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Iran's Election Results Worry L.A. Emigres

June 26, 2005|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

Many Iranian emigres on Saturday said they were stunned by the landslide election of a hard-liner as president of Iran and worried that it would exacerbate tensions with the United States and roll back reforms that had eased the lives of their relatives and friends back home.

As news of the election results spread Friday night, dozens of Los Angeles Iranians gathered in Beverly Hills with Iran-based film director Tahmineh Milani for a premiere of her new film, "Unwanted Woman," whose feminist themes encapsulate the reformist movement in Iran.

"Many were surprised and frightened," said Nayereh Tohidi, acting chairwoman of the women's studies department at Cal State Northridge. "They worry this is going to turn back the political situation to the early years of the revolution."

But in Los Angeles, which has the largest Iranian community outside of Iran, reactions varied. Although some Iranians said they thought reforms might be endangered, others said they believed the government would be foolhardy to impose restrictions on young Iranians at a time of frustration over unemployment and low wages.

Some Iranian political activists said they welcomed a conservative regime, hoping it would lead to more U.S. aid to the regime's opponents. Others said the success of Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not as significant as it might be, given the number of conservatives already in government.

Several emigres, however, raised concerns about the election of Ahmadinejad, a political upstart who trounced a former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, a cleric whose campaign was so eager to appeal to reformists that it used English-language slogans, including "Just Work."

If the Ahmadinejad government tightens dress and behavior codes that have liberalized in recent years, Iranians said, some Iranian Americans might be reluctant to return for regular visits to Tehran. The president-elect's social justice rhetoric is also of concern to wealthy Iranian emigres who travel to Iran to manage property they own there or to visit summer villas on the Caspian sea, Iranians said.

On a broader level, the prospect of an Iran governed by a hard-liner, who has chastised his country's outgoing government for making too many concessions in negotiations with Europe over Iran's nuclear enrichment program, could portend a more polarized, confrontational relationship between Iran and the United States.

"This election, for most of the Iranian community here, is a very worrisome development," said Iranian attorney David Nahai, a member of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Iranian American Jewish Federation.

"It also doesn't help with all of the efforts taken in this country to enhance the image of Iranians and facilitate assimilation," Nahai said. "Once again, the opportunity to have a friendlier Iran, on the inside and outside, may have been lost.

"In some perverse way, there may be people who think that this can now result in some bloody upheaval in Iran," he said. "I don't think most people here share that desire."

Some conservative Iranian American political activists welcomed a hard-line replacement for outgoing two-term President Mohammad Khatami, whom they saw as a figurehead who made the Iranian government more palatable.

Some opponents of the Iranian government viewed the ascension of Ahmadinejad -- who told voters last week that "we did not have a revolution in order to have democracy" -- as a victory.

"You don't want to have a smiley face covering up the true face of the regime," said Pooya Dayanim, Encino-based president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee, which lobbies the U.S. government on Iran policy. "This is just going to highlight how out of step Iran is with the international community and the pro-democracy trends in the Middle East."

Foad Pashai, Tarzana-based secretary general of the Constitutionalist Party of Iran, which favors restoring the son of the ousted Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as a constitutional monarch, said the victory of Ahmadinejad might make the U.S. more inclined to support the opposition movement within Iran with computers, telephones and other equipment.

"Right now, I think Europe and the United States should decide what to do," Pashai said. "This government is hard-liners -- no reformists, no moderates, no nothing."

Elham Aryana, an activist in the 1999 student protests in Iran who now is vice chair of the Los Angeles-based Iranians for a Secular Republic, also welcomed the election results, "because now I think something will happen to provoke an uprising in Iran."

Apolitical Iranians are far less eager to imagine violence that could harm loved ones in Iran.

"I am just concerned about the people over there," said Soraya Mansouri, owner of Soraya Flowers in Los Angeles. "Maybe with this government they will have a lot of problems."

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