Local Iranian-Americans Speak Out About the Unrest in Iran
Thursday, July 2, 2009
How have San Diegans reacted to the political unrest in Iran, which has led to public killings and violence? We speak to Iranian-Americans living in San Diego to get their perspective on the situation.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. In recent days, the government of Iran has regained control of the streets after two weeks of massive protests. The huge demonstrations were against election results that found Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been re-elected president of Iran. Supporters of the regime's main challenger Mir Hussein Moussavi claim the election has been stolen. A fierce crackdown on the protests led to deaths and injuries on the streets of Tehran and other large cities in Iran. Many Americans are, of course, following the events in Iran closely, but no group is more involved than the Iranian-American community. Southern California has the largest concentration of Iranian-Americans, and a rally in support of the protesters in Iran was held here in San Diego last week. What is it like to see the country of your birth or your heritage in such political upheaval, with violence in the streets, but also with the promise of great change? How do you keep in touch with members of your family and make sure they're safe? My guests today can attempt to answer those questions and many others about what's going on in Iran and what it all means. I'd like to welcome Ali Sadr. He's teacher and principal of the Iranian School of San Diego and editor-in-chief of the Persian Cultural Center's newsletter, Peyk. He's here today not speaking for those organizations but expressing his own opinions, and, Ali, welcome to These Days.
ALI SADR (Principal, Iranian School of San Diego): Thanks for inviting us. Thanks.
CAVANAUGH: And Shabnam Dadkhah is UCSD graduate and active in the San Diego Iranian-American community. Shabnam, welcome.
DADKHAH: Thank you for having us.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Ali, we first talked with you earlier on These Days this year and it was during happier times when we were talking about the Persian community celebrating the holiday of Nowruz. And I'd like to ask you for your general opinions now of the protests that have occurred in Iran over the recent presidential election. Did you see any of this coming?
SADR: Well, this election was a bit different from the previous ones. The government gave like two weeks or three weeks before the election kind of freedom of expression. People could get together and rally for their candidates and get together in the streets and following the symbols and their slogans and stuff. So government kind of let loose this time and that's why a lot of people got involved because, in the past, you know, people didn't really think that the election is theirs. They didn't really think they are part of it. So this time it was a bit different. That's why a lot of people joined the demonstrations, a lot of people even, in the other countries, Iranian-Americans and European, they were involved with the situation and following it closely. And over eighty-some percent of the population or eligible people, they voted so they were hoping for change. When you have that number of people going out and voting for something, obviously, it's not for status quo. They want change. So a lot of people were really excited about what's going on over there.
CAVANAUGH: I want to remind our listeners that we are inviting them to join the conversation. Should the Iranian people accept the outcome of the presidential election? Are we seeing the beginning of a new Iranian revolution? Give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. And so just to follow up on your thought, Ali, so people have their hopes up is basically what you're saying. And now to see this kind of hanky-panky, if we can call it, with the election results, is this what kept the people out on the streets?
SADR: Well, you may call it hanky-panky, a lot of people call it coup d'etat. You know, it was no hanky-panky. The result was totally reversed. A lot of people, they believe that the candidate, the opposition leader, has the vote and then suddenly everything was reversed. And with the big crackdown and attacking, you know, bringing dogs to the streets and attacking demonstrations and stuff, so a lot of people even who paid – who voted for Ahmadinejad, after they saw all these things happening, they either, you know, they even joined the demonstrations and stuff. And, you know, it's something that's affecting the whole county.
CAVANAUGH: Bring us back just a little bit to give us some context, and what have conditions been like in Iran during the past five years or so under President Ahmadinejad?
SADR: You have to go further back. Over the last 30 years, I mean, these demonstrations sporadically have been happening against the regime. And a lot of times—all the times, basically—the regime became pretty heavy handed and destroyed the demonstrations and arrested people and thousands of people got killed. Now your listeners probably can relate to the latest martyr, Neda, who's been famous throughout the whole world but there have been thousands of Nedas in the last 30 years. So this has been building up and is not going to end now even if it temporarily will have setbacks. But eventually people will demand a big change.
CAVANAUGH: Shabnam, I'd like to bring you into the conversation. You're from another generation. I'm wondering, were you surprised by the protests that followed the election?
DADKHAH: Well, I think I was more surprised in the beginning to see so many young Iranians being excited for the elections, where Ali mentioned that two weeks prior. I remember being on Facebook and seeing family and friends in Iran being excited for the elections. So when the protests happened, I wasn't that surprised because I could see how much their hopes were up, you know, prior to the elections. So it was definitely shocking, though, to see how the government was coming in and trying to stop these protests. So that was – it's been very difficult to watch.
