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Iranian Americans Seek Solution to Human Rights, Nuclear Issues


The largest population of Iranians living outside of their country is in Los Angeles. The exile population is watching the growing confrontation over Iran's nuclear program, and worries about continuing human-rights abuses in their homeland.

This section of West Los Angeles, sometimes called Tehrangeles, is home to Persian businesses and restaurants and the offices of Iranian professionals, including doctors, dentists and lawyers.

One immigrant has mixed feelings about Iran's pursuit of nuclear power, which Iranian officials insist is for peaceful purposes.

"They have the right like any other country and any other people on earth, that they have it, like America, Russia, Israel, Pakistan, wherever," he said. "At the same time, they do not have the right to have it because of the experience that we have, the gimmicks that they play, especially in the Middle East."

He says the bottom line, for him, is that the Iranian regime has a history of deceit and cannot be trusted.

Another Iranian immigrant agrees with him.

"Of course, it goes back to the real motive which, to me, is not clear yet, so if they are going to use this power for their factories, things of that nature," he noted. "But again, since you do not know the real motive behind it, it is hard to say. Other than that, we know that whenever people have access to the atomic bomb, there is always the danger of catastrophe."

A third Iranian American, a bookstore owner, wants to see regime change in his homeland.

"We do have the problem of having Iran as a nuclear power, but we have first a problem with the Islamic Republic of Iran," he explained. "If we do not have such a regime, then hopefully we do not have the problem of Iranian nuclear power."

State Department officials say they believe the nuclear dispute with Iran can be solved through diplomacy. The European Union has prepared an incentive package, which diplomats say would offer Tehran a light-water nuclear reactor, a technology less susceptible to misuse in a weapons program than the heavy-water facility that Iran is now building.

But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rejected the package, even before it was offered, and says nothing will persuade Iran to freeze its nuclear program.

All of this is being watched closely by the 300,000 or so Iranian Americans who live in and around Los Angeles.

Sometimes called jumbo-jet refugees, many arrived with a good education and some wealth. They are also a diverse group. Mostly Muslim, there are minority populations of Jews, Baha'is, Armenian Christians, and others.

Some are loyal to the family of the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose son lives outside Washington in the state of Maryland. Others hope to see a secular government in Iran, and yet others want a moderate Islamic republic.

A former Iranian pop star-turned-journalist named Zia Atabay, who appears on Persian-language television from Los Angeles, says the Middle East is a powder-keg, largely because of Iran.

He says he is frustrated with the futile efforts of the international community in dealing with the regime. He wants more U.S. support for the Iranian opposition, and says some in the expatriate community endorse the use of force to bring about regime change.

Other Iranian Americans support continued diplomacy. Freeda Saba is a commentator on IRTV, a Persian-language broadcast system in Los Angeles.

"The majority here are the first-generation immigrants, and mostly they have been born in Iran," said Freeda Saba. "So they have a love for their country. Even though now they are in America, they are Iranian American. But they do not want to see their country to be destroyed like Iraq. They do not want any war or any violence against the country."

Saba says Iranian Americans are concerned about the repression of journalists and the harsh treatment of political dissidents, but she says Iran has a functioning economy and working infrastructure, which war would devastate.

Frank Nikbakht, a Jewish Iranian immigrant and democracy advocate, says the Iranian expatriate community is diverse, but he sees a consensus in favor of a peaceful resolution to the impasse.

"Naturally, most Iranians do not want a military intervention in their country, and even on the question of sanctions, they would prefer a targeted sanction that would target the super-rich and the super-powerful people, organizations and companies in Iran rather than a general sanction which will have negative effects on ordinary people," said Frank Nikbakht.

But he says most Iranian exiles want to rid their homeland of a government that he calls dictatorial and ruthless.

Women's studies scholar Nayereh Tohidi says that despite the policies of its hard-line religious regime, Iran is becoming increasingly secularized. She says more than 60 percent of Iran's university students today are women and, she says, young people in Iran are becoming more global in outlook as they use tools like the Internet.

She says the hard-liners have successfully used the nuclear issue to mobilize nationalist sentiment, and that the Western response to Iran should emphasize human rights and democracy, topics that she says resonate with Iran's population.

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