TOPICS > Politics

Protests Stir Mixed Emotions for Iranian-Americans

June 22, 2009 at 6:05 PM EDT
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As demonstrators in Tehran continued to rally against the results of this month's disputed presidential election, Iranian-Americans reacted to the news. NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Kaye reports.

JIM LEHRER: In Washington, administration officials voiced fresh concern about the violence against protestors. President Obama did not address the issue publicly today, but a White House spokesman said, “He has been moved┬áby what we’ve seen on television.”

Our lead story coverage continues now with special correspondent Jeffrey Kaye reporting on how Iranian-Americans are reacting.

JEFFREY KAYE, NewsHour correspondent: From the streets of the nation’s capital to the home of the largest Iranian-American community in the U.S., what began as a series of daily demonstrations by Iranian expatriates against alleged election fraud has turned into protests against the regime in Iran.

Yesterday, hundreds gathered outside the Federal Building in West Los Angeles in a noisy show aimed at changing Iran’s present system of government.

So you want a democracy?

PROTESTOR: Democracy, yes, of course. Every person has a right to that.

JEFFREY KAYE: This man, like many protestors, refused to give his last name, afraid that family members in Iran could be targeted in retaliation.

Although estimates vary, community leaders say there are as many as 1 million Iranians living in the United States. Most left Iran around 1979 when Islamic revolutionaries toppled the U.S.-backed Shah. The majority of Iranian expatriates live here in California.

Iranians are particularly concentrated in the Westwood section of L.A., which is sometimes referred to as Tehrangeles. Bookstores and other businesses catering to expatriate tastes serve a population that has maintained close ties to Iran.

At the Attari Sandwich Shop, co-owner Ayla Sadoghiani says the situation in Iran is a constant worry for her customers.

AYLA SADOGHIANI, shop owner: I think it’s a consuming interest. I was actually personally very, very — not surprised, but I can’t even put into words, like, how many people have responded.

Iranian-American media reports

JEFFREY KAYE: The protests here also reflect an engaged and active Iranian-American news media. They not only cover the news, they make it.

At Channel One TV, an L.A.-based news service that caters to audiences in Iran and in the Persian diaspora, employees and volunteers monitor news sources and the Internet to present news 24 hours a day.

Callers phone in from Iran and around the world to provide and exchange information. The station can be seen intermittently in Iran. Its satellite broadcast has been blocked for the most part, but it can be seen on the Internet.

Anchor Maryam Arian says Iranians are desperate to find out what's going on.

MARYAM ARIAN, Channel One TV: The BBC, the CNN, you know that they are forbidden to give a report out of Iran. And it's so difficult to get the news.

JEFFREY KAYE: Channel One has helped organize demonstrations in Iran by spreading the word about planned actions.

MARYAM ARIAN: They say, are we going to do a hunger...

JEFFREY KAYE: A hunger strike?

MARYAM ARIAN: A hunger strike.

JEFFREY KAYE: A key to the station's Iranian coverage are the pictures it receives over the Internet. Many of the shots are taken with hidden cameras the station has distributed.

ASSAL PAHLAVAN, Channel One TV: And you know what? This pen is a camera. It's a camera pen, yes. And you know just a regular pen?

JEFFREY KAYE: Yes. How many of these did you distribute?

ASSAL PAHLAVAN: Ten thousand.

JEFFREY KAYE: Ten thousand?

Promoting demonstrations elsewhere

JEFFREY KAYE: Programmer Assal Pahlavan says members of a citizen movement in Iran supported by the station are sending pictures and video of demonstrations. Although she is not completely certain, Pahlavan says it may have been a pen video that recorded the death of the woman reportedly shot as she observed protests.

Pahlavan, an electrical engineer by training, is also part of the station's efforts to promote protests in Los Angeles. Channel One publicizes the demonstrations, videotapes them, and provides the sound equipment.

While some in this crowd advocate a new election or a recount in Iran, others, like Pahlavan, have little interest in seeing the opposition candidate take office.

Are you supporting Mousavi?

ASSAL PAHLAVAN: No. You know, Mousavi is a reason. They found a reason to raise their voice, because now nobody talks about Mousavi right now. You can see the demonstrations is not Mousavi anymore. It's global.

JEFFREY KAYE: But some Iranians are warning the actions of demonstrators may backfire. Los Angeles lawyer Amir Pasha Shafaie says the use by protestors of the old Iranian flag, one favored by the Shah, sends the wrong message.

AMIR PASHA SHAFAIE: I don't want to say that Iranian-Americans aren't allowed to say what they want. You know, solidarity is an important thing.

JEFFREY KAYE: So you're thinking the regime might use these pictures?

AMIR PASHA SHAFAIE: I think it's possible.

JEFFREY KAYE: In what way? And what would be the message if they did use these pictures?

AMIR PASHA SHAFAIE: Well, I think incorrectly they would maybe try to say that the groups that are involved here are one in the same with the groups that are actually in the streets.

AHMAD KARIMI-HAKKAK, University of Maryland: All demonstrations outside Iran are being attributed to the Great Satan, to foreign powers, England, America, BBC, the Voice of America, and so on and so forth, so...

Blaming foreign powers

JEFFREY KAYE: That worry is becoming reality, says Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, the founder of the Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland.

AHMAD KARIMI-HAKKAK: It might open the possibility for the state to say, "Yes, you see, all these people are mercenaries and lackeys of the foreigners, especially America, the Great Satan, and they may revert back to their rhetoric of early revolution, which Khomeini articulated as the relationship between America and Iran is the relationship between the wolf and lamb.

JEFFREY KAYE: He maintains constant contact with many of his own students who are spending time in Tehran this year where the environment is growing increasingly fearful.

AHMAD KARIMI-HAKKAK: In his first e-mail, he gave me his name and sent the first e-mail under his own name. But then he concocted a name and called me, "Dear Professor," not using my name, and then asking to remain anonymous.

JEFFREY KAYE: Karimi-Hakkak was expelled from Iran 30 years ago, part of a purge of academia. Nevertheless, he voted in the recent election by going to the Iranian interests section in Washington.

AHMAD KARIMI-HAKKAK: In the space of my driving from the interests section to the University of Maryland, my colleagues at the University of Maryland tell me that the first results were in. And our votes -- the voting had not even ended at that time, so it was a tremendous blow to their intelligence to say, in effect, that these votes did not matter.

PROTESTORS: Where's my vote? Where's my vote?

BABAK TALEBI: They have specific demands that we are in turn demanding on behalf of them from the world.

JEFFREY KAYE: Babak Talebi has been organizing near daily protests outside of Iran's interests section in the nation's capital.

BABAK TALEBI: People of Iran are not asking for a revolution. People who are comparing it to '79 are totally mistaken in their comparisons. What the people want is direct reform of the system. So that's where they are. That's where 85 percent of the public was.

JEFFREY KAYE: Back in Los Angeles, protest organizers vow to continue daily demonstrations until they see change in Iran.