Local Iranian-Americans respond to nuclear deal

After the announcement July 14 that the United States and other world powers had reached an agreement with Iran that calls for limits on Iran’s nuclear program, Los Angeles-area Iranian Americans of various faiths expressed pessimism at the outcome and disappointment with the negotiated deal.

Many local Iranian-Jewish activists said they have long opposed the Obama administration’s efforts to normalize relations with the Iranian regime, and they see the current nuclear agreement as strengthening Iran’s ability to spread hostility in the Middle East.

“This deal will legitimize a regime that is known to be deeply corrupt, is a world-leading state sponsor of terrorism, has been suppressing its own people and destabilizing its neighbors,” Sam Kermanian, an adviser to the Iranian American Jewish Federation, based in West Hollywood, said Tuesday. “It leaves the decision for developing nuclear arms entirely in the hands of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which will lead to [nuclear] proliferation, further instability and conflict.”

Southern California is home to approximately half a million Iranian Americans and nearly 45,000 Iranian Jews, the majority of whom fled or emigrated from Iran after the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution. 

Not all Iranian Americans opposed the negotiations at their start, according to Sam Yebri, an attorney and co-founder of 30 Years After, an organization created to engage a younger generation of Jewish Iranian Americans. “Most Iranian Americans welcomed these negotiations at the outset as providing a glimmer of hope that Iran was willing to change its ways as the West was prepared to use its leverage as robustly as possible. Those of us who understand or lived under the Islamic Republic of Iran, we sensed an opportunity, an opening for change,” he said. Yet, “This deal closed the door on any opportunity to transform Iran for the better.”

Yebri added, “The only beneficiaries of this deal will be Iran and its allies Hezbollah and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and the Russians.”

Many Iranian-Jewish leaders in Los Angeles have long been hesitant to criticize the current Iranian regime for fear of reprisals by the Iranian regime against the nearly 10,000 Jews still living in Iran. Nevertheless, some activists in the local Iranian Jewish community have been very vocal in their efforts to educate Americans about the dangerous nature of the Iranian regime. Some of those expressed concern that the community had not advocated strongly enough against any deal with the Iranians.

“I, for one, blame us, as the Persian-Jewish community, for not being more vocal about these issues of Iran,” Simon Etehad, an Iranian-Jewish attorney and L.A.-area activist, said Tuesday. “We know the politics and goals of the Iranian regime, yet we put our heads in the sand and pretend that everything is fine and dandy — well, it is far from that.”

Frank Nikbakht, a leader of the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said the current Iran nuclear deal will embolden the Iranian regime through newfound economic relief in the lifting of sanctions, despite the regime’s heinous human-rights record against the people of Iran.

“Internally, with all the inequalities and atrocities remaining in place, this agreement enhances the regime’s legitimacy, wealth and dictatorial power over a people who will have to deal with an imminent inflationary economy, a higher degree of ruling-class arrogance and a financial corruption surpassing even today’s incredible levels,” Nikbakht said.

David Nahai, an Iranian-American Jewish community member and former L.A. Department of Water and Power chief, said, “If there ever was a deal in history that required robust scrutiny because of the unimaginable consequences of getting things wrong, it is this one. For that reason, I commend the president for seeking congressional approval of this deal … because we can be looking at 100 pages of snakes in the grass here, and we owe it to posterity to have a thorough examination of all the repercussions that are being proposed.

“Having said that,” Nahai added, “I do believe there is a time in every deal where even though one has not attained perfection, one has brought things to a sufficient level to … go forward.” 

Among those criticizing the deal were many non-Jewish, Iranian-American political activists, some citing the negotiators’ failure to use this agreement to help the average people inside Iran who oppose the current regime.

“And what happened to human rights in all of this?” Roxana Ganji, an L.A.-area, non-Jewish Iranian political activist. “I was born supposedly as a Shiite Muslim, and as far as I know, this regime has no mercy for any religious groups. Muslims are arrested, tortured, hung and stoned. Baha’is are banned from school or practicing their religion, and they are also imprisoned. Jewish people and Armenians are arrested; this regime has no respect for anyone’s rights but their own!”

Local Iranian Americans pointed to the gradual removal of sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which primarily advances the regime’s terrorist activists in the Middle East, as the most egregious element of the agreement. 

“As we know, if many of the IRGC companies and high-ranking members who are under sanctions now get relief from the sanctions, then who will be responsible for the IRGC’s future crimes against humanity?” said Roozbeh Farahanipour, an L.A.-based Iranian activist who heads the Marze Por Gohar Iranian opposition party. “What will be the world’s response to the IRGC’s first international terrorist action after sanction relief?”

Farahanipour also pointed to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s statement after the nuclear agreement as evidence of its ties to terrorism: “Today, Rouhani congratulated not only the Iranian people, but also the people of Gaza, Lebanon, the West Bank, Jordan and Palestinians in the Quds (Jerusalem) on his nuclear deal announcement, which only proves that the regime has intentions to spread its terrorism to other areas of the Middle East now that the sanctions will be removed,” Farahanipour said.

Other local Iranian-Jewish activists familiar with the radical anti-Semitic nature of the Iranian regime charged that the new nuclear agreement will embolden the regime’s hostilities toward Israel through its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as encourage the Iranian regime to advance terrorism elsewhere.

“What is clear to me as someone who was born and raised in Iran, and has observed its political evolution, is that an agreement with a regime whose intention is hegemony of the region, destruction of the homeland for Jewish people and support for radical Islamic groups is a grave mistake,” said George Haroonian, an L.A. Iranian-Jewish activist and board member of the Iranian Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. “I expect a steep rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli hysteria.”

Representatives at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.

Jewish Journal staff writer Ryan Torok contributed to this report.

Iranian Americans celebrate Nowruz at California State Assembly

More than 50 Iranian-American community leaders, businessmen and artists of various faiths from across California gathered March 16 at the State Assembly in Sacramento to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year. 

The festivities were part of an Assembly resolution that was passed unanimously honoring Iranian Americans in California. It was introduced by Assembly member Adrin Nazarian (D-Van Nuys), the first Iranian-born member of the Assembly. 

“It was very important to shed the light on the different residents of California that have gone through difficult circumstances as new immigrants and contributed so much to our city and state,” Nazarian said. “The Iranian community is one of those special communities, and honoring Nowruz, which is celebrated by people of all faiths, was the best way to acknowledge them.”

Nowruz is an ancient Persian secular holiday celebrated by Iranians of all faiths worldwide. It marks the beginning of spring, carrying a message of peace, brotherhood and renewal. This year, it fell on March 21.

Nazarian first began the Assembly’s tradition of recognizing Nowruz last year, as California is home to nearly 1 million Iranians, one of the largest populations outside of Iran. This year, Iranian Americans flocked to the state capital to be a part of the special celebrations. 

“Nowruz is one of those rare holidays which brings Jews, Christians, Muslims and every religion together in harmony — so, for Iranians in California, it is a huge honor for us to get recognized by the state government for our contributions and this holiday,” said Joe Shooshani, an Iranian -Jewish planning commissioner for the city of Beverly Hills.

Los Angeles City Council also officially honored local Iranian Americans by acknowledging Nowruz in the council’s chambers on March 20. And more than 2,500 Iranian Americans gathered at Grand Park in Downtown L.A. the next day to celebrate. 

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.