The crowd gathered for a political fundraiser in Republican John Farahi’s Beverly Hills backyard one Sunday early this summer looked like it was there to play politics the American way -- talking policy and writing checks.
Most of the 250 guests squinting from the afternoon sun around Farahi’s rented poolside tent were accustomed to a different brand of politics in their native Iran, the politics of authoritarian shahs or mullahs who have historically greeted open debate with a lack of enthusiasm.
But even by traditional standards of American partisan politics, the fundraiser was freewheeling and potentially controversial.
The guest of honor in a pink pantsuit was hardly a darling of the Republican Party of which the host and his wife were committed supporters, especially given that the woman in pink once famously declared that her husband’s critics were part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Yet, there stood former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton collecting $50,000 for her 2006 reelection bid to the Senate, a Democrat quite literally in a Republican’s backyard.
“I can vote for [President Bush] but support [Hillary Clinton] from the other party, and no one can come and arrest me,” said Farahi, 46, owner of a financial services firm. Federal election records show that he gave $25,000 to the Republican National Committee earlier this year.
Such apparent contradictions may not be all that unusual among Iranian Americans this year. The 2004 presidential campaign is shaping up as a season of unprecedented interest and activism among half a million expatriate Iranians who have made Southern California their largest community outside Iran.
Many, even some long-naturalized citizens, say they are planning to vote for the first time. To Bush goes much of the credit -- and the blame.
It turns out that the polarized American electorate is mirrored among voters with Iranian roots.
Some of the strongest feelings on all sides of the Iranian American community can be traced to the 2002 State of the Union speech in which Bush declared Iran -- as well as Iraq and North Korea -- part of “an axis of evil” that threatens world peace.
For some Iranian expatriates, the president’s provocative rhetoric unleashed visions of regime change for Tehran.
“Iranians would never accept an invasion, but they would be willing to accept help to free themselves from the Islamic republic,” said Siavash Azari, host of a Farsi radio talk show broadcast from KRSI studios on Wilshire Boulevard.
Azari said he will make his first trip to an American voting booth in November “because Mr. Bush has promised to defend the Iranian people.”
Tuned in to Bush
At KRSI, in fact, the writing is all over the walls. A Bush-Cheney 2004 placard hangs in the reception room, and there’s another in the hallway. Bush-Cheney stickers are dispensed at the reception desk, next to voter registration forms. In the mornings, KRSI broadcasts Farsi news from Radio Israel, and talk show chatter echoes with familiar neo-conservative themes.
In some instances, hawkish pro-Bush sentiment among Iranian Americans has brought together traditional foes, including monarchists supporting a return of the Pahlavi royal family and sympathizers of their archenemies, the one-time Marxist Islamist group People’s Mojahedin.
Alireza Morovati, chief executive of KRSI, acknowledged the contradictions but shrugged and said: “We must speak in one voice.”
In other cases, strong anti-Bush sentiment has rearranged the political deck chairs. A Republican and founding member of the Iranian American Political Action Committee has jumped ship and joined the campaign of Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry.
‘We would be foolish’
Akbar Ghahary, a New Jersey manufacturing executive, said he was alarmed by Bush’s approach to Iraq and didn’t trust him to protect Iranian families if a military confrontation developed.
“Who do you think will get killed when [the U.S.] starts dropping bombs?” Ghahary asked.
Ghahary said he also was backing Kerry out of concern for parts of the Patriot Act pushed into law by the Bush administration after Sept. 11.
But he was most critical of talk about invading Iran. Any changes to the Tehran government must come from Iranian people, not American force, Ghahary said. He chided fellow expatriates who think a benevolent U.S. president will help exiled Iranians return home.
“We would be foolish to think that the American government would act in any interest but its own,” he said.
Such differences have made the community here an unlikely battlefield of local Iranian politics. Passions run high.
Hassan Nemazee, a New York investment banker and major donor to the Kerry campaign, has been labeled “a well-known agent of the Islamic Republic” in letters to public officials and in Web postings by a Texas-based Iranian group.
In response, Nemazee filed a $10-million defamation lawsuit against the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran.
As further evidence that issues concerning Iran may influence votes in the presidential race, Mohammad Reza Parsi expressed fond memories of the Clinton White House years but declared he will vote for Bush.
“Iran is our No. 1 concern,” said Parsi, 40, an immigration consultant. “And Bush so far, it appears, is the person who can make a difference in Iran.”
The president’s “axis of evil” State of the Union is a rallying cry for Firoozeh Mohtashemi, a 54-year-old Blue Cross employee who will cast her first vote in November. She said she sees Bush as the best hope for regime change in Tehran and supports that, even if it means a U.S. military invasion of her native country.
“If the blood of one innocent spills, I will grieve,” she said, but not for “the deaths of mullahs and those loyal to them. I just want them out.”
Unlike the influence of Cuban voters in Florida, Southern California’s Iranian American vote is unlikely to affect the outcome of polling in the country’s most populous state. Still, new voter interest runs high.
The backlash against immigrants after Sept. 11 has prompted the formation of national and local organizations determined to register Iranian American voters and get the community involved in the political process.
The Washington, D.C.-based National Iranian American Council was born in 2002 to lobby political leaders.
This year the nonpartisan agency launched a nationwide voter registration campaign. And the potential power and influence of campaign money is being channeled for the first time through the Iranian-American Political Action Committee established by Ghahary and others after Sept. 11.
In Los Angeles, the Iranian American Committee for Election 2004 was formed two months ago and uses Iranian bookstores to distribute about 5,000 voter registration forms around Southern California.
Posters saying, “Vote!” -- followed by an inscription in Farsi -- are displayed at the widely popular Westwood bookstore Ketab.
Alex Helmi, a landlord and owner of the Damoka carpet store across the street from Ketab, has donated office space on Westwood Boulevard for the committee’s campaign headquarters.
“We used to be guests,” Helmi said, speaking of America while seated at his desk below a carpet woven with a bald eagle clutching an American flag. “But this became our home.”
For some, like Westside store clerk Minoo Javid, 57, her right to vote in the U.S. is a bittersweet freedom.
“America is like the beautiful stepmother,” Javid said. “All I want is my own ugly mother back.”