Bahram Nahidian peddles rugs and revolution -- a 41-year-old Georgetown carpet dealer hawking 9-by-12 -foot Persian elegance while orchestrating outrage simultaneously as the Ayatollah Khomeini's point man in the streets of Washington.
A devout, born-again Moslem who kneels toward Mecca five times each day, the naturalized American citizen has risen from rags to relative riches without ever losing the faith.
This week, he took time out from tending ambassadors and former astronauts in his Wisconsin Avenue showroom to file a parade permit for today's anti-shah student march with the U.S. Park Police. Yesterday, he sat down with D.C. police to iron out details for the Moslem demonstration.
"He's been involved with marches for a long time," says Moroccan graduate student Mostafa Abulghaith, 30, of American University's Moslem Student Association. He and other students plan to march with other Islamic groups from Dupont Circle to the State Department today to protest President Carter's threat of military force against Iran.
"As a student, he protested against the shah," said Abulghaith, "and he's still protesting as a businessman."
"If the shah escapes, the grief between the United States and Iran will never end," says the prosperous Iranian businessman with the gray-flecked, reddish-brown beard and fiery hazel eyes. "We're fighting American imperialism and Zionism, the system that created the shah."
Koran in hand, Nahidian keeps in almost daily contact with local Iranian students, advising those with cash-flow worries how to liquidate family rugs for instant money, delivering lectures on Islam to various groups and helping to organize anti-shah, anti-U.S. demonstrations.
"He has devoted his time to anything that can be done," says his wife, Janice. "I haven't seen much of him lately."
Nahidian, in fact, may have more clout with the student captors in Iran than all the diplomats in the State Department.
While his American wife and their five children lie fast asleep in their $100,000 McLean house, the rug merchant regularly places long-distance phone calls to Tehran to counsel student leaders holding 50 American hostages at the U.S. Embassy.
Just before Thanksgiving, he suggested the captive Americans be served their traditional turkey, to make them feel more at home, a request the students were unable to fulfill, he says. And when he learned "that one of the hostages had a cold, and others weren't getting enough sun, I asked the students to get them a doctor and take better care of them," he says.
"They said they would do it, for sure. If we suggest they do something good for the hostages, they will do it."
The State Department concedes it has had difficulty reaching the U.S. Embassy by phone -- the "main link," according to officials -- because individuals like Nahidian and American radio stations that have obtained the embassy number clog the lines.
Nahidian takes issue with President Carter's charges that the hostages have been mistreated. "Many of the Americans have become very close to the students," he says. "They have memorized some verses from the Koran and have been awfully happy about what they have learned. One American (hostage) told a student that when he leaves, he'll feel like he's leaving a friend behind."
That a Georgetown rug merchant is able to play even one trombone in the symphonic discord of U.S.-Iranian relations says much about Iran's political chaos and the nature of America's diplomatic quandary.
Hunched over his short-wave radio in back of his shop at 2233 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Nahidian tunes in news broadcasts from his native Iran. He distrusts American newspapers and television, he says, labeling them "an extension of the CIA and the FBI."
To an outsider, Nahidian walks wrapped in the religious zealot's armor of certitude. He owns no doubts. Yet he glows with suspicion of strangers.
"He's more than a little paranoid," observes Michael Collins, the ex-astronaut turned under secretary of the Smithsonian, who has bought four rugs from Nahidian and calls him a fair trader.
"I told him the Iranian Embassy (in Washington) was well protected, and he implied that the protection was an illusion. He said that one day the police withdrew their forces, hoping to get someone to attack the embassy, but only a few people knocked on the door," Collins said.
Collins says he stopped by the shop the other day to try to cheer up his rug dealer. "I thought he would need a friendly word. But he wasn't down in the dumps at all."
Many iranian businessmen and fellow rug dealers here may well share Nahidian's views, but they fear airing such political beliefs could endanger their grubstake in America.
Nahidian, though, is willing to speak out, to brave the wrath and the threatening calls. "They curse, 'Get the f--- out of here,' and hang up. But I plan to stay. Getting the message of the revolution across" is important, he says.
"You can't be afraid, even if you're beaten or killed, or your house is blown up," he adds. "It is my duty. Whoever created me says, 'Keep moving.'" A fundamental belief in Islam fuels the fires of his political convictions: "I have acquired life in the hereafter. I am comfortable."
But, he warns, even "if you destroy Khomeini, do you think the revolution is going to stop? No. There will be others to take his place."
Such sentiment makes his business partner, Kambiz Faili, 40, very nervous.
"Politics is not my bag," he says, fidgeting amidst elegant rugs of silk and wool. "My partner has his own views. We get along otherwise."
The rugs are usually rolled into tight, expensive cocoons and placed upright, like soldiers at attention. Some lie flat, stacked atop one another like rectangular pancakes. Others hang from the wall, Nains, Isfahans, Joshegans, with price tags suited less to carpets than cars -- $13,000, $8,950, $3,000.
