Across California, Iranian Americans are shocked, alarmed or relieved at the killing of Qassem Suleimani
Farid Khanlou rearranged a basket of Persian cucumbers in his market in the heart of Tehrangeles on Friday morning as he reflected on the assassination of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, one of Iran’s highest-ranking officials.
He’d first heard the news at Jordan Market, on Westwood Boulevard, where customers whispered Suleimani’s name, saying he’d been killed, while wandering the aisles late Thursday. Was it the U.S., they wondered?
When Khanlou, 63, got home that night, he flipped on the TV and tuned in to the BBC. By then, the Pentagon had taken credit for the attack. He rushed to tell his mother-in-law, in town visiting from Europe.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” he told her. But she’d already heard — and was relieved.
As word spread of Suleimani’s killing in Iraq by U.S. military drones, in a strike ordered by President Trump, few parts of the U.S. were more affected than California, home to the largest population of Iranians outside Iran. Many in the diaspora found themselves in a familiar position on Friday, straddling two worlds — at once concerned with how a sudden dramatic rise in Middle East tensions might further destabilize the region and affect friends and family in Iran, and afraid of being targeted at home should violence escalate and harm American citizens.
Across the state, Iranian Americans said they were variously shocked, alarmed or relieved that the man seen as a cultural icon in Iran, and the mastermind behind the Islamic Republic’s military operations throughout the region, is gone. Some members of a community that has grown accustomed to the four-decade geopolitical chess match of Iran-U.S. relations are wondering what will follow, as Tehran quickly vowed “harsh retaliation” for the attack and the White House urged U.S. citizens to leave Iraq immediately.
Despite these uncertainties, Khanlou has no doubts about the character of the feared man who formerly led Iran’s elite Quds Force.
“That guy was a monster,” Khanlou said. “He killed a million people.”
Khanlou said he doubts that the Iranian government will retaliate for the killing, but he can’t help but worry about friends and relatives living in Iran. He hates the idea of more violence afflicting his beloved Tehran, which he fled during the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s.
“This country has been good to us,” he said of the U.S. He sighed and looked at the ground. “But where are our roots? Iran, always Iran.”
In the 40-plus years since the Islamic Revolution began, Iran and the West have clashed repeatedly: over the 1979 student seizure of the U.S. Embassy and the subsequent hostage crisis, over the 1980s Iran-Iraq war,over the 1989 fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, and more recently over Iran’s role in the Syrian civil war, its support for militant groups such as Hezbollah, and its ambition to develop nuclear weapons.
Suleimani’s death felt “very different” from those previous flare-ups because of the important role the general played within the Iranian regime and throughout the region, said Narges Bajoghli, author of “Iran Reframed,” a book based on 10 years of field research with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“He was personally very close to [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei and played a significant leadership role in the IRGC,” she said.
In Iran, she added, Suleimani was seen as one of the main reasons that the enemy Islamic State had been kept at bay.
“Even among folks that really dislike the Islamic Republic, Hajj Qassem, as they call him, everyone talked about him in a respectful way,” she said.
Bajoghli said that given how Iran has reacted in the past, she doesn’t believe that the U.S. will attack the country within its own borders. The alternative, she said, is continued proxy warfare within the region. But any such military actions will ripple back to the diaspora, she believes.
“I think whether it’s deliberate or not, it’s going to have an effect on the community,” she said, “because as we’ve seen from 1979 and the hostage crisis, we didn’t see specific policy against Iranians in U.S., but the atmosphere created made it difficult to live here at the time.”
One of those feeling anxious in the attack’s aftermath was Persis Karim, who was at dinner with friends from college when a text message popped up on her cellphone telling her that Suleimani had been killed.
“I immediately just thought, this is so terrible,” said Karim, director of the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University. “You can be critical and have feelings of disdain for a regime that murders its own people, and still believe that war is not going to be any kind of solution.”
Still, she said, it’s hard not to worry.
“I think Iranian Americans don’t see themselves as one or the other — they see it as, ‘These are both my homes, these are both my nations.’”
Porochista Khakpour, an author and essayist, said she was more worried for Iranians in the Islamic Republic than for Iranian Americans like her in the U.S. Her native country, she said, “has been reviled my whole life.”
“On the one hand, as an American or New Yorker I feel safe,” said Khakpour, 41, who moved to the U.S. as a child. “On the other hand, as an Iranian, this clearly doesn’t do anything for the profile of Iranians abroad or anywhere.”
Among Los Angeles’ Iranian Jewish community, many responded positively to Suleimani’s assassination. Some who were doing their pre-Shabbat shopping in Pico-Robertson described Suleimani as an enemy of Israel, which has been locked with Iran and Saudi Arabia in a struggle for regional dominance.
An Iranian Realtor carrying bags of Shabbat groceries said the U.S. needed to take action after pro-Iranian militias attacked the U.S. Embassy in Iraq earlier this week — the event that apparently triggered Thursday’s military response.
“The concern is about effects that will happen around the region, but I don’t think the U.S. could [just] stand there,” said the man, who fled Iran with his family during the Islamic Revolution and did not want to be identified. “I think Trump needed to make a stand in some way.”
Tabby Refael, an Iranian refugee and a prominent voice in L.A.'s Persian Jewish community, said “the first ones to breathe a sigh of relief were the Persian Jews, because Suleimani was not only an enemy of the Iranian people, he was an enemy of the Jewish people.”
She and others in the Persian Jewish community said their most immediate concern was for family in Israel rather than about any direct retaliation against the U.S.
“In a vacuum, objectively, his death is a welcome development,” said Sam Yebri, president and co-founder of 30 Years After, an Iranian American Jewish civic organization in Los Angeles. “With that said, most Iranian Americans, including myself and my family, are fearful of the repercussions. This is a really dire situation if it escalates.”
At a computer repair shop in Westwood, Koorosh Adhami juggled phone calls from customers and questions from reporters arriving at the shop.
Adhami, 36, said he’d learned about Suleimani’s killing while scrolling through Facebook on Thursday night. In that moment, he said, a deep feeling of hope settled over him. Maybe this was a turning point, he thought. Maybe, he told himself, he was witnessing the early signs of the toppling of a regime he views as corrupt and beyond redemption.
“I’m against the government,” he said. “Anything that can bring the government down — anything — I’m for.”
Adhami said his heart breaks when he thinks of his country — of the people still living there, of their fear, of the high unemployment rates.
“They’ve suffered enough,” he said, shaking his head. More than anything, he said, he dreams of one day returning safely to his country, which he left when he was 17. He’s never been back.
“I want to freely walk into my country,” he said. “I don’t have that now.”
Times staff writer Leila Miller contributed to this report.
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