Los Angeles’ Iranian community fears Iran nuclear deal has hidden dangers
For some, the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Argentina, which claimed 85 lives and injured hundreds more, is history. But for many Iranian Jews living in Los Angeles and elsewhere outside Iran, the terror attack, widely believed to be perpetrated by agents of the Iranian Islamic Republic, looms as a threat of things to come.
L.A.’s Iranian community has always been on high alert to the dangers posed by Iran — potential dangers to family remaining in Iran and to relatives and friends in the Iranian diaspora. Now, the proposed nuclear oversight agreement with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, that is currently under consideration by Congress has stirred even more alarm. Many Iranian Jews, although not all, fear they could again be directly harmed by the country they fled long ago, many at the time of the 1979 revolution. Others take a more restrained view of what impact the deal might have on their lives here (read “Gina Nahai: Being Iranian” and “Memories of youth breed distrust of Iranian government“).
Since the announcement in mid-July that the United States and other world powers had reached an agreement with Iran that, in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program, would lift economic sanctions on the Islamic republic, some Iranian Americans in Los Angeles say they fear for their safety if the deal is finalized. Congress will vote on the proposed deal by early September, but even if it is voted down, President Barack Obama has promised he will veto a no vote, which would leave Congress in need of a two-thirds majority in both houses to overturn the veto.
Many of L.A.’s Iranian Jews and Muslims who have been are outspoken opponents of the current Iranian regime say they worry some of the estimated $150 billion in impounded Iranian assets worldwide — no one knows yet the actual amount — that would be released if the deal goes through could be used by the regime to threaten former citizens, as well as to heighten anti-Semitism in the U.S., incite hatred for Iranian Christians and Baha’is and to attempt to silence further criticism of the regime’s extensive human rights violations.
“Many critics of the regime are left to ponder what this regime will do — especially to dissidents and religious minorities in Iran and globally — if the regime is freed from international censure and economic pressure,” Sam Yebri, an attorney and co-founder of the nonprofit Iranian-American political advocacy group Thirty Years After (30YA), said in a recent interview. “With Iranian-sponsored terrorism having reached more than 20 countries, every American should be concerned.”
Yebri said 30YA has collected approximately 1,000 signatures from Southern California Iranian Americans of various faiths for a letter urging members of Congress to vote against the proposed Iran deal. 30YA is also sponsoring a public forum on Aug. 20 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills to discuss the Iran deal; speakers will include Yebri as well as Josh Lockman, a fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, who supports the deal.
Some believe the process of stifling criticism of Iran has already begun. “The presence of wealthy pro-Islamic Republic of Iran elements, activists and lobbyists in Southern California has already polarized the Iranian communities in the region and has revived the level of hatred of Jews among them to unprecedented heights,” Frank Nikbakht, who heads the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said in a recent interview.
Some local Farsi-language radio and satellite TV shows have featured news commentators who have said Iranian Jews are more loyal to Israel than Iran in their opposition to the Iran deal, saying they do not have any loyalty to the nation of Iran. In addition, former Iranian regime “reformists” who now live in the U.S. after falling out with the regime, have authored online blogs and articles in Farsi using the term “Joo-hood,” a derogatory Farsi word to describe Jews, and questioned the validity of anti-Semitism charges against the Iranian regime. Their articles have been filled with false accusations of Jews’ treasonous acts against Iran dating back to the time of the Book of Esther. Farsi-language media outlets in Southern California have also increasingly featured commentators attacking Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with age-old Blood Libels of wanting to kill Muslim Palestinians and Iranians and wanting to destroy Iran. And some leaders within non-Jewish Iranian-American political organizations have recently charged Iranian Jews in the U.S., as well as American Jews, with allegiances to Israel, accusing them of warmongering against Iran because many Jews do not support the Iran deal.
Nikbakht said that since 1979, the oil-rich Iranian regime has harassed Jews inside Iran as well as outside in an attempt to advance its anti-Semitic ideology worldwide. He pointed as an example to the bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, widely believed to be linked to Iran, although that has never been definitively proven.
If sanctions are lifted, Nikbakht believes, “the massive infusion of money into the Islamic Republic of Iran will increase its decades-long foreign efforts in banishing Jews from their environments as they have already done successfully inside Iran, to the tune of 90 percent.” Currently, Iranian-Jewish activists in Los Angeles estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 Jews are living in Iran today; an estimated 80,000 Jews are believed to have lived in Iran before 1979.
Anti-Semitism is a hallmark of the Iranian regime’s influence, Nikbakht said, “from the wall graffiti and signs in Yemen today, to the ruins of Argentine-Jewish centers of previous decades, to the vast info-sphere of the Internet, we can clearly see their footsteps, as distinct even from other similar players.”
Southern California is currently home to approximately 500,000 Iranian Americans, of whom nearly 45,000 are Jewish, according to estimates from various Iranian-Jewish community leaders, the majority of whom fled or emigrated from Iran after the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution. The L.A. community’s activists also worry Iranian Americans could face threats by those in the United States who wish to advance Shiite Sharia law, including, they say, in areas of Los Angeles County that are home to expatriate Iranian communities. They point to growing anti-Semitism and violence within some large Muslims neighborhoods in London and Paris as the source of their fears.
George Haroonian, an Iranian-Jewish activist and board member of the largely Iranian Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills, believes befriending the Iranian regime to any degree by the U.S. will be dangerous. “Unfortunately the naive and politically correct point of view of some — including administration officials or the U.S. public will result in opening the doors to some unsavory characters or artists from Iran who really should be banned from entry to the U.S.,” Haroonian said.
Already the community has identified hate-promoting artists they allege are being exported by the Iranian regime and sought to squash them. Last March, for example, local Iranian-Jewish activists launched a grass-roots campaign to boycott performances by Akbar Abdi, a notorious Iranian-Muslim anti-Semitic comedian who had planned to tour in the U.S., including performing Farsi-language shows in Southern California. The campaign ultimately resulted in the cancellation of Abdi’s show at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, as well as other shows in Southern California.
A video on YouTube from 2013 shows Abdi being given a film award by Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and using derogatory terms to describe Jews. Iranian-Jewish groups were surprised the U.S. State Department had granted Abdi an entry visa into the U.S. despite his history of overt anti-Semitism.
Nikbakht and other local Iranian Jewish activists believe once sanctions are lifted, the regime will fund anti-Semitic groups in the U.S. They point to the regime’s long history of sponsoring Holocaust denial conferences and its warm relations with notorious anti-Semites, including former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke and other American neo-Nazi groups.
“Judging by the European experience with the Iranian regime, we can safely predict that the Iranian regime will greatly improve its ties with the American neo-Nazis, the KKK types and other anti-Semites in this country — they will massively fund and promote them and use their services toward their political ends,” Nikbakht said. “Once the open presence of the Iranian regime and pro-Islamic Republic Iranians are tolerated and normalized in the U.S., they are going to act like kids in the candy store of anti-Jewish organizations and personalities.”
Further, the Iranian regime has a history of ties to European neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, including, as one example, paying for the legal defense in France of French Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy, who was convicted and fined $80,000 in 1998 in France for denying the Holocaust. Garaudy was subsequently welcomed in Tehran, where he met with the Iranian Supreme leader Ali Khamenei. In 2012, Khamenei publicly grieved the death of Garaudy in a personal Twitter message.
Nikbakht also said Iranian state-run media outlets have also frequently cited the writings of the neo-Nazi American leader William Pierce. In October 2014, the Anti-Defamation League reported that the regime’s annual Holocaust denial conference in Tehran last year hosted Maria Poumier, a French denier; Claudio Moffa, an Italian denier; and Kevin Barrett, an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist and frequent contributor to Iran’s Eng-lish-language, state-run news network, Press TV.
Nikbakht believes the sources of this anti-Semitism come not only from Iranian hardliners, but also other more moderate factions in the regime.
