(October 4, 2022 / JNS) Following two weeks of protests in dozens of Iranian cities against the ruling Islamist theocracy, Iranian-American activists of various faiths have been demonstrating and voicing support for their countrymen’s push to overthrow the regime.
“When we’re seeing our compatriots in Iran who are mostly young people—often girls that are maybe 18, 19 or 20-years-old showing incredible courage by standing up to the armed thugs of the regime in the streets of Iran, the very least those of us outside of Iran can do is to publicly demonstrate and show our support for their freedom movement,” said Sam Rajabi, an Iranian-American activist with the Normal Life Council, a non-profit organization based in Los Angeles.
On Oct. 1, thousands of Iranians in cities across the U.S.—including Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Denver, Washington D.C., Indianapolis, Atlanta and Detroit—took part in demonstrations in support of the protesters. Iranian expatriates in Canada, Australia and Europe did so as well.
“Iranians demonstrating abroad show Iranians at home that they’re not alone in their struggle against the Islamic Republic,” said Alireza Nader, an Iran expert who formerly worked at the RAND Corporation. “The regime wants the people of Iran to think that they’re alone and the world is ignoring them, but the show of solidarity from the diaspora is good for morale at home.”
The current uprisings began after the Iranian regime’s “morality police” arrested and beat to death Masha Amini, a 22-year-old woman in Tehran, for not wearing the head covering required by the regime. After photographs of her badly beaten body were circulated on social media and she was later pronounced dead, enraged Iranians in various cities began protesting.
Since then, the demonstrations have grown exponentially, with the regime’s security forces arresting and shooting countless protesters.
“I’ve never seen Iranians so angry at the regime and so determined to overthrow the ruling theocracy,” said Nader. “Iranian revolutionaries have occupied streets, avenues, city parks and even government buildings. Women are refusing to wear the compulsory hijab—there is no going back for the regime.”
Even before protests escalated, several thousand Iranian-Americans flooded New York City on Sept. 21 to demonstrate outside the United Nations building as Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi addressed the U.N. General Assembly.
“Iranians came from all over the country to New York City and I believe Raisi and his murderous gang heard our opposition message loud and clear,” said Ladan Bazargan, an Iranian-American activist based in Southern California.
Bazargan and other Iranian-American activists said they protested Raisi not only because he is president of Iran, but also to raise public awareness in the U.S. about his role as a member of the regime’s “death commission,” which forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially executed thousands of political dissidents in 1988.
“It is outrageous that the Biden administration granted this man a visa to set foot on U.S. soil even though Amnesty International and other organizations have shown clear evidence of his role in crimes against humanity in Iran,” said Bazargan.
Rajabi said he and other Iranian-American activists sought to publicly confront Raisi and question members of his entourage connected to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
“We went to New York City to make sure these terrorists connected with Raisi could not easily stroll down the streets of an American city without facing criticism and being questioned for their criminal actions in Iran,” said Rajabi. “In fact, I did luckily encounter two of the regime’s thugs on the streets there. I confronted them on camera to hold them accountable for what their regime did to Masha Amini and other innocent Iranians—they showed that they were cowards since they walked away and didn’t have any response for me.”
Since Amini’s death and the regime’s crackdown on the ensuing protests, some Iranian-American elected officials have publicly supported the protesters. On Sept. 20, Dr. Sharona Nazarian, a newly elected Iranian-American member of the Beverly Hills City Council, led a moment of silence for Amini during a council meeting and read aloud a letter from a woman in Iran pleading for support from Americans.
“This is not a religious or cultural issue when it comes to what’s happening to the people of Iran who are just asking for basic freedom,” said Nazarian. “It’s a human rights issue and we as Americans need to speak up in support of the people of Iran. The Islamic Republic is not the Iranian people and their policies do not reflect or support the views of the people.”
Raisi’s visit to New York also sparked controversy among Iranian-American Jews in Southern California when community activists learned that Maurice Motamed, a Jewish former member of Iran’s parliament who currently lives in Los Angeles, along with two Iranian-American rabbis, attended a reception and met with Raisi in New York.
Motamed immigrated to America more than a decade ago. He currently does not hold a position in any Iranian-Jewish organizations in the U.S.
“It’s sad and shameful that anyone who is an Iranian Jew would meet with the leader of a regime that denies the Holocaust and wants Israel’s destruction,” said Bijan Khalili, a Los Angeles-area Iranian Jewish activist and communications director of the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) in Los Angeles. “He certainly does not represent the vast majority of Iranian Jews in America who oppose this regime and support the people of Iran that are telling us they do not want this regime.”
Iranian state-run news outlets ran articles about Raisi meeting with Iranian religious minorities living in the U.S. during his visit to New York, with one of them featuring a photograph of Motamed standing in a group with Raisi.
Khalili said he had questioned Motamed about his visit with Raisi beforehand and that Motamed responded he was visiting the Iranian president for the “protection of Iran’s Jews.”
“His argument that he went to visit with Raisi in order to help protect Iran’s remaining 7,500 Jews is not valid in my opinion, because 95% of Jews have already been cleansed from Iran since 1979 and we cannot stay silent because of this small minority group while this regime in Iran threatens the destruction of the nation-state of the Jewish people,” said Khalili. “Motamed also told Iranian Jewish leaders here in L.A. that he still has personal business interests in Iran.”
Motamed did not respond to calls for comment.
The IAJF released a Rosh Hashanah statement supporting the Iranian protesters and condemning the killing of Amini.
“We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our brethren and sisters, the long-suffering people of Iran and the Mahsa Amini family,” stated the IAJF. “We abhor the poison of anti-Semitic statements towards Israel and the world Jewish community and look forward to a time when our people are free and sanity returns to the Iranian leadership.”
The statement from the IAJF was unique, as Iranian-American Jewish organizations have typically refrained from criticism of the regime over the fear of retaliation against the estimated 5,000 to 8,000 Jews still living in Iran.
Tehran’s Central Jewish Committee, which oversees the activities of all of Iran’s remaining Jews, released a statement on Instagram before Rosh Hashanah announcing that synagogues in the country would be closed after 5 p.m. during the High Holidays due to security concerns.
“They are concerned that some opportunists might use the situation to cause harm. All major cities of Iran are boiling with anti-government demonstrations and the security forces are short-handed,” said George Haroonian, an Iranian-Jewish activist based in Los Angeles.
Other Iranian-American activists who have friends and family imprisoned in Iran called on Americans and individuals in the West to vocally support the protesters. One such individual is Gazelle Sharmahd, who is based in Southern California and has been publicly calling for the regime to release her father, Jamshid Sharmahd, a vocal Iranian opposition activist. Her father was kidnapped by the regime’s security services in Dubai during a July 2020 stopover in the country and taken to Iran to stand trial.
She has launched several public awareness campaigns seeking the release of her elderly father, who has advanced Parkinson’s disease and faces potential execution.
“If he has the execution rope around his neck for two years, so do the people of Iran,” said Sharmahd. “I firmly believe that if we all put our private lives on hold for a few weeks and seriously do anything in our power to support the people who are willing to die for freedom, then freedom will win.”