USC professor Muhammad Sahimi knew he risked interrogation or arrest while visiting Iran because of his outspokenness about the need for political reform in his homeland.
But it wasn’t until this summer that he canceled his travel plans. He deemed a family trip to Iran too dangerous after his friend, Ali Shakeri, a mild-mannered businessman and peace activist from Lake Forest, was thrown in a Tehran prison.
“A lot of people are afraid to go to Iran,” he said, “because they say if a guy like Shakeri, who always advocated peace and negotiations, gets arrested, then who is safe?”
The plight of Shakeri has created a dilemma for politically active Iranian Americans: Do they lobby for change in Iran, knowing that their words could land them in prison if they visit their homeland? Or do they keep quiet and preserve their ability to go home again?
Shakeri, 59, a businessman whose pro-democracy writings about Iran circulate on the Web, has been jailed for more than four months in Tehran. He had been on his way back from visiting his mother, who died while he was there.
Shakeri’s case surprised the Iranian American community because he was seen as a moderate peace activist and a minor figure in Southern California. A board member for the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at UC Irvine, Shakeri garnered international attention when he became one of four dual Iranian American citizens detained in Iran this year. Two have since been released.
His family had been working quietly to free him until Friday, when his son, Kaveh Shakeri, broke the family’s silence and implored authorities to release his father.
“Shakeri really sent shock waves,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based civic group. “Unlike the others, he was not a known figure on the national level. If someone like that gets taken, it becomes much more blurry who’s a target and who’s not.”
That sentiment has rung especially true in Southern California, home to the world’s largest community of Iranian emigres. Most settled in Southern California after the fall of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979. Centered in West Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley and Orange County, they now number more than 500,000.
Like the Cuban exile community in South Florida and Vietnamese expatriates of Orange County’s Little Saigon, many Iranian Americans in the U.S. are staunch advocates of democratic reform in their homeland. But they have had little success against the authoritative governments.
That doesn’t stop some from trying to wield their influence from a distance, often through TV broadcasts, radio shows and online periodicals.
Ali Limonadi, producer and director of IRTV, a Persian-language international television station based in Studio City, said he had changed his e-mail address three times because of the nearly 1,500 virus-ridden e-mails a day he received. He said he believed those e-mails were generated by Iranian government agents.
Limonadi said he first spoke out in 1979 because he thought Islamic rule wouldn’t last long in Iran.
He came to the United States a month after the 1979 revolution and planned to stay for a year.
“I just didn’t think the revolution would take that long,” he said.
Others, however, have kept quiet about their political convictions, doing all they can to remain invisible to Tehran and preserve their ability to travel back and forth.
“Most of us in the U.S. don’t really like what’s going on in Iran, but whatever we say becomes a backlash against us,” said Moe, a Rancho Santa Margarita engineer and dual citizen of Iran and the U.S. who asked that his last name be withheld to avoid attracting the attention of Iranian officials.
He has vowed to not speak about politics, hoping it will guarantee that he is not harassed or detained when he visits his mother and sister in Tehran every other year.
“If my mother over there doesn’t do anything against the government, and I don’t raise my voice in public either, we have nothing to worry about,” he said.
Friends said Shakeri had no reason to be concerned either. They describe Shakeri as a political moderate who advocated nonviolent solutions, a stance that often earned him criticism for being a regime sympathizer.
“He got it on both sides,” said Hossein Hedjazi, who featured Shakeri a handful of times as a guest on Golgasht, a Persian-language political commentary radio show he hosts on KIRN-AM (670).
Mohammed Ali Dadkha, a Tehran human rights lawyer who said he had been contacted by Shakeri’s family and was asked to defend him, said he had not been able to meet with Shakeri to sign forms authorizing him as his lawyer and had no idea what accusations Shakeri faced.
According to Iranian law, he said, “Nobody can be detained for more than two months unless new accusations are raised against him.”
A spokesman for the Iranian Judicial Branch in Tehran who declined to give his name said Saturday that Shakeri’s case was still under investigation and that he could not publicize the accusations against him, because “He has not been proven to be a criminal yet.
“I do hope his dossier will be clarified in the near future, like other cases recently,” he added.
The Bush administration in May called for the release of Shakeri and the other three detainees, and the U.S. State Department has called the detainment of Shakeri and other dual nationals a “disturbing pattern” of harassment under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
This summer the agency issued a travel warning urging Iranian American citizens traveling to Iran to be cautious, but it has been difficult to gauge whether they have made fewer trips to Iran.
Those who have not been back to their homeland in decades -- and don’t plan to return under the current regime -- serve as the most vocal critics.
“What we have now is a new reign of terror, the goal being precisely ending this bridge between Iranian intellectuals and the diaspora community that was being created,” said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University.
Milani’s house on campus is filled with reminders of his homeland -- Persian paintings, books and carpets. He cooks rice and kebabs for his son and listens to the Persian rock group Kiosk.
And although he dreams of returning to see the country on which he is considered a national expert, he has not been back since 1987, knowing that he might be apprehended.
“I won’t buy that privilege at the price of self-censorship,” he said.
Mariam Khosravani, a community services commissioner for the city of Irvine, said she made a conscious decision to enter into civic affairs in Orange County at the expense of visits home to her extended family in Tehran.
She said images like the photo that hangs in Khosravani’s office in Fountain Valley -- her posing with former President Clinton at a campaign fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Clinton -- are precisely what many Iranian Americans are reluctant to be associated with.
“It’s a sad feeling that you know you cannot go back to your motherland,” she said. “It’s not like my name is on a blacklist, but it’s hard to take a chance going to a country where you can’t guarantee your safety.”
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.