Jewish Journal

Iranian Jews uneasy on Obama’s offer to ‘engage’ Iran

by Karmel Melamed

Posted on May. 1, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Candidates Obama and Clinton 'debate' Iran. April 16

With Iran a hot topic in the U.S. presidential race this year, the candidates' foreign policy statements are being examined closely by everyone, not least the Iranian Jewish community. Comments by Democratic frontrunner Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), in particular, have left many Iranian Jews reluctant to support his candidacy.

Having fled the brutal reign of Iran's fundamentalist Islamic clerics following Iran's 1979 revolution, the majority of Iranian Jews in Southern California oppose the current Iranian regime. They believe that any U.S. diplomatic relations with that government would only serve to embolden and reward the regime, which has repeatedly called for Israel's annihilation.

Obama's expressed willingness to engage diplomatically with Iran's leaders if elected president and to offer economic inducements, as well as a possible promise not to seek regime change in Iran, deeply troubles many Iranian Jews.

"Any agreement to negotiate with the [Iranian] regime will give it the sort of legitimacy that it does not currently have but so desperately needs in order to put the last nails in the coffins of those who still have hope for a democratic Iran," Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the L.A.-based Iranian American Jewish Federation, said in a recent interview. "So from the point of view of most people in this community, any talk of negotiations should be preconditioned upon a number of issues -- chief among them suspension of the nuclear work and assurances regarding human rights."

Obama's opposition to a September 2007 Senate amendment designating Iran's Revolutionary Guard, the "Quds Force," as a terrorist organization, has also raised concern among local Iranian Jews. Obama did not vote on the amendment because he was campaigning, but has said he did not support it because he believed it would authorize the Bush administration to launch a war against Iran.

"This shows how naïve and inexperienced he is," said Dr. Solomon Meskin, an Iranian Jewish activist, who is Republican. "The whole Iranian government is a terrorist government, and they have proven it by arming Hamas and Hezbollah, who take responsibility for terrorist bombings."

Likewise, Obama's introduction of a U.S. Senate resolution last November proclaiming that President Bush does not have authority to use military force against Iran did not sit well with a wide cross section of Iranian Americans in Southern California, who believe all options should be available when dealing with the Iranian government.

Local Iranian Jewish leaders also said Obama's input from former Carter administration officials Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert O. Malley on his foreign policy platform has further reduced support for the Obama campaign among many Iranian American groups.

"I think most Iranians, not just Jews, believe that the mistakes that were made by President Carter's foreign policy team were the single most important factor that led to the success of Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution and the creation of the Islamic Republic," Kermanian said.

Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist and director of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said a number of local Iranian Jewish families that have suffered at the hands of Iran's Islamic leaders view Obama's positions on Iran as crucial in their decision not to vote for him, despite his voiced support for Israel.

"Obama's real problem is that he tries to portray the Islamic Republic of Iran as a normal regime," Nikbakht said. "His thinking that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is just another 'national army' is extremely dangerous because according to the government's constitution, this terrorist group is tasked with global Islamic takeover."

That Obama's middle name is Hussein also continues to be a hot-button topic for many Americans, but the majority of local Iranian Jews said that the name has had no bearing on their feelings about the Illinois senator. Nevertheless, Nikbakht said, "the Muslim family background of Obama reminds the Iranian Jews of the humiliation and persecution they suffered under the Iranian Islamic regime, which was the main reason why they immigrated to America in the first place."

"In Farsi we have a proverb saying 'one who has been bitten by a snake, is even scared of a harmless rope,'" he added.

While a substantial portion of the older generation of Iranian Jews are evenly split between their support for U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), some college-aged Iranian Jews said they will vote for Obama because of his domestic policies.

"At a time where political partisanship has brought our government to a standstill, he [Obama] has a strong bipartisan message which really appeals to me as a centrist," said Bobak Roshan, a 25-year-old Iranian Jewish law student at USC. "He is also unbelievably intelligent, and I think the ability to think critically and make the right decisions is far more important than experience."

Younger Iranian Jews more interested in domestic policy are currently backing the Democratic presidential candidates, while older Iranian Jews more concerned with national security and Israel said they will vote for McCain.

Many younger Iranian Jews have been energized by the 2008 presidential race. Roughly 250 young professionals from the community gathered on Feb. 5 for a Super Tuesday event sponsored by the newly formed "30 Years After" organization at the home of the Iranian Jewish Wiseman and Rosa Cohanzad family in Brentwood. Only a handful of those present said they back Obama, with the majority pledging support for McCain or Clinton.

While there as yet have been no fundraising efforts on behalf of any of the presidential campaigns within the Iranian Jewish community, Iranian Jewish hotel and nightclub entrepreneur Sam Nazarian's company, SBE Entertainment, last August simultaneously made available two of its night clubs in West Hollywood for Obama and Clinton fundraisers. Clinton joined 700 supporters for a fundraiser at SBE's The Abbey, a high-end restaurant and bar (following her participation in the Democrats' debate in Los Angeles) for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community.

"The Abbey was chosen because Mrs. Clinton wanted to go to West Hollywood, where the LGBT community lives, to address issues important to them," said Luis Vizcaino, a spokesperson for the Clinton campaign. On the same night, SBE's popular nightclub Area hosted a post-forum fundraising event for Obama and his supporters. A spokesperson for SBE said neither the company nor Nazarian have endorsed any presidential candidate, but they offered the venues to encourage their patrons to become politically active.

While Meskin actively rallied support among Iranian Jews for former New York Mayor Rudy Guilani's failed run for the presidency, he has recently backed McCain and said he will be campaigning on behalf of the Arizona Senator among local Iranian Jews.

Calls and e-mails for comment from the Obama campaign were not returned.

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