The L.A. area is a hotbed of Iranian American efforts to bring political change to their homeland
By Emily Bazar -- Bee Capitol Bureau
Sunday, November 2, 2003
LOS ANGELES -- A call came into Zia Atabay's Woodland Hills studio as he hosted one of his late-night talk shows. Then another. And another.
All from viewers wanting to talk politics.
All from Iran.
Iranian residents call, fax and e-mail so much they've become a regular part of Atabay's two weekly television shows.
Modern technology has helped Atabay build a worldwide audience for the National Iranian Television (NITV) network, a satellite TV station he operates in this middle-class community northwest of downtown. From his nondescript studio in a business park, the 61-year-old former pop singer beams news and analysis critical of the Islamic Republic to Iranians more than 11 time zones -- and half a world -- away.
Atabay belongs to a large and active Iranian American community concentrated in Southern California that is agitating for political change in Iran.
The reform-minded immigrants have intensified their efforts of late, capitalizing on political unrest in Iran and growing international pressure on the government there to muzzle its nuclear program.
Many of the expatriates here have become American citizens and boast successful careers, grand homes and expensive cars. Though most say they never would move back, they feel strong social and cultural ties to Iran and a responsibility to spur change.
"I'm American, I'm here, I'm good. I'm in a free, powerful government. But our motherland is still a prison," said the raven-haired Atabay. "If I can do something about it, I can't say, 'I'm just going to enjoy my life, it's not my problem.' "
While reluctant to discuss his politics in an interview, Atabay is widely viewed as a member of the monarchist faction that would like to see the exiled son of Iran's former shah return to assume the kingship.
Analysts say Iran is a country ripe for upheaval, its population torn between the religious ruling class and vocal dissidents thirsty for change.
At the same time, Iran is undergoing a demographic revolution all but certain to force some sort of reform: Of the country's 66 million residents, two-thirds are under age 30. Every so often, the streets of Tehran and other large cities erupt as students protest for freedom.
There's been growing international recognition of Iran's emerging diversity of thought. Last month, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Shirin Ebadi, the first such honor to an Iranian. Ebadi, a female lawyer and author, has worked to improve the legal status of women and children in Iran.
These are encouraging signs to Iranian expatriates in Southern California, who sometimes refer to Los Angeles as "Tehrangeles." The area is home to the largest concentration of Iranians outside Iran: more than 115,000 according to official census tallies and 600,000 according to community members.
Most are scattered throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties, though there are hot spots. Along one stretch of Westwood Boulevard, Iranian restaurants, bookstores and carpet galleries pack storefronts. Persian grocers sell cookies flavored with rose water. And salons offer Persian-style waxings for fashion-conscious women.
Like the Cubans in Florida and the Vietnamese in Orange County, most of these Iranians arrived in America not by choice, but because of political upheaval. The majority fled after the revolution in 1979, when the shah was overthrown and replaced by an Islamic regime.
As a group, those who landed in the Los Angeles area tend to be educated and wealthy. They maintain strong family ties in Iran, and an even stronger sense of nostalgia for their birthplace.
Some have translated that nostalgia into action, using the Internet and advanced satellite systems to needle the Iranian population into action.
Atabay says he escaped Iran after being punished by the Islamic regime. "The mullahs don't like my music," said Atabay, who has been described as Iran's pre-revolutionary version of Tom Jones. "They don't want people to be happy."
He landed in the United States after stints in Spain, Sweden and Great Britain and started NITV in 2000. Now, Atabay offers what he called "100 percent political" programming 24 hours a day.
When student protests erupted earlier this year, Atabay exhorted Iranians to take to the streets.
"This is your country, a new generation," Atabay told his viewers. "You have a big country, rich and powerful and especially, young. You have to change it."
In July, Atabay and American government officials accused Cuba of jamming satellite transmissions into Iran. Atabay believes the Iranian government was behind the disruption.
"That shows how powerful our influence in Iran is," said Atabay, a jug of hot tea and a bowl of sugar cubes waiting behind his desk. "They don't want Iranians to listen ... how the world is judging the Iranian government."
Atabay's is among more than a dozen Iranian television stations operating out of Southern California. Most require a satellite system to access, said Ahmad Mesbah, owner of an Irvine translation business who co-founded the Network of Iranian-American Professionals of Orange County.
About four or five of them broadcast into Iran, he said.
"Iranians desperate for some information about the outside world look to these stations, even those stations that are operating on a shoestring and don't have the resources to provide good news coverage," said Patrick Clawson, deputy director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"I think a lot of people find the invective they hurl at the regime liberating and invigorating."
As much as these messages might reverberate in Iran, the expatriates have limited influence.
"It is true they have a role in provoking people into action in Iran," writer Ramin Jahanbegloo, who is based in Tehran, said via e-mail. "However, their role should not be exaggerated. They lack credibility with Iranians to a large extent, mainly due to the fact that the presenters are neither intellectuals nor politicians."
Plus, Mesbah said, the majority of stations are run by monarchists. Mesbah himself supports the Jebhe Melli -- or Iran National Front -- which advocates religious freedom and a republican system of government based on free elections.
Attorney and expatriate Maziar Mafi also drums for democracy. The casually confident Mafi hosts a television show called "The Other Colors," which is picked up by four different Persian-language satellite stations.
The show focuses on a political effort Mafi is involved in called "Iran of Tomorrow." As part of the project, Iranians from around the world are creating a blueprint for a democratic government, said Mafi, 42. In effect, the group is working to create a parallel Iranian government overseas. The majority of the participants are in Southern California.
Mafi ran as a Democrat in the 2000 congressional primary, hoping to unseat Republican incumbent Christopher Cox of Newport Beach. Mafi, who has been in the United States since he was 15, made it clear he doesn't want to participate in the governance of Iran and intends to remain here.
But he called the effort to aid his homeland "the most important thing I've ever done."
"I believe there is a chance to give birth to a free society and by God, what else could be more exciting?" asked Mafi, his feet kicked up on a leather chaise lounge in his Laguna Beach home, Persian rugs strewn about him. " ... It's not going to happen all from within. In the history of any significant social change, internal affairs and forces and powers on the outside have an influence."
Mafi's role in the project is to compile a draft constitution, a version of which already has been posted on the Web site www.BestofIran.com.
Its first declaration reads, "All power and authority derives from the people."
He hopes that by December a final draft will be voted on via Internet by more than 50,000 people, mostly in Iran. With that much input, he said, Iranian reformers everywhere will make a forceful statement.
"You become a huge opposition force impossible to ignore, even outside the country," said Mafi. "Every government will have to look at you seriously."
About the Writer
The Bee's Emily Bazar can be reached at (916) 321-1016 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bee researchers Pete Basofin and Becky Boyd contributed to this report. http://www.sacbee.com/content/news/story/7715200p-8654728c.html