Conflict Disrupts Voting by Southland Expatriates

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Forget hanging chads. Throwaway cameras were the focus of dispute at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica, which for a few hours Friday doubled as a polling station for expatriate Iranians hoping to cast absentee ballots for their homeland's next president.

A conflict erupted after an opponent of the Islamic Republic wandered into the polling area, produced a cardboard camera, and began taking pictures in the direction of voters and election volunteers--apparently to intimidate them. A poll watcher quickly produced his own camera.

Silently, standing nose to nose, the protester and poll watcher aimed their cameras at each other, while election workers converged on another protester. They did not touch him but tried to pressure him into leaving the room, prompting the man to shout, "Ghatelha!"--Persian for "killers."

Friday brought to a head the cat-and-mouse game between opponents and supporters of the Islamic Republic living in Southern California. For days, the volunteers had tried, with the blessing of the Iranian government, to set up voting sites and publicize them by Internet and a toll-free number, only to have protesters pressure those venues--mostly hotels--into shutting the polling places down.

The scene was repeated to some extent in other Iranian expatriate enclaves worldwide. In Canada, for example, 12 polling stations were shut down early Friday.

As word spread this week in Southern California that some hotels would not allow balloting, organizers scrambled to find new locations.

"As late as 10:30 [Thursday night], we were still searching for a hotel that would allow us to set up," said a poll volunteer at the Marriott hotel in Irvine, who would give only his first name, Mustafa. "Even now, we are feeling that our safety may be at risk."

The hotel was concerned as well and stationed a security guard outside the suite that served as a polling station.

Confusion was considerable. Early Friday, eight absentee voting sites in Los Angeles and Orange County were listed on Iran's election Web site, but none actually opened. Instead, four alternatives were finally announced late Friday morning: Besides the Loews and the Marriott, there were the Country Suites by Ayres in Ontario and the Hyatt Regency in La Jolla.

Loews was the first site to be shut down by protests Friday. In addition to the camera duel, half a dozen protesters carried signs and waved Iranian flags--from before the Islamic Revolution--outside the hotel.

One protester claimed that he was struck by an Islamic Republic supporter, while his photo-snapping colleague, Mohammed Heravi, collapsed on the sidewalk, cardboard camera still firmly locked in one hand as medics and police tended to him. Supporters later said Heravi suffered an emotional breakdown.

Inside the hotel, an apologetic and weary-looking manager sat down with an election volunteer to explain that the polling station had to go. "It has nothing to do with politics," catering director Dave Romano said. "It's a concern for our guests."

Like Loews, venues that canceled did so mostly after receiving complaints from Iranian American clients threatening to boycott the businesses or insisting to managers that they technically were becoming involved with a country that has no diplomatic relations with the United States.

In contrast, at the Irvine Marriott, absentee voting proceeded at a much more orderly pace, with more than 300 expatriates casting ballots by late afternoon, organizers said. Dozens had first gone to the Hilton in Irvine, previously publicized as a polling site, only to be told that they were in the wrong place.

"I had been checking the Web site, and the hotel had changed two times," said Kambiz Rahnavardy, 32, of Newport Beach. "I had the perseverance, but I would imagine there are others who, facing that, probably wouldn't vote. But I think it's very important to vote, even living abroad."

Other voters agreed that it was worth the frustration. It was important, they said, to give incumbent President Mohammad Khatami a chance to implement reforms he promised during his first term.

One voter who first went to the New Otani Hotel in downtown Los Angeles on Friday morning, where a scheduled polling station was canceled, arrived at Loews just as the volunteers were packing up the cardboard ballot box.

"I'm frustrated," said the voter, Amir, 22, a Cal State Northridge student. "I voted in Iran four years ago. And I'll find someplace to do so today."

Ashkan Yekrangi, 17, of Rancho Santa Margarita drove to Irvine to vote despite his mother's worries. "She was concerned that I'd face protests and egg-throwing and maybe violence," said Ashkan, who, under Iranian law, has been an eligible voter for one year.

He said casting a ballot Friday meant that he was "playing a role in Iran's slow but steady path to democracy."

But not everyone who showed up cast a ballot. "I don't believe anybody I voted for would get elected," said Melahat Afshar, 36, of Irvine. "And now I am living here. I cannot choose for the people who are living there. They have the hard life. They know what they want better than I do."

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