Iran Native Becomes Mayor of Beverly Hills

Jimmy Delshad is sworn in alongside his wife, Lonnie. He is believed to be the highest-ranking Iranian-born officeholder in the United States.
Jimmy Delshad is sworn in alongside his wife, Lonnie. He is believed to be the highest-ranking Iranian-born officeholder in the United States. (By Richard Hartog -- Los Angeles Times)

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By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 1, 2007

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Jimmy Delshad promised in Farsi-accented English to faithfully serve as mayor, and a crowd of nearly 1,000 stood to cheer. And so Beverly Hills got its first Iranian American chief executive, marking the political arrival of an immigrant community that has quietly reshaped this famously posh city over the past 25 years.

Delshad, 67, is now widely regarded as the highest-ranking Iranian-born officeholder in the United States. It's a source of pride for Iranian emigrants around the world. He was reelected to the Beverly Hills City Council for a second term earlier this month and rotated into the mayor's seat last week.

"I've had more calls and e-mails from outside the U.S. than inside the U.S.," Delshad said in the mayor's office the day after he was sworn in. A congratulatory bouquet dominated the table next to him. "You name the country, I've had calls."

In his inaugural speech, Delshad spent more time on the intractable traffic problems in Beverly Hills than on his ethnicity. He suggested programming parking meters so they could be paid by cellphone, drawing gasps and enthusiastic applause.

But Delshad knows he is a cultural ambassador as much as a city administrator. "I wanted to open doors for others who would see me as an example," he said in his speech.

And Delshad, who is Jewish, chose a Holocaust survivor to swear him in. Going off script, Delshad said from the lectern, "Don't let anybody doubt the Holocaust, because if you do, I'll buy you a one-way ticket to Auschwitz."

"That was directed to [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad," he said the next day. "They put in the paper in Iran: 'Persian Jew Will Be Mayor of Beverly Hills.' "

After the fall of the shah in 1979, Iranians, many wealthy and well-educated, fanned out across the United States and Europe. While some have found success in business and academia in this country, fewer have entered politics, preferring not to draw attention to themselves, said Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council.

In Europe, by contrast, it is "easier to get into the political life than the economic life," Parsi said. An Iranian immigrant serves on the Swedish parliament, and, until last year, another served in the Dutch legislature.

Los Angeles absorbed thousands, and a large contingent of Persian Jews found their way to Beverly Hills. Now, about 8,000 of the city's 35,000 residents are Iranian. They have made their mark -- and sometimes ruffled feathers -- in this sunny oasis of palm-lined streets.

Here the public schools give students the day off for Norouz, the Iranian New Year holiday in March. This month, for the first time, ballots were printed in Farsi as well as Spanish and English.

Some Iranians' preference for large houses with columns and gates has transformed streets of single-story bungalows with lush lawns in front, prompting an outcry from older residents, who scorn the new two-story flat-fronted houses with paved yards as "Persian palaces."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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