Iranian opposition movement overshadows plight of detained hikers

With street protests raging in Iran, political activism is on the rise among Los Angeles’ already vocal Iranian American community. Flag-waving demonstrators clad in the opposition movement’s signature green have been a common sight outside the Federal Building in Westwood, and Iranian-language media is abuzz with debate.

But when it comes to the three young American hikers being held in Iran on espionage charges the community has been decidedly silent. No large demonstrations, little conversation, virtually no push for action.

“If you ask 10 [Iranian Americans], seven of them don’t even know about the hikers,” said Siamak Kalhor, a popular host on the local Iranian-language radio station, KIRN-AM (670).

The lull at a time of heightened activism has surprised some -- but community leaders say the near silence is happening because of the green movement, not despite it. With their countrymen being injured and killed in clashes with government police in Iran, many in the community say they face more pressing challenges than the detention of three young travelers who many expect will be released unharmed.

“Everybody is so concerned with what’s happening in Iran right now because the hard-liners are going to execute a lot of people. Other issues, unfortunately, are just not as important,” said Bijan Khalili, owner of the Ketab Persian Bookstore in Westwood and a regular demonstration organizer. “These three Americans are not going be executed. Nobody is going to harm them.”

Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Joshua Fattal, 27, were arrested by Iranian authorities in late July on a hiking trip in northern Iraq near Iran’s border.

The three UC Berkeley graduates apparently strayed beyond the waterfall of Ahmed Awa and into Iran through an unmarked border.

Before long, they were surrounded by armed men and taken into custody.

A fourth companion, who stayed at the hotel that day because he was sick, said the hikers were unaware they were so close to the Iranian border.

The arrests have been condemned by the Obama administration and the State Department. But relations between the nations are already strained over Iran’s nuclear program and government crackdowns on protesters after the disputed June presidential election.

Kalhor says he understands why the hikers’ cause might be overshadowed during a time of such tumult. Still, he says the wrong message is being sent to Americans outside the community, a detriment to potential coalition building.

“We should care. We’re American here. We should care that American citizens are in custody in Iran,” Kalhor said. “But we don’t.”

Many believe the disconnect is caused, at least in part, by the fact that the hikers are not Iranian Americans themselves. In such a tight-knit community, they say, that commonality can make all the difference.

“When it is Iranian Americans, they are galvanized,” said Jimmy Delshad, the vice mayor of Beverly Hills and a prominent member of the community. “When they are not, it becomes like any other American getting stuck in any country.”