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In U.S., Iranians See Country And Countrymen in a New Light

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 20, 2009

For the past week, young members of the Iranian diaspora have been able to assume a few things about each other: They spend all day glued to the Internet, and they're suddenly experts on a handful of bearded men they may not have cared much about before.

With huge crowds taking to Iran's streets to protest a presidential election they say was rigged, Iranians outside the country have been staying up late into the night, watching the drama unfold online, in tweets and status updates and shaky video clips. They are jittery and excited, consumed by a passion many did not know they had, for a country some have never even visited.

Hussein Banai, 28, a graduate student at Brown University, had so little faith in the Iranian system that he didn't vote last week for the president of the country he left 13 years ago. Like many, though, he has been swept up by what followed. "I've never seen so many people outside the country being so viscerally engaged with the political process," he said. "I'm hoping this will result in a major shakeup of the regime."

Some scenes are disturbing, such as those of protesters being beaten or shot. But there are also human moments, such as demonstrators surrounding a policeman and asking whether he speaks Arabic or Farsi -- evidently in response to rumors that militias were brought into Iran from Arab countries to replace police who might not fire on crowds.

In the clip, the policeman cracks a smile and says, "Farsi," prompting delighted demonstrators to ask for whom he voted. And observers abroad have been prompted to add their own delighted comments.

"It's amazing. It's like watching the Berlin Wall come down," said Nika Khanjani, 34, a filmmaker who lives in Montreal. "I really feel like something's changing."

Like many, she said she can hardly stand not to be in Iran now. "I feel sorry for myself that I'm alone here, and I realize that there is this incredibly strong desire to feel connected, and that is my answer to myself as to why I'm on the computer all the time," she said. "I just need to be around people who care about this."

That feeling has prompted many in the Iranian diaspora, which numbers about 1 million people in the United States, to join forces in a way they never have before. Almost every day since the disputed June 12 election, they have participated in vigils and marches in cities around the world.

They are taking their cues from people in Iran, said Babak Talebi, 29, of McLean, an organizer of the grass-roots group Whereismyvote.org. "We were just like, 'Damn, the Islamic Republic did it again,' " he said. But then, "When it became clear that people inside Iran were not letting this go without dissent, we were just like, 'We have to do something.' "

Many people around the world have replaced their online photos with the words "Where Is My Vote?" against a green backdrop, the color of defeated candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi's campaign. But many abroad say they are uniting not around a specific political leader so much as around their support for Iranians they see as taking huge risks in the name of democracy.

Such risk-taking is not unprecedented: Student protests in 1999 raised hopes but resulted in a crackdown and did not spark the same level of involvement abroad. This time, technological advances have allowed for wider dissemination of the events. But there is more to it than that, said Jahanshah Javid, who runs a diaspora Web site, Iranian.com.

"The student movement was more radical," he said, noting that this time some of Iran's establishment clerics have joined the protests, emboldening usually apolitical Iranians to participate. "This fear of the security forces, of the Islamic Republic in general, has melted away."

So far, the demonstrators' demands include a new election and the release of those arrested but not a new system, and most expatriates are echoing that, Talebi said. "This is the consensus -- that we're going to create change in Iran without a revolution, with internal reform."

Not all have united around this idea. Shouting matches have broken out at demonstrations in Los Angeles and Washington between middle-aged Iranians carrying the lion-and-sun flags of the shah's era and mostly younger Iranians, who fear that such flags will allow Tehran to link the protests with monarchists seeking to overturn the government.

In fact, many protesters have adopted slogans and imagery of the 1979 revolution, such as shouting "Allahu akbar" from rooftops and sharing video clips of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini speaking about blood spilled for the country and a rising wave of protest around the world.

Mindful that the Iranian government could seek to discredit the protests as foreign-backed, some in the diaspora are also arguing over how much the Obama administration should get involved. In an informal poll put out this week by the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, 60 percent of respondents said that U.S. involvement would be counterproductive but that human rights violations must be condemned; 19 percent said the United States should not get involved at all.

The House of Representatives voted 405 to 1 yesterday to condemn Tehran's crackdown on demonstrators. The Senate voted unanimously to condemn censorship and intimidation of the press in Iran.

Iranians in the United States say they are hearing from friends interested in Iran for the first time, and some are amused by comments from non-Iranians who are struck by the images of hip young Tehran protesters after so many years of seeing clerics as the face of Iran. There is a newfound sense of pride, they say, a sense of wanting to wear an "Iran" T-shirt or carry an "Iran" book in public, to show off a heritage many were more used to hiding.

"You're seeing for the first time the Iranian coming out in you, whether you're full Iranian or half or a quarter," said Goli Fassihian, a NIAC spokeswoman. "Most people feel that this is the beginning of a long-term thing."

For those old enough to remember the animosity unleashed on Iranians during the hostage crisis, the transformation can be liberating. "All my formative years, I dreaded the reaction when people would find out I was Iranian," said Khanjani, who grew up in Texas. "It was so vilified, and it's like vindication right now. Would we feel so proud of our country if it hadn't gone through 30 years of being demonized?

"Especially when I read about the silent marches and the integrity with which these people are organizing, and the courage," she added. "Yeah, these are Iranians -- full of passion, full of moxie, intelligent. It's just so cool that the whole world is watching."

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