And like Caspian Sea caviar and Iranian oil, say the partners, fine Persian rugs are destined to be ever scarce and more expensive, thanks in part to Khomeini, who ordered weavers' wages raised from $2 to $8 an hour.
It is more than a little ironic that the religious leader he calls a saint could turn his business upside down by making his Persian rugs virtually unaffordable says Collins.
"I could sell $1 million worth of rugs if I advertised," counters Nahidian, who claims to draw a mere $400-a-week salary from the business. "But money isn't everything. What you do is for the dollar. What I do is for my faith."
Politics, he says, hasn't hurt business, so far.
In the early evening, the shop is a frequent gathering place for Iranian professionals who stop to kibitz and joke about the crisis. One recent night, the crowd included an Iranian doctor, an analyst with the World Bank, a restaurateur and an architect with a home in Potomac and a business in Iran.
Faili was tending shop, serving tea as the gracious host. His partner was busy elsewhere; politics.
Nahidian's evolution as a political activist dates to his college days, two decades ago, when he arrived virtually penniless in America to seek a university education, and took up the banner against the shah.
Today, his success as a rug merchant (annual sales of $200,000 to $300,000, by his account) has made him the Stewart Mott of Iranian students. $3
Five years ago, he purchased a rambling, two-story brick house at 5714 16th St. NW for $68,000 and turned it into a meeting place. Area Moslems use it for prayer, to study the Koran, to plan their marches and to hang out. Stretched across one archway in the sparsely furnished house is an eight-foot banner proclaiming "Long Live Khomeini, Our Leader."
Nahidian "is dedicated," says Abulghaith, "and he is one of the forces of moderation. He always advises that things be done peacefully, without insults, without violence, that we get our points across to the American people in a civilized manner. He never loses his cool."
The fourth of nine children born to a poor laborer from the holy city of Qom, and his rug weaver wife, Nahidian was drawn to the United States by a sense of adventure and a movie he saw depicting America's high-rises and modern way of life.
In 1960, he enrolled in Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green where he met his partner-to-be, Faili, then bounced between Miami and D.C., attended seven schools (including Howard University) in four years and wound up with a degree in computer science from Northern Virginia Community College.
He was restless, he says, a playboy -- "my whole life was woman. But what I was searching for I couldn't find at college or at the beach."
Then in 1964 he miraculously survived a car wreck in which his best friend was killed."It changed my life," he says. "It made me realize I (could) go tomorrow too." He immersed himself in the Koran. He found Allah. He was 26.
Nahidian married a Strayer College student whom he met at 16th and R streets NW one afternoon. He became a naturalized American citizen. He took a series of odd jobs ranging from washing dishes in Washington's most exclusive restaurants to delivering newspapers. He started the rug business in 1968.
If not a classic Horatio Alger figure, Nahidian can at least count a house in McLean, two cars and a thriving Georgetown business as trophies of a hungry, penniless immigrant who achieved through ambition and 18-hour days a generous portion of the American dream.
Though several clients, disgruntled with his politics, grouse that he should be gratful to the system that has allowed him to prosper, Nahidian feels he doesn't owe Uncle Sam a penny more than he pays in taxes.
After all, he is angry, too, he says. He counts friends and family among the thousands of Iranians whom he says the shah had tortured and killed.
When Nahidian returned to Tehran on a recent rug-buying trip, he visited the cemetery at Beheshatzahra, where thousands of the shah's victims are reportedly buried. He watched, he says, "a mother sitting by her son's grave, and an old man passing out a box of cookies that were meant to be eaten at his son's wedding. 'How many did you lose?' they ask. Everyone has lost someone. The evidence against the shaha is buried in the graves.
"So when the U.S. allows the shah to enter, imagine how my people feel. Should they just forget about it?" he asks.
Nahidian concedes that taking American hostages runs counter to Islamic law, but he also says that allowing a criminal "to go unpunished (like the shah) also violates the Koran's most fundamental tenets.
"I have called to ask the students to free the hostages," says Nahidian, who as a boy of 12, met Khomeini and visited him in exile in France last year. No dice, they said. "But (regardless) I am with the students all the way. We got into it together and together we will see it to the end."
Such revolutionary fervor infuriated one Georgetown lawyer who turned on his color TV one recent evening to find the wiry Nahidian filling the airwaves with vitriol.
"It's him!" the lawyer shouted to his wife. "I can't believe it!"
The lawyer, who had bought about $10,000 worth of carpets from Nahidian, felt as though he had suddenly had his rugs yanked right out from under him. "The hypocrite!" he snorts. "There he was, whipping up anti-American and anti-Zionist feelings among local students, and then turning around and making huge profits off the same Americans he hates."
"I don't hate the American people" says Nahidian. "I just condemm the U.S. government for harboring the shah. It's a free country. Aren't I allowed to call the shah a 'criminal'?"
As for clients like the Georgetown lawyer who happen to be perturbed with his politics, Nahidian huffs: "Tell them to bring in their rugs and I'll give them their money back!"