“Long before Ahmadinejad made a name for himself among the anti-Semites, the Iranian government, under the supposed moderate President [Mohammad] Khatami, had begun funding Holocaust deniers and publishing their materials in Iran and all over the world,” Nikbakht said. “During the Green Revolution in the 2009-2010 period, several moderate leaders — even ones financially supported by the U.S. — staged a campaign of attacking the Islamic hardliners in Iran, not for their atrocities against the Iranian population or their Islamist fanaticism, but for allegedly being of Jewish descent.”
Iranian Jewish activists in Southern California said the Iranian regime has a long history of advancing anti-Jewish and anti-Israel messages locally. These include anti-Semitic articles in the now defunct Farsi-language newspaper Ete-laat International, which was published for several years by the Iranian government’s outlet inside the Pakistani embassy in Washington, D.C., but was shut down in 2005 according to L.A.-based non-Jewish Iranian activist Rozbeh Farahanipour, who blew the whistle on the publication. Iran is also known to have paid for advertisements on local Farsi-language radio stations and satellite TV in exchange for featuring anti-Semitic or anti-Israel personalities on certain programs, according to Nikbakht and Farahanipour. Iranian Jewish activists said they also suspect some anti-Israel activities and speakers who have been sent to many Southern California university campuses may have been funded, albeit indirectly, by the Iranian regime.
Iran experts said that the anti-Semitism within Iran is not motivated only by radical Shiite Islamic dogma.
“We have to recognize the fact that the Islamic Republic or even Islamic ideology is not the only source of anti-Semitism in Iran,” said Mehdi Khalaji, an Iranian trained Shiite theologian and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Modern anti-Semitism is mostly imported to Iran through leftist intellectuals and political activists. If we ignore the anti-Israeli attitude and anti-Semitism, which are still promoted by the secular left, we will not be able to tackle the problem.”
Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit global policy think tank, expressed a more moderate view: “While concerns about Iranian meddling are understandable,” she wrote, “there are many Iranian civil society leaders and human rights advocates who are in favor of the nuclear deal, because they feel once the nuclear issue is addressed there can be more scrutiny in Iran’s continued human rights abuses.”
Iranian Jewish activists in Los Angeles add that while the Iranian regime’s leaders have long argued their message is critical of Israel but not the Jewish people as a whole, their behavior and ideology suggests anti-Semitism.
“The Iranian regime’s constant calls for the destruction of Israel is truly an anti-Semitic statement,” Haroonian said. “It is not due to the regime’s care for the misery of the Palestinian Arabs, but it is due to its clear view that the Jew is to be inferior to Muslims and it is impossible for a non-Muslim to rule over Muslims.”
Some of L.A.’s Iranian Jews have long been hesitant to publicly criticize the current Iranian regime for fear of reprisals against the Jews who remain inside Iran. There are, however, many activists in the local Iranian-Jewish community who have been very vocal in their efforts to educate Americans about what they see as the dangerous nature of the Iranian regime.
Local Iranian Jews are not the only ones who fear potential threats and reprisals from the Iranian regime. Many groups of all faiths have also voiced concerns that they would be targeted should the sanctions be removed.
“I personally do not feel safe, and I am very worried,” said Farahanipour, who also heads the Marze Por Gohar Iranian opposition party. The group was originally a young people’s political party in Iran that pushed for a secular democratic government to replace the country’s totalitarian Islamic theocracy. In 1999, during student protests in Iran, the party was banned by the Iranian regime, and Farahanipour and other members were arrested and imprisoned. He eventually made his way to the U.S., where he has been fighting to raise awareness of Iranian human rights violations and sponsorship of terrorism. “The Iranian regime has in the past issued a fatwa [religious edict] against my life, because I oppose them, and they will do everything in their power to squelch voices of opposition like my group outside of Iran that are constantly raising public awareness about their horrid human rights violations.”
Farahanipour added that his office in Westwood was found to have been bugged in 2005; he and a friend discovered an instrument attached to the outside of his computer when the computer wasn’t working properly one day. Farahanipour believes Iranian agents place the bug there. He also said people connected with the regime’s leadership have tried to bribe him to win his silence. Farahanipour said other local non-Jewish-Iranian activists have, in recent years, been threatened, pressured and, in some cases, bribed by agents of the regime in overt attempts to stop their activism against Iran’s government.
