Exiles in 'Tehrangeles' Are Split on How U.S. Should Sway Iran
Neil MacFarquhar, The New York Times:
With neon signs in Persian decorating the window of the Woodland Hills Market — "Kabob" glowing in bright red, "Iranian Market" in pea green — this corner grocery store could just as well be in Tehran as in the heart of "Tehrangeles," as Iranians everywhere call their largest exile community.
Products labeled in Persian and English reflect the dual identity of most customers, who find themselves particularly torn these days, wanting change in Iran but dreading what further sanctions or military action would do to Iranians.
"I love my country, but I hate these mullahs," said Houshang Samandi, a television director for an Iranian satellite channel whose life in Los Angeles remains so completely Iranian that after 14 years he still asks a fellow exile to translate the word "sanctions." READ MORE
"Sanctions will only harm the ordinary people," Mr. Samandi said. "If there is a military attack, they will be killing my people. But if they don't attack, the mullahs will never leave."
The debate over whether the United States could better influence events in Tehran by using diplomacy or by flexing its muscle, taking military action to try to knock out the Islamic republic's growing nuclear program, rages with particular ferocity in this city as well as in academic exile circles across the country.
After weeks of heated arguments, a distinct split has emerged. A majority oppose any military attack, convinced that it would only cement the mullahs in power and repeat the chaos in Iraq on a far bloodier scale. Some people in this group push a more subtle approach that they hope will collapse the government from within, while fretting aloud that subtle diplomacy has become something of a lost art in Washington.
"The Iranians see the failure of the Bush government in Iraq, so they can see for themselves that this is not the solution," said Homa Sarshar, a freelance journalist and the founder of a center that collects oral histories of Iran's once thriving Jewish community. "Trying to promote democracy would be better than spending money on an invasion or another war."
Some Iranian exiles relish the thought of any military attack. But they tend to be those who lost property in the revolution or aging members of the ancien régime who describe themselves without irony as de Gaulles awaiting a triumphant return.
The exile community of at least 500,000 has carved out a distinctive subculture here. At the Encino Town Center, two of six movie screens show Iranian movies, while young adults pack a nearby cafe, called the Spot in English and Buddies in Persian, smoking water pipes long into the night.
"Regime change would make an attack unnecessary, but I'm not sure there is time to organize an effective nationwide opposition to this regime in such a short period," said Faryar Nikbakht, a businessman shopping at the Ketab Bookshop. American hostility toward the mullahs means that Iran is one of the few countries in the Muslim world where many in the general population like the United States. Some exiles say an attack would most likely destroy this support.
"The place that the Americans hold in the minds of the Iranians right now couldn't be bought with millions of dollars of propaganda," said Shahram Homayoun, an Iranian journalist who runs Channel 1 television, one of about 25 satellite stations beamed toward Iran, from above a dentist's office.
Mr. Homayoun, like many exiles, imagines treating Iran rather like South Africa in the apartheid fight, banning it from all international organizations, embargoing its sports teams, barring its officials from traveling in the West and seizing the rulers' assets abroad.
Those exiles would even like to see Iranian oil embargoed, an extremely unlikely prospect in view of prices for crude oil.
The nuclear crisis has prompted many exiles to urge Washington to work harder to harness Iranians' widespread frustrations so they will force their government to change. The exile critics reject the Iraq model of trying to forge sidelined exiles into a government.
Reza Pahlavi, the 45-year-old son of the deposed shah, commands little more than nostalgia. The best organized opposition group, the People's Mujahedeen, garners some support in the United States Congress but is seen by many Iranians as an Islamic-Marxist cult.
The intellectual heart of those pushing for change from within is the Hoover Institution at Stanford, where Prof. Abbas Milani, head of the Iranian studies program, along with Michael McFaul and Larry Diamond, experts on the collapse of Communism and building democracies, direct the Iran Democracy Project. They want a new United States foreign policy built around engaging Tehran, with just enough diplomatic relations to create a platform to support the beleaguered reform movement in the country.
"The more they beat the drums of war here, the more Ahmadinejad can shut down the democratic movement," Professor Milani said, referring to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
He proposes forceful speeches by American leaders that repeatedly call for democracy in Iran and the lifting of most United States economic sanctions so that the government can no longer blame them for its disastrous economic policies.
He also wants independent radio and television stations dedicated to beaming serious news and discussion into Iran. Other means of influence would include establishing some American diplomatic presence in Tehran, much like the interests section in Havana, basically used to speak out in support of dissidents.
Supporters of the Iran Democracy Project say the United States, by playing the role of a distant, yet supportive and vocal uncle, could galvanize the younger generation in Iran to widen the fissures in the government and change the country.
More than 60 percent of the 70 million Iranians are younger than 35, and they often seethe at the lack of economic opportunity and personal freedom.
"I think the youth of Iran will do that job," said Hamid R. Moghadam, 49, an Iranian-American businessman in San Francisco who helps finance the Iran Democracy Project. "You don't need the Marines in there."