A debate for the ages

Several months ago, Pouneh, a 24-year-old Iranian American college student, announced to her father that she would be voting for opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi in the Iranian presidential election. After Mousavi lost, she joined thousands of demonstrators in Westwood calling the results a fraud.

Avesta, her 70-year-old father, shakes his head over what he sees as his daughter's youthful naivete. The retired medical researcher, who left Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, felt that voting would be an act of futility and a show of support for the current government, which neither he nor his daughter support.

"It's a general thing for people my age, that they did not and they do not accept the regime of the mullahs," he said. "She thought that there's no alternative at the moment, and that's not something that I think is a good judgment."

Pouneh said her vote made a statement that Mousavi was at least somewhat better than the hard-line incumbent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Their political debates are typical of a generational divide among many Iranian American families. The 20-somethings are hopeful that change in Iran is possible through the ballot box. Their parents, on the other hand, say previous elections left them cynical about the voting process. And they know all too well how the political optimism of their youth has soured over time.

Avesta mumbled a few words in Persian when the face of an Iranian cleric flashed on CNN. "He's just cussing at the TV," Pouneh said.

Later, when an image of clerics sitting around a room appeared, Avesta expressed his displeasure in English: "Look at these fossils."

Pouneh rolled her eyes toward her father.

"See, I can sit here and not say anything," she said, "but other people can't."

Pouneh and her father asked that their last name not be published because they have relatives in Iran and Pouneh plans to visit there.

Pouneh has helped organize a series of demonstrations in Los Angeles over the last three weeks, donning a black face mask to protect her identity in the wake of government crackdowns in Iran.

Her mother worries about her safety. Her father doesn't mind the concept of protesting against Iran's government, a system in which clerics, not elected officials, have final authority. But he believes the recent demonstrations are too pro-Mousavi and not sufficiently anti-regime.

"They just rally around him and he's just one of those criminals, he's no better than the other one," Avesta said.

Masoud Kazemzadeh, a professor of Middle East politics at Sam Houston State University in Texas, said Avesta's views are shared by many Revolution-era expatriates. Many initially welcomed the ouster of a repressive monarch, but became disillusioned when the new regime arrested opposition leaders, shut down newspapers, forced women to cover up and prevented critics from running in elections.

"The older generation tended to view the whole thing as fake, as pseudo elections" that render their votes meaningless, Kazemzadeh said.

Hossein Hedjazi, a well-known Persian radio and TV host in Los Angeles, hasn't voted in an Iranian election since 1979. He said he regrets having flown back to Iran to cast his vote. After three decades he is still angry that he supported then-supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was encouraging people to support the new Islamic Republic.

"He was saying that 'I'm bringing democracy, I'm bringing freedom, there won't be any military anymore, we're going to help the poor people,' " Hedjazi recalled. "I thought we are going to have a heaven now."

But the direction the country ultimately took was not what he expected.

"This younger generation hasn't been through what" their parents have, said Kazemzadeh. Young people are "much more likely when they hear someone say 'I'm going to make things better' to go out and vote for them."

Although Mousavi was part of the revolution that established an Islamic theocracy and served as Iran's prime minister from 1981 to 1989, he said in recent TV appearances that he was worried about the direction Ahmadinejad was taking the country.

Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC, marveled at the activism of some of his Iranian graduate students. On the eve of the election, the students organized a panel discussion about the vote.

"It was unprecedented, the level of enthusiasm and energy that I saw among Iranian graduates," he said. "They went and voted en masse."

For Pouneh, it wasn't just the promise of greater freedoms and women's rights that persuaded her to support Mousavi, but also that so many mobilized to vote, in effect creating their own people's movement. Her father says he made the same statement by not voting and shunning the government.

On a recent Tuesday, Pouneh sat with her father in the living room watching parts of President Obama's news conference. She was dressed in jeans, a black hoodie and a colorful OBEY T-shirt that read, "Helping Other People Everywhere HOPE."

Avesta took issue when Obama said that the United States would not get involved and that the Iranians were having a "debate."

"Is killing people a debate?" he asked.

"See, that's one of the things that we disagree on; I don't think the West should be involved in Iran," Pouneh said.

"Not involved," her father countered, "engaged."




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