Published Monday, Dec. 3, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News
U.S. role in Iran reforms
WEALTHY IRANIAN EXPATRIATES IN L.A. SUPPORTING DEMOCRACYBY JAMES STERNGOLD
New York Times
LOS ANGELES -- This year, Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former shah of Iran, seized what seemed a propitious moment to start campaigning to replace the ayatollahs in Tehran with a democratic government.
From his base near Washington, Pahlavi has been denouncing the conservative Muslims, a message that has gained a new urgency since Sept. 11.
But on a recent morning in a Los Angeles TV studio, Pahlavi, the U.S.-educated heir to the deposed monarchy, made clear why Southern California, even more than Washington, was playing a central role in this tricky mission.
Seated at a gilded table, Pahlavi was fielding telephone calls from Iran and offering passionate appeals for change as the guest on a live Farsi TV program beamed into Iran daily. It is one of several such programs sent to Iran from what has grown into a lively cluster of Farsi TV and radio networks that operate from the influential Iranian population in metropolitan Los Angeles.
``This community does play an absolutely critical role in disseminating information and financing the media needed to let people in Iran know what the alternatives are,'' Pahlavi said. ``This is a very affluent community, with all sorts of mechanisms it can command.''
The Iranian population's influence is a product of numbers and enormous wealth. In the American Community Survey conducted by the Census Bureau last year, it was estimated that as many as 180,680 people who are principally of Iranian descent live in California, and are concentrated in the southern part of the state. Of those, as many as 95,400 live in Los Angeles County.
Most of them arrived around the time of the Islamic revolution in 1979, vowing to return someday. It is a tightknit insular community.
Iranians, who entered just about every profession, dominate large pockets of two areas, Beverly Hills and Westwood. Many streets in those sections are lined with houses with oversize white columns, a signature of the Iranian well-to-do.
In addition, in the Los Angeles area there are two daily Farsi newspapers, several magazines, three TV networks, two radio stations, pop singers, other artists and many Iranian clubs, including all-Iranian Rotary clubs.
Despite the population's size and wealth, few Iranians have run for local office or played an active role in civic affairs, in part, several people said, because this was supposed to be a way station.
But Pahlavi's campaign and the ferment in Iran -- where open, if tentative, protests against the militant government have grown more common -- underscore the ambiguous role that Iranians in America may play in political changes in Iran.
One of the few factors that unite Iranians in the United States is the desire to oust the clerics and open the door to democracy, as suggested by the eager participation of many people at the events that Pahlavi attends.
But even ardent supporters of change, and of Pahlavi, say they hope to encourage reforms in Iran while remaining in the United States.
Haleh Eghrari is a psychologist who said that as a woman and a member of the Bahai religious minority she enjoyed opportunities in California that she would never experience in Iran, even under a democratic government.
``What this immigration has done for women is incredible,'' Eghrari said. ``Women who were doormats are now really, really advancing. They have the jobs. Many support their families. How many would give all that up?
``I'd be very curious if there was a revolution. I'd go for a visit. But I've become accustomed to life here.''
Ayhe Kazerouni, a senior at the University of California-Irvine and a founder of the local chapter of Students for Democracy in Iran, has worked to energize opposition to the government, but the ardor of many students is limited.
``If things do change, I'm not staying here,'' Kazerouni said. ``But I think most students would. They were born here, and this is where they feel they have business opportunities.''
Young people and elders agree that if Pahlavi's goal of holding a referendum in Iran is realized, Iranians in the United States will pour millions of dollars into encouraging democracy.
©Copyright 2001, San Jose Mercury News