L.A.’s Iranian-American community unhappy with U.S., Iran relations

Reactions have been strong and angry from the local Iranian community to outreach initiated by the Obama administration to the Islamic Republic of Iran for assistance in quashing Sunni militants in Iraq. The United States reportedly met with Iranian officials on June 15 in Vienna, on the sidelines of talks on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Iranian-Americans voicing the strongest objections to the overtures are mostly immigrants to the United States who experienced anti-Semitism and discrimination in their homeland in the wake of the Iranian revolution. Many were forced to quickly abandon their homes and businesses there more than three decades ago and since have been outspoken critics of the Muslim leaders in their homeland. The local Iranian-Jewish community, in particular, which was especially hard hit by the revolution, is expressing shock that the Obama administration would consider warming relations with the regime, even in the face of the advancing extremists in Iraq.

“I think the best word to describe the community’s reaction would be disbelief,” said Sam Kermanian, a senior adviser to the Iranian American Jewish Federation, based in West Hollywood. “Generally speaking, for some time now, our community has considered the administration’s foreign policy to be naïve, particularly when it comes to the Middle East,” Kermanian said. “So, to some extent, we had resigned ourselves to seeing the sorts of outcomes that we are seeing in Syria and Iraq or the continued nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran — but I doubt anyone in our community was quite ready for the possibility of a military cooperation with the Islamic Republic.”

Many Iranian-Jewish community activists pointed to the fact that the Iranian regime is believed to have backed terrorist groups responsible for killing U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“To me, asking Iran for military help in stabilizing Iraq is like asking the Italian Mafia for help in protecting the casinos in Las Vegas,” Simon Etehad, a local Iranian-Jewish attorney and community activist, said. “You really do not need to be that sharp with your history to know that the Iranian regime’s dream is to get a foothold in Iraq — and what would be better than having the president of the United States open the door for you?”

Etehad and many other Los Angeles-area Iranian-Jewish activists said they are upset as well because of the Iranian regime’s poor human-rights record and repression of religious minorities, including toward the few remaining Jews in Iran.

“Once the president of the United States of America, as the leader of the free world, normalizes a relationship with the Iranian regime that still persecutes its minorities, hangs hundreds of innocent people on false accusations, supports terrorist organizations and continues the development of its nuclear weapons, then what would you expect the other countries who were to follow us to do?” Etehad said.

Within the Iranian-American community, not only Jews are upset over this issue; many local Iranian Muslims also expressed outrage.

“I simply do not understand how the U.S. government is trying to negotiate with a terrorist-sponsoring regime like Iran, period!” said Roozbeh Farahanipour, the Iranian-Muslim head of the Iranian opposition party Marze Por Gohar, based in Westwood. “And now the U.S. wants to cooperate with Iran’s terrorist regime and its revolutionary guard that are listed on the State Department’s terrorist list. This does not make any sense!”

The prospect of warming of ties with Iran’s current regime also undermines the efforts of some key opposition groups within Iran who are fighting for a true democracy in the Islamic Republic, Farahanipour said.

“The Iranian regime’s strategists have gotten excited that America is showing weakness and asking for their help in Iraq,” Farahanipour said. “This is because [the] regime’s leaders know that average people will lose their hope of fighting to overthrow this regime, and they will not have any choice except to unite behind the ayatollahs.”

Iranian-American activists said this new trust in Iran’s leaders comes in response to an extensive public relations campaign that has been waged by Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani.

“Rouhani can put a spin on it by putting on a nice smile or make a few jokes in English, but he is still a wolf in sheep’s clothing who wants the destruction of the United States,” Etehad said.

 Yet, many Iranian-Jewish activists said they are also concerned about the freedom and well-being of the non-Jewish Iranians in Iran who have been suffering inhumane repression for nearly four decades at the hands of the current regime.

“Our small community in the United States is composed of those very lucky individuals who were able to free themselves from the bondage of the present regime in Iran, but we are a tiny portion of the tens of millions of Iranians who are being usurped and are suffocating under this regime,” Kermanian said. “Any pain we may feel is for the people of Iran who, for the most part, love the United States and are gasping for a bit of air of freedom — but are witnessing U.S. policies that are moving toward legitimizing the Iranian regime instead of recognizing and supporting the aspirations of the Iranian people.”

Los Angeles’ Iranian Jews said they are also concerned that any change in relations with the current Iranian regime sends mixed signals to the Iranian regime’s leaders regarding relations between the United States and Israel.

“If the Islamic Republic of Iran perceives the American foreign policy as one which is abandoning Israel or distancing from it, and accepting the Iranian regime as a regional power — preferably the No. 1 power, like … the shah in the 1970s — then they may happily accept the United States as a long-term ally,” said Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist who heads the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran.

Representatives at the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.

To read more about Iranian-Americans’ opposition to the warmer ties between Iran and the United States, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.