Iranian-Americans’ California dreaming

About 750,000 Iranians residing in West Coast state hold divergent views on their native country’s place in the US vote.

Iranian-American protesters
Iranian-Americans protest against the Iranian government in June 2009 in Los Angeles, California [GALLO/GETTY]

Los Angeles – Being on the sharp end of US foreign policy is nothing new for Iranians. More than 30 years of sanctions and the recurring spectre of war have cast a heavy shadow over relations between the two countries.

Nearly 1.5 million Iranians have made the United States home, seeking their slice of the American Dream.

Iran, its controversial nuclear programme, its suspected hand in the Syrian conflict , and its role in regional security are hot topics this US election, figuring prominently in the campaigns of President Barack Obama and the GOP candidate, Mitt Romney.

In California, a “blue state”, Obama’s handling of Iran is not seen in a favourable light.

“Honestly, to me, I see no difference in the parties when it comes to Iran.

–  Sepideh Mortazavi, Iranian-American

The state is home to the largest concentration of Iranians in the US – roughly 750,000. Jimmy Delshad, the two-time mayor of Beverly Hills, is the most high-profile Iranian in the community.

He’s not impressed by Obama’s policy towards Iran, calling it “passive”.

“He was extending his hand, reaching out but getting slapped,” said Delshad, 70, adding the president missed out on an opportunity to help the reformists in Iran after the contested 2009 presidential election .

“It’s an apologetic policy.”

Although he said he would be watching to hear what Obama and Romney have to say in the final debate, Delshad said he felt Romney would fare better when it comes to Iran.

“He comes in with the benefit of knowing what doesn’t work.  In one way, his position will be very clear.”

Two parties, one policy

Still, some say Republican and Democrat policies towards Iran are mostly the same.

“Honestly, to me, I see no difference in the parties when it comes to Iran. It’s just political rhetoric to get the votes. I don’t think either party is really going to start another war in the Middle East,” said Sepideh Mortazavi, 35, a criminal defence attorney who is also the Orange County ambassador for the National Iranian American Council.

Mortazavi described Obama’s track record on Iran as “lacklustre” and “a huge disappointment”.

“The current generation of voters doesn’t know much about Iran. They know the soundbites – the [1979 Islamic] revolution, the US embassy hostage crisis, they see people chanting ‘death to America’ and now, they’re hearing all this talk about nuclear weapons, even though it’s never been shown that they are actually developing nuclear weapons,” said Mortazavi.

Obama’s talk has not translated into action, Mortazavi said.

“He’s enforced tougher sanctions than most presidents have, he consistently says that all options are always on the table [including military action],” said Mortazavi.

She said she’s become less optimistic over the past four years.

“With Iran, he had an opportunity when he came in to start a détente, to start real diplomatic talks, and he’s just gone with the party line in the United States – more sanctions, more pressure, more making Iran look like the enemy.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the UN

‘Myopic’ foreign policy

The problem, as some see it, is that US foreign policy is basically written four years at a time – just long enough for one presidential term.

“I think Obama is a long-term thinking person. But unfortunately, US foreign policy has been dedicated to a four-year span … It’s a gung-ho, cowboy mentality that is myopic … Nobody thinks long term,” said Babak Mirdamadi, who moved to the US 37 years ago.

Looking at it from the perspective of short-term US gains, Mirdamadi, a homebuilder, said Obama has been successful, even if he seems to be putting off what might be his next major decision on Iran until after the election.

“He has accomplished a lot with very little, imposing crippling sanctions, with most of the world behind them,” said Mirdamadi.

“If anything is going to happen in Iran, it has to happen because of economic sanction – you can’t bomb Iran, you can’t invade it. What can you do?” asked Mirdamadi, 53.

He said he is not keen on having Romney for president because, “every advisor on his foreign policy team is a neo-con from the Bush administration – the hawkish neocons that were wrong about every single item on their agenda”.

One of the key gripes against Obama in California is that he did not provide support to the June 2009 uprising, when Iranian protesters took to the streets after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the disputed election. But Mirdamadi said that such a move would have been a disaster.

“If Obama had backed the green movement, there would have been a slaughter in Iran – tanks would be rolling over people.”

Choice ‘between bad and worse’

As outspoken as some are, there is a sense that Iran is never really far, even in the enclave of boutiques, kebab houses and bookstores known as “Tehrangeles” (recently recognised by Google Maps).

At Pars Books, one of several Farsi-language bookshops on Westwood Boulevard (dubbed “Vestvood” by Farsi speakers), owner Mary Tolami said books on Iranian politics and history sell well.

On prominent display in the store window and elsewhere are books by and about members of Iran’s last royal family, the Pahalvis.

“Of course many Iranians who live here support the monarchy, but people also read the books to learn history, to be connected,” said Tolami.

While she shrugged off questions about regime change in Iran, Tolami said she supports Obama’s sanctions and feels it’s the only way to bring about change in Iran.

She’s not a fan of Romney. “I think he’s a robot and can’t think for himself.”

“It used to be we could choose between good and better, but no more … The US hasn’t had decent foreign policy since Nixon.

–  Daryoush Forouthan, Iranian-American

But Tolami does not think a Romney administration would be apocalyptic for Iran.

“We had Bush and his father in office. What did they do? Nothing. It’s just all talk. We’re still here,” she said.

Of course, not everyone hangs out in Tehrangeles, where Iranians seem to outnumber non-Iranians. Several mini-Tehrangeleses dot the wealthy West Coast.

Roughly an hour’s drive south on Highway 405 in Irvine is the Wholesome Choice Market, an upscale Iranian-owned supermarket where Iranians – and those looking for a taste of Iranian delicacies – go.

The market’s outdoor seating area is a popular hangout for Iranian expatriates. It’s connected to the Hen House Grill next door – which serves “Dizi”, a homey Iranian soup.

Here, Daryoush Forouthan, 62, holds court with a handful of friends, drinking cup after cup of fragrant tea and talking politics.

“The choice now is between bad and worse,” said Forouthan, who has lived in the US for 30 years. He used to own a car dealership, but lost his business in the economic downturn.

“Naturally, we’ll choose bad,” he said, suggesting he would vote for Obama.

Forouthan said he is not impressed that the president has used sanctions rather than diplomacy, and made Iran “a scapegoat for what’s going on in the Arab world”.

“It used to be we could choose between good and better, but no more,” said Forouthan. “The US hasn’t had decent foreign policy since Nixon.”

Others at the table agreed. “Who writes their economic policies for them? It’s useless,” quipped one of his friends, a factory owner who did not want to be named.

Like many Iranians, he does not like going on the record for fear that someone, somewhere in the Iranian regime, is keeping tabs.  Even here in the United States, some Iranians can’t shake the paranoia and unease when asked about their political beliefs.

Still, Forouthan’s friend had much to say. He likened the sanctions against Iran to boiling frogs.

“They’ve put us in a pot and they slowly, slowly turn the heat up, not all of a sudden,” he said, as others at the table nodded.

“Like the frogs, we get used to the heat, gradually, until we die.”

Follow D Parvaz on Twitter: @Dparvaz

Source: Al Jazeera