CAVANAUGH: Now some of the election protests were taking place while you were traveling overseas and you got involved in a protest, I believe, in Great Britain. Tell us about that.
DADKHAH: Yeah, I was traveling in Europe and I was kind of stuck to the television set as I was trying to travel, which was very difficult for me and my friends because I kind of wanted to come back to the hotel room and see what was happening on BBC or Sky News. But the last day of my trip, I was leaving out of London so I had the opportunity to walk past the Iranian Embassy where the local folks from the UK were having a rally, you know, a protest, so it was kind of interesting to see that, what a rally was like in the UK and then coming back to the States and seeing, in San Diego, the same things happening. So it was definitely really interesting to see how it was a global issue.
CAVANAUGH: And, Ali, tell us about the protest that took here last – took place here last week.
SADR: Well, everything kind of started right after the election. As soon as we saw that the results were reversed, a group of students, a group of UCSD students, they got together through e-mail and through Facebook, just passed the word and on June 24th we had the first demonstration. And after that, every other day or so, there have been demonstrations, people – from 200 people to a thousand people just getting together and expressing their frustration and anxiety about what's going on in Iran.
CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know we are taking your calls and comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727. I think one of the most viscerally gripping ideas that followed this story, at least here in the United States, is when you have family and friends over in another country and the country has shut down communication as much as they possibly can. Ali, I was going to ask you, how do you keep in touch? What do you go through when you see those TV images and you hear what's going on over there? How do you keep in touch with your family?
SADR: The same as other people. You know, we – Just talking to each other through whatever means we can, you know, through phones, landlines, cell phones, Facebook was working fine, YouTube was working and so we try every method, whatever – how ever we can get some news from there. But one thing I was going to mention is the majority of—and Shabnam mentioned—that the youth participation in this. The regime was really counting on this youth because they, you know, they trained them to be the supporter of the government and now they're totally turning against them. And so – because the education actually is start from – the religious education and supporting of governments are from first grade. So from first grade, they were talking about teaching them from – about Islam, about martyrdom and all those things, and now it's backfired. All the youth in, you know, 70% of the population are under 30 so – and these are the youth are turning against the government because they're demanding their freedom, demanding their rights.
CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating because I haven't heard that pointed out but you're actually – you're absolutely right. Most of the young people, of course, are not in support of the clerical government and yet they've been trained in Iran, since the revolution in 1979, to support that way of life. And what have you been hearing from your family and friends over in Iran, Shabnam?
DADKHAH: I would say one of the biggest things that I've noticed or have heard is that the young people of Iran really want to be part of the global community and they're kind of tired of seeing their rich heritage basically trampled on. So they want to be part of the global community and have Iran pretty much get the respect that they deserve. So they kind of – they're proud of their country but they also want to be part of the bigger community, and I think that's the biggest thing, too, with this election, that they kind of saw the – that Ahmadinejad was not going to take them to that next level.
CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727, and right now Ali in Rancho Bernardo is on the line. Good morning, Ali, and welcome to These Days.
ALI (Caller, Rancho Bernardo): Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. I mean, I have to be very surprised from – have to admit for a moment I was – I think – I thought I was listening to Fox News, the way you have a one-sided story. I mean, I understand that the two guests that you have, their perspective, but the numbers that they are portraying in Tehran, the best thing that your listeners could do is do a search, do a Google search for the pictures of people who actually voted and then compare those to the people who are actually demonstrating. It's true that Iran's made of youths a lot but even the youths object. I'm one of them, I voted for Ahmadinejad. But the problem is, you know, you have a special sector of people that have been shown on TV that are causing this problem and the majority of us, 99% is in Tehran. Tehran's the biggest city, no doubt about that, but I would say 90% of votes that were casted were counted truthfully.
CAVANAUGH: So, Ali…
ALI: The United States – Yes?
CAVANAUGH: I was just going to ask, so you think the election has not been – is not a fraud, that it – that Ahmadinejad was fairly reelected?
ALI: Yes, the problem – Yes, I do, because I do understand many people voted against Ahmadinejad but many, many more people voted for him. And the problem that your guests are portraying is that, yes, the youth wants a new Iran but the problem is Iranians, they are very self-conscious and they like to be independent. They'll comfort themselves in any culture, they comfort themselves with their neighbors, with what they see. It seems, you know, pro-democracy, pro-western means being like Iraq or the Arabs or any neighbor – neighboring countries, any people in the – even Egypt. I mean, who would you want to comfort yourself with pro-western in the region…
CAVANAUGH: Certainly, Ali…
ALI: …and do you really want to be like that, you know?
