Three Sherman Oaks attorneys have joined forces to help reverse what they say is a trend of political apathy among Iranian Americans in Southern California.
Shahin Sedaghat, Mehrnaz Taheripour and Vafa Khoshbin have launched an aggressive voter registration drive targeting Iranian Americans, the first of its kind for this growing community based largely in the San Fernando Valley and the Westside.
"In the last 20 years we've participated in the growth of the city, so we should participate in its future," Sedaghat said. "We want to be recognized as a distinct voting bloc."
The three established the nonprofit Iranian-American Educational Foundation a few months ago to increase voter registration of naturalized Iranians before the upcoming Los Angeles mayoral election and to encourage those already registered to go to the polls. The deadline to register for the April 10 election is March 26.
Beyond spreading the get-out-and-vote message at community events, the foundation, with the help of nine volunteers, has mailed more than 10,000 voter information pamphlets written in both English and Persian.
It also convinced a Hollywood-based Iranian radio station (KIRN-AM 670) to broadcast its appeal every hour until the election.
The effort could make a difference, say some political consultants.
"Iranians don't vote well, even after being registered," said Jim Hayes, owner of Burbank-based Political Data Inc., a firm that tracks Los Angeles voting patterns.
Sedaghat, whose clients are mostly Iranian, has an explanation. "I think we've never been much for the democratic process because of what we went through in our country," he said, referring to the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the shah of Iran. "We shy away from government because we were [betrayed] by our own government."
Many Iranians Concealed Nationality
The hostage crisis--in which militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans for 444 days--led many Iranians to conceal their nationality in order to escape American animosity, Taheripour said.
"We shied away from coming out," she said. "Certainly we were not out there voting."
Today, she said, there is increasing unrest among Iran's 62 million residents over intense economic hardship and the desire for an end to conservative clerical rule imposed after the fall of the shah.
Sedaghat, Taheripour and Khoshbin came to Los Angeles in the late 1970s and attended Cal State Northridge, UCLA and Loyola Marymount University, respectively.
The three met as law students at La Verne University nearly a decade ago. Sedaghat, 39, and Taheripour, 37, who live in Sherman Oaks, married shortly after meeting in a class nine years ago and are the parents of 4-year-old twin girls. The couple and Khoshbin, 41, of Santa Monica, have remained close.
They said they established the foundation because they felt too many Iranian Americans have been apolitical for too long.
To help spread the word quickly, the foundation created a Web site (http://www.iranitabar.com) that promotes the voter drive and also offers political and entertainment news of interest to Iranians.
The site gets thousands of visits daily, said Sedaghat, who estimates that 200,000 to 300,000 people of Iranian descent live in the city of Los Angeles alone.
It is difficult to get an accurate count of the population of Iranians in Southern California.
The Iranian National Congress, a Reseda-based exile group dedicated to bringing democracy to Iran, estimates that 800,000 Iranians live in California, most of them concentrated in and around Los Angeles.
According to the 1990 U.S. Census, 79,310 people of Iranian ancestry were living in Los Angeles County. From census data and figures from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the federal government estimates that people of Iranian descent may now number about 106,000 in Southern California, but some familiar with the community say it could be at least five times that many.
Increase Expected in Iranian Community
Population and cultural geography expert James Allen, a Cal State Northridge professor who co-authored a book about population diversity in Southern California, said there probably has been a substantial increase in that number in the last decade, but "we really won't know until the 2000 census is out."
"I've never met a group that didn't inflate their figures, though," Allen said.
Few would argue that Iranian American affluence is hard to ignore. This is a group often seen driving expensive foreign cars and living in tony neighborhoods of the Valley, Westside and Orange County, Allen said.
They have transformed parts of Westwood Boulevard in West Los Angeles and Ventura Boulevard in the Valley into neighborhoods reminiscent of Tehran, complete with restaurants, shops and businesses labeled in cursive Persian script, he said.
"We are vibrant, very viable people and we have a lot to contribute," Sedaghat said.
"We're a voting bloc to reckon with."