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L.A.'s Iranians welcome Persian New Year -- and Obama's overture to their homeland

March 21, 2009|Martha Groves

Along Westwood Boulevard south of Wilshire Boulevard -- a.k.a. "Tehrangeles" -- Iranian merchants on Friday had reason beyond the Persian New Year's holiday to shout out cheerful greetings to friends and customers.

They also praised President Obama for extending an olive branch to the Iranian people and government, as he did in a speech to mark the start of the 12-day Nowruz holiday.

"Somehow you have to break the ice," said Farhad Djavanshir, 58, manager of Flame restaurant. "This is not the Stone Age. Iran has to communicate."

In a video with subtitles in Persian, Obama urged Iran to take its "rightful place in the community of nations" through peaceful actions and meetings with other countries. The White House distributed the greeting to news outlets for broadcast early Friday, the start of the ancient nonreligious celebration of the arrival of spring.

Obama spoke of his administration's commitment to diplomacy and to developing constructive ties through "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect."

Declaring the president's overture "fantastic," grocer Farid Khanlou, 53, owner of Jordan Market, spoke of his love for his homeland.

"America has been good to me," said Khanlou, who has lived here for 32 years and is a U.S. citizen. "But I'd love to be in my home country."

Tears spilled down his cheeks as he talked of his two children, who were born here and have steered clear of learning about Iranian traditions.

"My kid said to me, 'What's the new year?' " Khanlou said.

Up and down the boulevard, it was tough to miss the "Happy Nowruz" banners and symbolic displays of flowers, wheat grass, goldfish and brightly colored eggs situated prominently in rug shops, bookstores, beauty salons, markets and restaurants. Signs written in flowing Persian script in store windows signaled Iranian ownership.

U.S. census data put the number of Iranians in Los Angeles County at about 100,000, but community estimates run as high as 500,000.

Many left Iran after Shiite Muslim revolutionaries seized control in 1979. They often refer to themselves as Persian -- rather than Iranian -- in a nod to their cultural heritage and the country's historical name.

Drawn by family connections and a climate similar to that of Tehran, they settled on the Westside, notably in Beverly Hills, Westwood, West Los Angeles, Brentwood and Santa Monica. In Beverly Hills, about one-fifth of the roughly 35,000 residents are Iranian.

Jimmy Delshad, who in 2007 became Beverly Hills' first Iranian mayor, called Obama's speech "a beautiful humanitarian gesture."

"I was happy to hear he reached out to the people of Iran," Delshad said in a telephone interview after spending Friday morning at a Nowruz celebration in Los Angeles City Council chambers. "We have a tradition of equality."

Delshad cited Cyrus the Great, a benevolent Persian king who 2,500 years ago wrote the earliest known charter of human rights.

Its principles included equality for all, Delshad said. According to biblical accounts, Cyrus freed Jews who had been enslaved by the Babylonians, forging a bond of friendship between Jews and Persians.

Former President George W. Bush routinely denounced Iran's regime for its nuclear program and threats to Israel. Neither supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei nor Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad referred Friday to Obama's attempt at a new beginning.

Sam Beygzadeh, an Iranian journalist working in Pars Books & Publishing on Westwood Boulevard, said Obama will need time to draw Iran into a fruitful conversation. The United States and Iran must cooperate, he said, using this analogy: "If somebody riding a horse wants to shake hands with another person who is walking, the person on the horse must reach down and the person walking must reach up."

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martha.groves@latimes.com

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