CAVANAUGH: Ali, let me get reaction to your comments, okay? And thank you so much for calling. You've heard what he has to say. Are you jumping to conclusions that perhaps all of Iran thinks the way you do, Ali?
SADR: No. Of course, Mr. Ahmadinejad has a lot of supporters and nobody can deny that. And a lot of people, they are mesmerized with his attitude toward west and they think that his populist type of personality is against – is standing against the west. He's supporting the nuclear energy research and development. All those things, of course, have some followers. The question is that the election, the participation of over 80%, they were demanding for change. They were demanding not the status quo. And the election was reversed based on all the information that is available out there. And I – But I don't deny that Mr. Ahmadinejad has a lot of supporters, you know, as well.
CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. David is in El Centro. Good morning, David, and welcome to These Days.
DAVID (Caller, El Centro): Good morning. Thank you for having this forum. Yeah, the media has been having a real feeding frenzy about the Iranian election and it's no wonder since, openly, the United States congress authorized and it was planned by George Bush to fund, openly, nearly $100 million to human rights organizations within the sovereign nation of Iran. And I wonder if these people who are speaking as Iranian-Americans, what money they have taken? What was their position when the United States overthrew the democratic government of Iran in 1954? What was their position now that the United States has declared that they want regime change and Israel, every single day, talks about bombing Iran for development of nuclear power. I mean, the thing is, is that there's a nuclear – there's a religious extremist state in the Middle East that has known nuclear weapons. It's the government of Israel. What is – are your panelists calling for to be done about Israel, who has nuclear weapons, who is in violation of the Security Council Resolution 2424. What are…
CAVANAUGH: David, I have to stop you right here. Thank you so much for your call. I will get an answer to your question. David is very upset with American meddling, I suppose you would call it, in Iran and in the past. What do you think? Has America's influence in Iran led to the unrest that we see in the streets in Iran today?
SADR: No. Anything that happens in Iran, they – all independent organizations, NGOs and the political organizations, they don't want to be connected to the United States. For them – I know that your previous government, George Bush and prior to that, they had certain budgets for influencing and overthrowing the government and stuff. And every time, the last 30 years, the main slogan under the demonstrations have been 'death to America.' And this time with the regime change in the United States and changing the policy in the United States, that basically was disarmed and the government could not use that weapon for – against United States. Of course, they're using it right now, you know, because they have all the media and everything. But to answer your caller's question, we did not get paid. And the overthrow of the Mosaddeq regime, Mosaddeq government was 1953, not 1954.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, well, let me ask both of you this question then. If there is, indeed, a change in leadership in Iran, do you think that it's going to fundamentally change the way Iran is trying to get nuclear power and those issues? Is it just a done deal that if Ahmadinejad is not there, that the entire policy of Iran towards the rest of the world is going to change?
SADR: No. No, regardless, I mean, Ahmadinejad probably is going to be confirmed as president, you know, regardless people like it or not. And he's looking for openness of some sort with the United States and the west. He needs them. And – But the thing is that the nuclear weapon, nuclear policy, nuclear energy and stuff is his – is the card that he's using it against the west. And I think that the main thing that can happen, and hopefully will happen, is that eventually the openness in Iran and we saw that two weeks before the revolution, a little bit of openness will happen. So if they open—and they know—if they set back one inch, they're going to lose kilometers. But, hopefully, that openness is going to happen and through international pressure and through our United Nations and through European Union.
CAVANAUGH: Let's get another call. And Zoha (sp) is in Del Mar. Good morning, Zoha, and welcome to These Days.
ZOHA (Caller, Del Mar): Good morning. I just wanted to say that even though I was born here, as an Iranian-American, over the last couple of weeks I've really never been so proud to be Iranian because a lot of people have joined together in solidarity to show and support the people of Iran in everything that they're going through. And I just want to say we should try to not forget, especially, the people that have been killed, unfortunately, in the last couple of weeks because by not forgetting is how we'll be able to remember and, hopefully, someday things will change for the people and they'll get what they want.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that call. Thank you so much, Zoha, and, Shabnam, have you also felt a resurgence of your ethnic pride?
