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Iranian Americans Join to Promote Political Activism

Rights Complaints Spark Unity

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2004; Page C01

Dozens of Iranian immigrants gathered on a recent night in Dupont Circle for a get-out-the-vote event, pondering the choice facing them.

Apple martinis or cosmopolitans?

Mixers are among the ways the District-based National Iranian American Council reaches out to the community. Iranian American groups have encouraged civic presence since the 2001 terrorist attacks. (Michael Robinson-Chavez -- The Washington Post)

"Look at us. We're in a bar. We're Iranians. None of us has trouble with a cocktail or two," said Daniel Rostrup, 23, of Columbia Heights, lifting his cosmopolitan to indicate the crowd of professionals in slinky sweaters and fashionable heels.

Iranians represent the largest Middle Eastern immigrant group in the Washington area but one of the least visible. Many are highly educated professionals who are secular. Think Chanel, not chador.

Settled in such suburbs as Potomac and Tysons Corner, they are a world away from the fundamentalist Islamic government in their homeland.

Or so they thought.

But since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the community has been startled by a crackdown on Middle Eastern visitors and a flurry of job-discrimination cases involving Iranian Americans. In response, the immigrants are venturing into the one area of American life that had remained out of their realm: politics.

"There came a realization that without actively engaging in the American civic and electoral process, our voices were not going to be heard," said Morad Ghorban, political director of the new Iranian American Political Action Committee.

While they are a relatively small group -- estimates of the nationwide population range from 340,000 to a half-million or more -- Iranian Americans are working the system to maximize their influence. Activists have registered hundreds to vote. The Iranian American PAC has distributed about $30,000 to congressional and local candidates on Tuesday's ballot. And the Iranian American Bar Association has taken the community's civil-liberties complaints to dozens of congressional staffers.

"Iranian Americans realize that, 'Okay, I may be CEO of my own company, but I still can't bring my grandmother here without her being humiliated in the airport,' " said Dokhi Fassihian, executive director of the National Iranian American Council, a two-year-old organization based in Adams Morgan that organized the voter registration drive.

Most Iranians who have settled in this country did so about 1979, when the Islamic revolution toppled the U.S.-backed shah. Although the biggest share headed for Southern California, thousands came to Washington, which had a sizable Iranian student population. The 2000 Census counted 17,390 Iranian-born residents in this area, but activists think there are more.

With their roots in Iran's elite, the immigrants are generally highly educated, with a median family income 20 percent higher than the U.S. average, according to the Iranian Studies Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That prosperity is obvious in the Washington area.

There are associations of dentists, lawyers, professors and high-tech executives. When the Iranian American Technology Council threw a benefit last year, it was a black-tie, $175-a-ticket dinner at the Four Seasons.

But in this city of politics, Iranian Americans were invisible. They were too busy working. And they rarely formed alliances with established groups from the Middle East. Iranians are ethnic Persians, not Arabs; and many are secular Muslims or not Muslim at all.

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