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U.S. Sanctions in Homeland Split Iranians

Policy: The expatriate community remains divided on the emotional issue as Congress votes to continue isolating the Islamic Republic.

July 30, 2001|SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alireza Mahdavi had barely returned home to Westwood from his native Iran when a cousin embroiled him in a familiar, passionate debate, one rocking the Iranian diaspora across the country.

Mahdavi hopes the United States will lift the economic sanctions it placed on Iran. His cousin wants them to stay.

"Over the dinner table, he asked me, 'Why are you wasting your time going back and forth to Iran, promoting the lifting of sanctions when you could be growing your business in the United States?' " recalled Mahdavi, who forwards freight for a living.

Forget love of country, his cousin argued. Iran's clerics and their bonyads, or "foundations"--which control the economy there--would reap the benefits of normalized trade with the U.S., not the Iranian people.

The conversation ended at an impasse, as it has many times before.

The cousin's pro-sanction stance was echoed by Congress last week when, despite requests by President Bush for more flexible language, the Senate and House passed a veto-proof, five-year extension of a law curtailing foreign investment in Iran and Libya's oil and energy sectors. The law, due to expire Sunday, aims to punish the two countries for their support of international terrorism and development of nuclear weapons.

The act is only one of several U.S. policies designed to isolate the Islamic Republic of Iran, unilateral actions criticized by much of the world community as being ineffective.

Still, the 96-2 Senate vote Wednesday and 409-6 vote in the House on Thursday sent an unmistakable message to the White House: The presidential order prohibiting U.S. companies from doing business in Iran and related measures had better remain in place.

That message quickly spread across Persian language broadcasts in the Los Angeles Basin last week, stirring tensions anew within "Tehrangeles," as the largest expatriate community outside Iran is dubbed. Unlike the Miami-based Cuban exile community, which solidly backs U.S. sanctions against Fidel Castro's regime, the Iranian community here remains divided. Even though Iranian Americans may agree that Iran's ruling theocracy should be reformed or dismantled, they differ on the best way to achieve that goal.

"The issue of sanctions is a very emotional, very dividing issue among Iranians all over the United States," said Elahe Amani of Long Beach, who heads the Coalition of Women from Asia and the Middle East, a grass-roots women's rights group.

The verbal tussle is particularly intense in Southern California, where dozens of Iranian American activists have launched campaigns for and against normalizing trade and improving ties with the Islamic Republic. Many, like Mahdavi of the Iranian Trade Assn., a San Diego-based group seeking to resume U.S.-Iranian commerce, have shuttled to and from Washington to try to persuade the U.S. government to change its policies.

"There are Iranians who basically want to separate this regime from the people," Mahdavi said of his pro-sanction counterparts. "What we believe is that it's the people who will eventually make this regime more moderate."

Iranian American sparring is driven not only by economics and politics, but by personal pride. Many say they are humiliated by how U.S. shunning of the Islamic Republic since the 1979 American hostage crisis affects Iranians, whether here or back home.

Elderly parents are fingerprinted when they arrive at a U.S. airport; cousins have to travel outside Iran at great expense to take entrance exams for American colleges; friends in Iran pay staggering prices for U.S. merchandise imported by non-American middlemen. A pair of Levi's jeans, for example, goes for more than 60,000 Iranian tomans, close to half the monthly salary of a civil engineer.

The sanctions also perpetuate the American image of post-shah Iran as a land of turbaned mullahs and churning crowds shouting "Death to America," despite expatriate Iranian success in assimilating into U.S. business and academic life, said Mohammad Ala, a Cal State Los Angeles professor and vocal opponent of sanctions.

But Mohammad Parvin of Rancho Palos Verdes, an avid sanctions supporter, makes a counter-argument. Normalizing relations without getting the Islamic Republic to end controversial practices--including torture, executions and clerical control of the government and economy--won't solve problems for Iranians here or in Iran.

Ala, who heads Iranians for International Cooperation, and Parvin, who leads Mission For Establishment of Human Rights, share little common ground on what should happen between the United States and their homeland, but other activists, like Amani, fall somewhere in between.

Amani said she would like to see trade resume, but have U.S.-Iranian government relations hinge on addressing human rights violations by the Islamic Republic. One thing that has got to go, she said, is the practice of stoning women to death for murder or adultery.

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