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Jewish Journal

It’s Time for L.A.’s Iranians to Flex National Political Muscle

by David Peyman

October 7, 2009 | 8:07 pm

While Iranians spill their blood in the streets of Tehran and in the notorious Evin prison, many lucky enough to have fled to the United States are living the American dream. Iranian Americans have risen to the top of virtually every profession and industry, and they serve on school boards, city councils and public commissions.

Nowhere is their success more pronounced than in Los Angeles, home to the largest Iranian American community outside the Middle East. The Los Angeles suburb of Beverly Hills produced the first Iranian American mayor in the country, political ballots are printed in Farsi, and “Persian Palaces” — large box-shaped homes with columns and gates that are a throwback to the old country — have transformed communities.

Yet, while Iranian Americans are successful economically and active locally in politics, and while they have held demonstrations to protest the abuse of their brethren in Iran, the community lacks a coherent and effective voice on U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic. 

The lackadaisical attitude is puzzling for a community intimately aware of the regime’s brutality and the threat it poses to the free world. One explanation might be that the older leaders of the community came from a place where political activism was often a first-class ticket to the afterlife. And they have spent the past 30 years more focused on financial success and observing and understanding national politics, rather than becoming active players.

But a new generation of Iranian Americans is becoming mindful of the important role they can play in addressing the most pressing threat to U.S. national security.  They have developed a strong allegiance to their new American homeland and a patriotic desire to protect the United States. 

They also have a unique Iranian perspective on the issues. 

Iranian Americans are familiar with the Iranian bazaar-style of negotiating. They realize that extending “goodwill” by the West is just seen by the Islamic regime as exacting another concession, and that the threat of repercussions if negotiations fail is not nearly as effective as exacting real costs before and during the negotiations. Suggesting that such a posture would destroy the negotiations reveals an ignorance of the Iranian psyche (and reality, as there are already sanctions in place — but they are too weak to bear fruit in negotiations). It is no accident that negotiations on Iran’s nuclear weapons program have been ongoing for more than a decade while Iran has reaped billions in foreign investments and is closer to attaining a nuclear bomb. 

Iranian Americans also know that religious fundamentalism and rationality are not mutually exclusive concepts. Accordingly, the United States can change the regime’s nuclear cost-benefit analysis by exploring an increased naval presence in the Persian Gulf, creative and strategically targeted economic pressure (including unilateral U.S. sanctions with a multilateral effect), and seeking, through methods too lengthy to discuss here, to entice Syria to break its alliance with Iran (which will also help cripple the Iran-Lebanese Hezbollah axis).

In addition to the nuclear issue, Iranian Americans understand that Iran’s domestic political realities will prevent any long-term rapprochement between this regime and the United States. To Iranian Americans, the regime’s defiant posture is quite logical. If there is no Great Satan, the role of firebrand clerics — the so-called protectors of Islam and the Iranian people from evil Western influence — will be usurped by technocrats who have the skills to achieve achieve economic, political and scientific progress. With no Great Satan to fight, Iranians will more aggressively question why hundreds of millions of dollars go to Arab terrorists while they live in poverty; or why supposedly pious clerics are amassing wealth while the educated youth can’t find a job. Despite President Obama’s recent overtures, the regime has used the recent demonstrations to perpetuate the rivalry with the United States. Indictments against arrested protesters allege that Western governments are conspiring with demonstrators to replace the Islamic Republic with a regime compliant with American designs.

Many Iranian Americans also find it unnecessary and unrealistic to attempt to transform Iran into a secular state. Indeed, they have no problems with an Islamic Republic. Just not this one. Clerics with credentials outweighing those of Supreme Leader Khamenei, such as Grand Ayatollahs Montazeri, Tabatabai-Qomi and Ayatollah Borujerdi, strongly oppose the regime’s foreign and domestic policies. While supporting a limited clerical role, these esteemed mullahs oppose the concept of velayt-e faqih, which allows a dictatorial supreme leader to make a mockery of the democratic process.  Accordingly, strategic financial and logistical support of certain sectors of the clerical establishment, the bazaaris, religiously-inclined farmers (33 percent of the labor force) and student groups may be part of a broader approach to bring realistic policy change while respecting the desires of the majority of Iranians. Such an approach may also serve to partly neutralize the undoubtedly severe populist reaction after a potentially necessary military strike to delay the Iranian nuclear program.

Iranian Americans are thinking about the issues. The Persian tea is brewing and the dialogue around the kitchen table has begun. Now is the time to write the last chapter in achieving the American dream by translating political will into a unified voice that demands action. The prospect of a nuclear war triggered by an Iranian bomb may be the catalyst to finally awaken an untapped political powerhouse in Southern California. And perhaps before America’s Iran policy becomes a foregone conclusion, the road to Tehran will run through the Persian Palaces of Los Angeles.


David Peyman, an attorney in Los Angeles, was an associate editor of the Harvard International Law Journal and advises non-profit groups and community leaders on Iran.

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