Poll leaves Iranian-Americans both indifferent and frustrated | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 12.06.2013
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Poll leaves Iranian-Americans both indifferent and frustrated

More than 700,000 Iranian-Americans live in the Greater Los Angeles area. What does the largest Iranian community in the US, nicknamed TehrAngeles, think about the presidential elections in Iran?

Early risers at the Los Angeles Chamberlain Hotel may chance upon Tony Lasar when the technical manager cleans the hotel swimming pool high above the rooftops of the city.

Lasar is a Christian of Assyrian origin. In 1999, he and his family left Iran for the US, where they were granted refuge as religious refugees. He is a US citizen now, and concedes he owes much to his new home country - but even after 14 years in the US, he is not really fully integrated. Lasar regrets not having American friends, he only meets Americans at work or when he goes shopping. "The first problem is, I didn't go to college, and the second problem is language," Lasar told DW, adding his English is just about good enough for his job and shopping trips.

There are many Americans of Iranian descent like Tony Lasar, but the media prefer to focus on the city's beautiful, well-educated and successful Iranian-Americans, like Bita Milanian, Executive Director of the renowned Farhang Foundation for Iranian Culture and Art - an elegant lady who speaks excellent English and belongs to the city's social elite.

Tony Lasar Copyright: Gero Schließ, DW, Mai 2013

Tony Lasar is not as integrated as he would like to be

Milanian lived in Germany for three years before moving to the US in 1989. Today, she feels as much American as she does Iranian, she told DW. "It's like scrambled eggs that you can't really separate anymore," she says. "That's how most of us feel who have been living here for a long time and contributing to society as business owners, doctors, lawyers, engineers, inventors and owners of small stores - we've been weaved into the society."

The real Iran

Promoting culture is immensely important to Bita Milanian. Whenever negative headlines from Iran make the newspapers, she says, she is able to show her native country's real face by presenting art from a culture that goes back thousands of years.

Culture is one thing, but speaking out on politics is another matter: neither Lasar nor the director of the Farhang Foundation will comment on the upcoming Iranian presidential elections, scheduled for June 14.

Not so Bijan Khalili, the owner of Ketab Bookstore on Westwood Boulevard. He dismisses the polls in which Iran's Guardian Council decides on the participating candidates. "It is not an election by European or US standards, and like a lot of Iranians, I do not agree with the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran," he told DW. "That's why I'm here." Khalili fled to the US in October 1980 and founded what has meanwhile become the largest Persian bookstore in the US.

Nayereh Tohidi teaches political science at two universities in Los Angeles. She says she understands why Iranian-Americans are frustrated, but she is also aware of the Iranian side. She says she is in touch with activists in Iran who say "it is easy for you in the US to call us fools if we vote again." Iranian students and women tell her: "Look, we suffer so much, we can't even breathe. Oppression and the economic pressure have intensified. We need change, even a little improvement can help us."

Bijan Khalili in his bookstore Gero Schließ, DW, Mai 2013

Bijan Khalili sells books and films, mostly in Persian

Few prospects for change

Reza Goharzad has the impression few Iranians in Los Angeles are interested in the elections. The journalist is an anchor at one of the four Persian TV stations that can also be picked up in Iran. "If they can not raise their voice, we can be their voice. If they cannot comment on change, we can talk about those things," he told DW. "In Iran, you can not say, we want a secular government. To the Iranian government, that means you are against Islam."

Some Iranian-Americans who still visit Iran or have relatives there are careful about what they say - reports of arrests and torture in Iran have not gone unnoticed. Few harbour hopes of being able to return to a free Iran some day.

Nayereh Tohidi Copyright: Gero Schließ, DW, Mai 2013

Nayereh Tohidi understands Iranian-Americans' disillusionment

The Iranian minority in Los Angeles is relatively well-educated and successful - but not very visible in public. Iranian-Americans come from a country that does not have strong participation in the political process, says Reza Amin. Many Iranians came to the US during the rule of the last Shah, the businessman argues. "You work, you make money, and you leave politics to someone else" - that is how the system worked. "Iranians are successful businessmen and scientists, but they are not concerned with politics," he told DW. "It is a challenge for us."

Political impact

There are no politicians in the House of Representatives or the Senate with Iranian roots. Khosrow Semnani, a prominent industrialist and physicist who made his fortune with the disposal of radioactive nuclear waste, is quite aware of that fact. The Semnani Familiy Foundation has promoted health, education and disaster relief for marginal communities in the US. Support is widespread, from hosting a reception for a wrestling match in Los Angeles to the fight against hunger in Africa.

At a recent fundraiser at the exclusive Beverly Hills Hotel, the foundation celebrated 20 years as an international humanitarian organization - honored by celebrities including a former astronaut and - via video message- legendary Olympic champion Mark Spitz. There can be no doubt that Semnani financially supports US senators and congressmen come election time. Semnani says it is not impossible that one day there might be a US president with Iranian roots. That is a more likely scenario right now than a democratically-elected president in Semnani's native country Iran.

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