The ties that bind Los Angeles’ Iranian community to its roots a half-world away have been in full view this week, as protesters cried out in reaction to the June 12 Iranian presidential election, calling it fraudulent and a sham. Within the Iranian Jewish community in particular, the belief remains that none of the candidates can be expected to effect real change in Iran — not the rabidly anti-Israel, Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, nor the so-called moderate candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.
“Iran’s presidential elections are far from democratic or legitimate,” Bijan Khalili, a local Iranian Jewish activist and publisher, said even before Iran’s Interior Ministry announced the incumbent had won the election by a nearly two-thirds margin on Saturday. “For example, religious minorities like Jews and women in general cannot run for that office.” Anyone who does run does so at the discretion of the supreme leader and Islamic clerics, Khalili said, and “they have the final say as to who will win.”
On Friday, nearly two dozen local Iranian Americans, among them a smattering of Iranian Jews, protested as voters cast their ballots at an official Iranian government polling station inside a Westin Hotel at Los Angeles International Airport. Citizens of Iran who live outside the country, including those holding dual citizenship, were allowed to participate in the election. According to the current Iranian law, citizens outside Iran must simply present a valid Iranian passport and be over the age of 18 to vote.
Protesters said they were surprised to see roughly 1,000 local Iranians come to vote, including what looked like a handful of Iranian Jews. “I witnessed some Iranian Jewish female college students who showed up to vote,” said Roozbeh Farahanipour, an Iranian Muslim protester among those protesting at the hotel. Farahanipour is head of the Marse Por Gohar Party, an Iranian political opposition group based in Westwood.
The official Web site of the Iranian Interest Section in Washington, D.C., named only four polling centers in Southern California — the LAX Westin, the Hyatt in Irvine, the Embassy Suites in La Jolla and the Ayres Hotel in Ontario.
But even the validity of such polling stations should be questioned, according to Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian Jewish activist and director of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran. He charged that renting polling space to the Iranian government means these hotels engaged in an illegal business transaction with the embargoed regime.
“Managers of two of these local hotels said they had knowingly rented their facilities for the official use of the presidential elections of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Nikbakht said. “Therefore these hotels had entered into financial transactions with persons and entities connected to the Islamic Republic of Iran and were very possibly in violation of various U.S. laws prohibiting financial transactions with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
The Web site of the Iranian government’s Interior Ministry names a total of 41 voting locations in the U.S. where Iranians with duel citizenship could go to vote.
When Ahmadinejad’s government declared victory so quickly, the reaction inside Iran was swift and passionate, and locals in Los Angeles followed suit. On Saturday and Sunday, dozens of Iranian Americans of various faiths gathered in protest outside the Federal Building in Westwood. They included both those opposed to all aspects of the Iranian regime as well as supporters of the reformist Mousavi.
Ahmadinejad’s forces worked in Los Angeles in advance of the election, according to Nikbakht, who has long monitored the activities of the Iranian government’s proxies in Southern California. Nikbakht said a small contingent of pro-Ahmadinejad supporters had been speaking to crowds of Iranian American students at UCLA recently as well as at campuses in the Los Angeles area in an effort to encourage them to vote for the incumbent.
In addition, two weeks ago, as many as seven pro-Ahmadinejad supporters stood in front of the Borders bookstore in Westwood waving Iran government flags, Nikbakht said. The supporters chanted slogans in favor of the Iranian president.
Iranian Jews here remain reluctant to speak out on the outcome of the election, saying they are fearful of possible retaliation against the approximately 20,000 Jews still living in Iran. Yet all said they believe the current anti-Israel and anti-American attitudes of the Iranian government would not change, regardless of who is named Iran’s president.
“No one really believes that the policies of Iran would change with a new leader, because the real policy comes from the supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei, and not from the so-called president, no matter who is elected,” said Jimmy Delshad, an Iranian Jew who is currently serving as vice-mayor of Beverly Hills. “Iran’s president is only the propaganda mouth of the regime.”
Likewise, local Iranian Jews said officials in the Obama administration as well as members of the news media have been duped into painting a positive image of Iran’s “reformist” presidential candidates, including the moderate Mousavi.
Khalili points to history as a guide: “If you look at the track record of these supposed reformists, like [former president Mohamad] Khatami — they not only made Iran less free, but they were more oppressive to the population than all the past hardliners.
“Journalists and political voices opposed to the regime were executed under the reformists in the late 1990s,” Khalili added. “Khatami’s government killed, tortured and imprisoned hundreds of opposition student leaders during the 1999 student uprisings. The nuclear weapons program was also secretly going forward at full speed during Khatami’s reign, and he knew all about it.”
Southern California Iranian Jews’ disdain for the “reformist” government officials in Iran is deep-seated. In September 2006, seven Iranian Jewish families in Los Angeles and Israel filed suit against Khatami, holding him responsible for the arrests and disappearance of their loved ones between 1994 and 1997 — 12 Jews who were arrested by the Iranian secret police while attempting to flee from southwestern Iran into Pakistan and have since disappeared.
Likewise during Khatami’s presidency in 1999, 13 Jews from the city of Shiraz were imprisoned on charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Ultimately, the international exposure of the case put pressure on the Iranian regime, and the “Shiraz 13” were released.
Nikbakht believes the Obama administration miscalculated the outcome of the elections in Iran and was naïve in failing to foresee the potential for fraud in the voting process.
“The U.S. administration, clearly misled by their Iran advisers and analysts, apparently believed that the real power in Iran would stay neutral in the elections and would let the people actually elect someone without fraud and vote-rigging,” Nikbakht said.
Local Iranian Jews said that regardless of who becomes the winner in the election, they will continue to educate Americans about the evils of the current Iranian regime, using their first-hand experience of the tyranny of Iran’s religious leadership.
“Perhaps the biggest misconception in the West is the gross underestimation of the depth of this regime’s commitment to its fundamental belief that the entire world must eventually come under the rule of Islam and Iran’s ‘supreme leader,” said Sam Kermanian, former secretary general of L.A.’s Iranian American Jewish Federation and current executive vice chair of the Center For Promotion of Democracy and Human Rights in Los Angeles.
U.S. State Department officials and representatives at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.
For more about the Iranian elections and the Iranian Jewish community, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.