DADKHAH: I would say most definitely I've felt that. At the same time, it makes me so proud of being American where I can go in front of the federal building, I can go to Balboa Park, and I have this right to voice my opinion. So it's been beautiful to have that connection back to my culture back in Iran but then also really appreciate the freedom I have to express my voice. So it's actually been really great both ways, I would say.
CAVANAUGH: You know, I don't want to leave this conversation without talking a little bit about Facebook and Twitter, and that has been – become the way that you're communicating with not only people here in the States but over in Iran, is that right?
DADKHAH: Definitely. I get most of my news by going onto Facebook and seeing what people have been posting, especially since – Actually, in the early days, it was very hard to get information from the major media sources so I would go on to get information. I would go to see what's happening on the streets of Iran. And then locally it was great to find out what was happening in the San Diego community, and when I did do the protest in the UK, I did it by going onto the Events page in Facebook and doing a very simple search. And so folks here in San Diego could also do the same if they go to Facebook, type in, you know, some keywords, they'll see that we're having events. And, in particular, tonight we're having a candlelight vigil from seven to nine in front of the San Diego Federal building. So if anybody would like to join us and get more information about what's going on, that's a great place to meet us.
CAVANAUGH: Have you found that with the communication being sort of limited to Facebook and Twitter and – that there are a lot of rumors circulating? That it's hard to find out whether things are true or not, Ali?
SADR: Absolutely. There's a lot of misinformation as well, so you have to be very selective and look at the source that it's coming – I get a lot of misinformation and I don't pass it around and I warn other people that I'm in touch with that this sounds fishy, don't pass it around, because, obviously, the opposition is, you know, the government is interfering with the same system, trying to use the system on their behalf so, of course, we have to be very selective of the information that is out there.
CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Christina is in La Jolla. Good morning, Christina, welcome to These Days.
CHRISTINA (Caller, La Jolla): Good morning. Thank you. I just wanted to say that in the United States we have, certainly, in our past had stolen and defeated elections and through the democratic and civil processes we've come to be a better democracy and I think that Iran and Tehran, they're on the way now through their actions, so it may not be this election but I think they're on their way to a more perfect democracy through civil action.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that comment, Christina. And it was interesting, just to piggyback on Christine's (sic) comment that the Iranian revolution in '79, which brought in this current, you know, regime, if you look at it in the longterm, took about a year or so in the works, with a lot of demonstrations and so forth. Do you see something similar to that starting now to overthrow this regime?
SADR: At this point, I don't think that the – what the people in Iran are demanding is overthrowing the regime.
SADR: Everything is started with 'where's my vote?' You know, they were – you know – But it's progressing, you know, and it's changing through time with the reaction of the regime. So it started with 'where's my vote' and now has become a civil right movement. They're just basically asking for their civil right to demonstrate, to express their opinion. It may evolve to other things but at this point, where we are it just basically is the civil right movement if you want to compare it with the other movements around the world.
CAVANAUGH: Interesting. So you have this candlelight vigil coming up this evening. What else are you planning to support the people in Iran?
SADR: What we are doing and what we ask the listeners if they feel for this situation to do, is signing petitions, writing letters. Unfortunately, the U.S. has little leverage toward Iran. Because of the sanctions and everything, we cannot really push too much through U.S. government. But through United Nations and other countries that recognize the current regime, like China, like Soviet – or, like Russia, they can write letters and express their opinion and put international pressure on the regime not to recognize this as fast and let the people express their opinion and demand freedom of expression, freedom of political prisoners and, just basically, demands of human rights.
CAVANAUGH: And I want to end this by asking you Shabnam, since you are part of the younger generation, what do you think is going to happen?
DADKHAH: It's really hard to predict but I definitely see that this is the beginning of some changes that is going to happen in the country and especially since there's such a young group in Iran and they hold such a large population that it's just kind of how we've seen in the United States, as the baby boomers have progressed in the States that there's been major changes in how the United States has been, and I think the same thing's going to – is bound to happen in Iran as they have certain demands and concerns, it's just – it's bound to change. Whether it's going to happen real quick, I'm not sure, but this is the beginning.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both so much for expressing your opinions here, listening to all the opinions on this subject. Thank you Ali Sadr and Shabnam Dadkhah for coming in and talking with us this morning.
SADR: Thanks for having us.
DADKHAH: Thank you again.
CAVANAUGH: And I want to thank all the callers that we didn't get to. Hope we'll be able to answer your call on some other topic some other time. You are listening to These Days and These Days will continue in just a few moments here on KPBS.