoleum’s entrance with a welded metal cover and demanded the site be placed under the supervision of the local Islamic religious authority.
According to one FNA news report, the Basiji protesters also demanded that the shrine lose its status as a nationally protected religious site because “the shrine is an arm of Israeli imperialism that impugns Iranian sovereignty; it honors Esther and Mordechai, who were the murderers of Iranians, and their names must be obliterated to teach the younger generation to beware of the crimes of the Jews.”
The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center has sent a letter to Irina Bokova, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), asking the organization to condemn the threats to the mausoleum and calling on UNESCO to request the Iranian government to protect the site. Aside from a handful of local Iranian-Jewish activists, Iranian-Jewish community groups in Southern California and New York have remained silent about the threats to the mausoleum in Iran.
Nikbakht said small minority groups in Iran, and in particular hated minorities such as the Jews, have always been in danger during periods of crisis since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
“Times of turmoil, war and revolution are the most dangerous, because not only may a Nazi-like government, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, decide to use its Jewish hostages for deterrence or revenge — but smaller groups of fanatics within the society or the armed forces may decide to do something themselves to the Jews during a chaotic situation,” Nikbakht said.
Requests for comment on the status of Iran’s Jews or the Esther and Mordechai mausoleum made to the Beverly Hills-based Iranian Nessah Synagogue and to Dr. Kamran Beroukhim, chairman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in West Hollywood, were not returned. Similarly, calls to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the leadership body of Jews in Iran, were not returned.
Nevertheless, some Iranian American political activists in Los Angeles expressed optimism at seeing young protesters demanding real democracy in Iran, while still uncertain what benefit the demonstrations might have, because they felt the protests were poorly organized.
“In my opinion, the current demonstrations are not going to yield results, because people are just demonstrating up and down a few major streets and in the ‘revolutionary square’ in Tehran which has no real impact on the government,” Farahanipour said. “They are not marching in front of the Parliament, homes of political leaders, the prisons or the state-run media outlets — if they did so, it could slow things down and have some kind of an impact.”
Analysts see sharp differences between the situation in Iran and those of Tunisia and Egypt, countries that each had only had one military force and a central government. Unlike those countries, the Iranian regime has power bases spread throughout the religious sector, as well as the political factions and the revolutionary guard, all willing to help prevent a coup d’état. Likewise, the Iranian government makes use of seven major security and military apparatuses to quash political opposition, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), Basiji militia, the Supreme Leader’s personal security forces, Ministry of Intelligence security forces, the judiciary’s security forces, municipal police forces and the country’s internal security forces. During the 2009 demonstrations in Iran, the regime even utilized members of the government-backed Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah to beat, kill and later torture protesters in Iran’s major cities.
On Feb. 18, the Iranian government bused in thousands of regime “loyalists” from cities throughout Iran for a rally in Tehran calling for the executions of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Iranian activists in Southern California were quick to discount the authenticity of the pro-regime rally.
“These protests in support of the regime are not legitimate because the government has 10 percent of the country’s population on their payroll, and these people will do whatever the government tells them to do, because they don’t want to lose their paychecks,” Farahanipour said.
Kianoosh Sanjari, an Iranian journalist working for the Washington, D.C.-based “Voice of America in Farsi” television program, who is a former Iranian student-opposition leader, said protesters in Iran were extremely disappointed with the Obama administration for being slow to voice public support for the populist uprising in 2009 seeking regime change in Iran as well , and again during the current crisis.
“Last year we heard the people of Iran’s disapproval of Obama when they chanted in the streets, ‘Obama, you’re either with us or you’re with them!’ ” Sanjari said. “The demonstrators are very upset with Obama, because they see how he treated the Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, America’s close ally, by demanding his resignation and freedom for the people of Egypt — yet, at the same time, he says nothing to Khamenei and the Iranian regime, who are enemies of the U.S.”
The majority of Iranian-American activists believe the best way for the United States and the West to bring about a new democratic government in Iran would be to voice moral support for the demonstrators seeking freedom, and to increase the political and economic isolation of the Iranian regime.
Calls for comment to the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations in New York were not returned.
For more videos and information on the current situation in Iran, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews/