The crowd gathered for a political fundraiser in Republican John Farahi's Beverly Hills backyard one Sunday early this summer looked like it was there to play politics the American way -- talking policy and writing checks.
Most of the 250 guests squinting from the afternoon sun around Farahi's rented poolside tent were accustomed to a different brand of politics in their native Iran, the politics of authoritarian shahs or mullahs who have historically greeted open debate with a lack of enthusiasm.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 09, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Iranian Americans -- An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about Iranian American voters referred to the nonpartisan National Iranian American Council as a lobbying group. It is a nonprofit civic education association.
But even by traditional standards of American partisan politics, the fundraiser was freewheeling and potentially controversial.
The guest of honor in a pink pantsuit was hardly a darling of the Republican Party of which the host and his wife were committed supporters, especially given that the woman in pink once famously declared that her husband's critics were part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy."
Yet, there stood former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton collecting $50,000 for her 2006 reelection bid to the Senate, a Democrat quite literally in a Republican's backyard.
"I can vote for [President Bush] but support [Hillary Clinton] from the other party, and no one can come and arrest me," said Farahi, 46, owner of a financial services firm. Federal election records show that he gave $25,000 to the Republican National Committee earlier this year.
Such apparent contradictions may not be all that unusual among Iranian Americans this year. The 2004 presidential campaign is shaping up as a season of unprecedented interest and activism among half a million expatriate Iranians who have made Southern California their largest community outside Iran.
Many, even some long-naturalized citizens, say they are planning to vote for the first time. To Bush goes much of the credit -- and the blame.
It turns out that the polarized American electorate is mirrored among voters with Iranian roots.
Some of the strongest feelings on all sides of the Iranian American community can be traced to the 2002 State of the Union speech in which Bush declared Iran -- as well as Iraq and North Korea -- part of "an axis of evil" that threatens world peace.
For some Iranian expatriates, the president's provocative rhetoric unleashed visions of regime change for Tehran.
"Iranians would never accept an invasion, but they would be willing to accept help to free themselves from the Islamic republic," said Siavash Azari, host of a Farsi radio talk show broadcast from KRSI studios on Wilshire Boulevard.
Azari said he will make his first trip to an American voting booth in November "because Mr. Bush has promised to defend the Iranian people."
Tuned in to Bush
At KRSI, in fact, the writing is all over the walls. A Bush-Cheney 2004 placard hangs in the reception room, and there's another in the hallway. Bush-Cheney stickers are dispensed at the reception desk, next to voter registration forms. In the mornings, KRSI broadcasts Farsi news from Radio Israel, and talk show chatter echoes with familiar neo-conservative themes.
In some instances, hawkish pro-Bush sentiment among Iranian Americans has brought together traditional foes, including monarchists supporting a return of the Pahlavi royal family and sympathizers of their archenemies, the one-time Marxist Islamist group People's Mojahedin.
Alireza Morovati, chief executive of KRSI, acknowledged the contradictions but shrugged and said: "We must speak in one voice."
In other cases, strong anti-Bush sentiment has rearranged the political deck chairs. A Republican and founding member of the Iranian American Political Action Committee has jumped ship and joined the campaign of Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry.
'We would be foolish'
Akbar Ghahary, a New Jersey manufacturing executive, said he was alarmed by Bush's approach to Iraq and didn't trust him to protect Iranian families if a military confrontation developed.
"Who do you think will get killed when [the U.S.] starts dropping bombs?" Ghahary asked.
Ghahary said he also was backing Kerry out of concern for parts of the Patriot Act pushed into law by the Bush administration after Sept. 11.
But he was most critical of talk about invading Iran. Any changes to the Tehran government must come from Iranian people, not American force, Ghahary said. He chided fellow expatriates who think a benevolent U.S. president will help exiled Iranians return home.
"We would be foolish to think that the American government would act in any interest but its own," he said.
Such differences have made the community here an unlikely battlefield of local Iranian politics. Passions run high.
Hassan Nemazee, a New York investment banker and major donor to the Kerry campaign, has been labeled "a well-known agent of the Islamic Republic" in letters to public officials and in Web postings by a Texas-based Iranian group.
In response, Nemazee filed a $10-million defamation lawsuit against the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran.