September 24, 2018

Westwood stores promote Iran; activists call foul

After being alerted by local Iranian-American activists, the Westwood Neighborhood Council on Sept. 10 passed a motion calling on the Los Angeles City Council to remove signs written in Farsi that have been displayed inside some stores advertising consular services for the Iranian government, as well as assistance for travel to Iran and for trade with companies inside Iran. 

“The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and there is no Iranian Embassy in the U.S., so we are surprised there are stores and businesses in Westwood with Farsi signs advertising that they are involved with consular services for the Iranian government in Los Angeles,” Roozbeh Farahanipour, an Iranian political activist and member of the Westwood Neighborhood Council, told the Journal.

Farahanipour, who owns a Westwood restaurant and is head of the L.A.-based Iranian opposition party Marze Por Gohar, said that about three months ago, he and other Iranians began to notice what has grown to as many as a dozen Farsi-language signs in stores along Westwood Boulevard advertising Iranian government consular affairs, shipping services for both commercial and personal goods to and from Iran, as well as travel agencies promoting Iran Air, the Iranian regime’s official airline. 

According to the U.S. State Department and Treasury Department websites, it is illegal to conduct business with entities in Iran, the Iranian government and business entities connected to the Iranian regime. Further, the 2010 federal Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Accountability and Divestment Act ratcheted up sanctions on the Iranian regime by prohibiting U.S. companies from interacting with certain international companies that do business with the Iranian regime. Moreover, the U.S. Treasury Department’s 2011 terrorist lists name Iran Air as a sponsor of terrorism and prohibit doing business with the airline. 

The U.S. does not have any diplomatic relations with the Iranian regime, and there is no Iranian Embassy in the U.S., however the regime currently maintains an office inside the Pakistani embassy in Washington, D.C., that helps process certain government forms, including passports and visas for individuals seeking to travel to Iran.

The news of the content of the signs was met with surprise locally. “The homeowners and residents have been walking by these Farsi signs for months, which they can’t read and were totally unaware that while the English signs are advertising wedding photography or other clerical services, the Farsi advertising is saying something totally different and possibly illegal,” said Sandy Brown, a homeowner member of the Westwood Neighborhood Council and president of the Holmby-Westwood Property Owners Association. “If you’re talking about an Iranian consulate, it makes residents concerned about what these people are doing with the Iranian government.”

The Westwood Neighborhood Council’s motion has called upon L.A. City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who represents the area, to call for the removal of the signs. Brown said the council’s motion, along with English translations of the Farsi signs, also were forwarded to the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Koretz’s office released a statement to the Journal regarding the Farsi sign controversy, stating, “We have received the motion from the Westwood Neighborhood Council, and are following up with the LAPD and state and federal agencies regarding the alleged violations.”

 This reporter found that as of Sept. 11, three stores along Westwood Boulevard still had Farsi signs offering “consular services related to the Iranian Embassy in Washington D.C.,” as well as help in obtaining “Iranian national identification paperwork, Iranian passport and consular affairs and legal services in Iran.” The Journal’s investigation found as many as five travel agencies along Westwood Boulevard displaying Farsi signs offering help with travel services to Iran, and one agency had posted the Iran Air logo in its display window. In addition, two stores with Farsi advertising offered direct shipping services of goods from the U.S. to Iran. 

The storeowners with these Farsi signs declined to speak with the Journal regarding the scope of their work.

Activists against the Iranian regime said that in past years they have noticed an increase in activity from individuals and Iranian organizations attempting to promote illegal trade with Iran. Specifically, they pointed to an advertisement that ran in the L.A.-based Farsi-language newspaper Asre Emrooz during the month of February promoting an “Iranian Chamber of Commerce in America,” based in Maryland. The ad encouraged Iranian-Americans to invest in various companies and industries inside Iran with the help of a new trade organization.

Some Iranians discounted the concerns about the legality of these signs, suggesting the businesses are simply operating as independent middlemen for people seeking to get their paperwork processed by the Iranian office within the Pakistani Embassy.

“I honestly don’t believe there is anything illegal going on in these businesses that are advertising consular services,” said one store patron, who asked that his name be withheld for fear that the Iranian regime may retaliate against his family in Iran for his speaking to a Jewish publication. “These people are only taking a small fee for helping older or unfamiliar Iranians with preparing their paperwork in order to get back to Iran for a visit or to settle family matters.”

Still, Iranian-Jewish activists, in particular, said the Farsi-language signs are cause for security concern for local Iranian religious minorities and individuals who openly oppose the Iranian regime.

“In the past, any normalization and acceptance of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s (IRI) presence and, in particular, their political representatives or agents, had quickly resulted in intimidation of the political and religious refugees,” said Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist who heads the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran. 

“Anti-Semitism propagated by certain elements associated with the IRI during the years before 9/11, including open anti-Semitic talk and propaganda, contributed to shootings and beatings of Jewish youth in several 2002 incidents here in Los Angeles,” he said.

Nikbakht said the regime has used its diplomatic immunity in European and South American countries to carry out several assassinations of their political opponents, as well as conduct terrorist activities against Jews, including the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish community center, which is believed to have been orchestrated by the Iranian government. 

Likewise, he said, the Iranian regime used its diplomatic immunity to fund Farsi-language publications of such overtly anti-Semitic works as the infamous 19th-century “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as well as to fund Holocaust deniers in the West.

Leaders from several local Jewish organizations alerted to the illegal Farsi-language signs praised the Iranian-American activists and the neighborhood council members for speaking out about the content of the signs.

“First, it shows a degree of vigilance and diligence by local activists to ensure existing sanctions against the Iranian regime are not circumvented with impunity,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “We owe a debt of gratitude to the local activists for their initiative. Secondly, their activism marks another stage of the maturing of Iranian-American activism, using the powers guaranteed by our Constitution to use the law to fight the ‘mullah-tocracy’ in their homeland.”

Leaders of 30 Years After, the Los Angeles-based Iranian-Jewish activist group, expressed concern that the businesses in Westwood were potentially breaking U.S. federal laws limiting relations with Iran.

“Any attempt to flout our nation’s economic sanctions toward Iran is a cause for concern,” said Sam Yebri, president of 30 Years After. “That Iranian businesses are doing it in the heart of Westwood is deeply troubling and must be investigated.”  Officials at the Los Angeles FBI offices and LAPD’s Major Crimes Division did not return calls for comment. Representatives at the Iranian Permanent Mission to the United Nations also did not return calls for comment.