“In 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2013, my group was protesting and raising public awareness about the Iranian regime holding illegal voting stations at various L.A.-area hotels for the Iranian presidential elections — the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Iran, so their actions were illegal, and my ongoing efforts to expose this activity to the press upset the regime,” Farahanipour said. “Even with sanctions in place today, the Iranian regime has caused a lot of trouble for many of us in L.A. who oppose them — so God knows what havoc they will cause for us and the city when they are flooded with millions of dollars once sanctions are removed.”
In September, Farahanipour, who serves on the Westwood Neighborhood Council — a citizens group that advises the city of L.A. — worked with the neighborhood council to pass a motion calling on the Los Angeles City Council to remove Farsi-language signs in some Westwood shop windows that they alleged were advertising consular services on behalf of the Iranian government, as well as assistance for travel to Iran and for trade with companies inside Iran. Iranian business owners in Westwood vehemently denied any illegal Iranian regime activity was connected with the signs and said the signs were misinterpreted. Since the neighborhood council took up the motion, the signs have been removed.
Experts on Iran argue the Iranian regime’s history of retaliation against opposition groups outside of Iran gives local opposition activists legitimate cause for worry.
“The [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards are especially paranoid with regard to the Iranian diaspora,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “With additional money, I wouldn’t be surprised if, at the very least, they stepped up their espionage of the Iranian community abroad.”
While the majority of local Iranian Jews and non-Muslim Iranian Americans oppose the current Iran deal, there is a small minority with ties to family and business in Iran who have quietly been supportive of efforts by the Obama administration to reach out to improve relations with the Iranian regime. A substantial number of Iranian-American Muslims living in Orange and San Diego counties have been more vocal in their support for the Iran deal because of a potential for economic and financial improvement for their families in Iran.
There are also a small number of L.A.-area Iranian Jews who operate businesses inside Iran, all of whom interviewed for this article asked that their names not be published because of concerns for their safety. These L.A. residents said they frequently travel to Iran using identification papers indicating they are Muslim in order to operate their companies or to sell property left behind after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Some Iranian Jews in Southern California and New York have even traveled to Iran in recent years for personal visits, despite the known risk of being randomly imprisoned by Iranian authorities, or held for ransom by the regime’s security apparatus, or prohibited altogether from leaving Iran.
Currently, four Americans are in prison in Iran, the best known of whom is Iranian-American Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, arrested in July 2014 and charged with spying for the United States; after more than a year, Rezaian is still awaiting trial. (A closed-door hearing on Rezaian’s case was held this week, and his fate is expected to be decided soon, according to the BBC.) Other Americans detained in Iran include Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor accused of apostasy; and Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine who was imprisoned in January 2012 for allegedly spying for the CIA during a visit to his family in Iran.
Iranian-Jewish activists said that since the 2013 election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, members of the Iranian regime have tried to reach out to Iranian-Jewish community leaders in Los Angeles and in New York, including inviting them to kosher dinners hosted by Rouhani during his 2013 and 2014 visits to New York after addressing the United Nations General Assembly.
In the past, community leaders and activists have declined these dinner invitations, citing the Iranian regime’s fervent policy of wanting to destroy Israel, the regime’s sponsoring of terrorism against Israel and the regime’s Holocaust denial, calling the invitations a public relations attempt to improve the regime’s image in the U.S. media.
“We have legitimate demands, which the least of is the antagonistic position of the Iranian regime toward Israel,” Haroonian said. “We should not become their propaganda pawns, but rather use our peculiar and special position to publicly and privately pressure the Iranian regime for changing their behavior.”
Local Iranian-Jewish activists and non-Jewish-Iranian activists said whatever the outcome of the proposed nuclear agreement, they will continue to raise red flags about the Iranian regime’s potential anti-Semitism and harassment with local law enforcement and local elected officials.
Representatives at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.
Karmel Melamed blogs about the Iranian-American community at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.