Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Locals React to Iranian Unrest

By Joseph Kellard

The Lido Beach woman insisted on anonymity, fearing repercussions against her or her relatives in her native Iran — whom she lost contact with when the government began blocking phone lines there.

As hundreds of thousands of Iranians have poured onto Iran’s streets to protest the controversial June 12 presidential election, clashing with the Islamic regime’s armed forces, and as images of gunned-down demonstrators have filtered from YouTube and Facebook to CNN and Fox News, the Lido woman has watched both networks almost nonstop — though from time to time she cries so hard that she must turn off her television.

“They’re killing innocent people on the street who didn’t do anything,” the woman, 55, told the Herald. “They just want their voice to be heard. It’s not a crime to want to know where their votes went.”

While protesters charge the regime with rigging the election in favor of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the woman believes that, at this point, nothing less than a revolution will matter. “I think all the people responsible for killing those people, they should be hanged,” she said of the ruling Islamic clerics. “Or they should pack their bags and leave.”

The woman and her husband left Iran for Queens in 1979, just before the Islamic revolution. They settled in Lido some five years later and are among a small number of Iranians on the barrier island. But just over the bridge, in Island Park, there are Iranians who are not only voicing their outrage online, but taking part in demonstrations overseas, along with a Long Beach attorney.

Manaz Ramani, 53, who moved to Island Park four months ago from Canada, is posting daily messages on Twitter about the election and Neda Agha-Soltan, the 26-year-old Iranian woman who was shot to death during a Tehran protest. Cell-phone video of her dying in her father’s arms have gone global.

“When a regime like this does this to their people,” Ramani said, “imagine if they have nuclear weapons what they going to do. These are just the new Hitlers.”

Ramani, who fled Iran after the regime’s first five years in power, believes the demonstrators are using the turmoil over the election as a pretext for regime change. “They are using this to show their overall anger with what has been going on all these 30 years,” Ramani explained. “The jailings, the torture, their not being able to dress or listen to music they want. Just simple rights they can’t do.”

While Ramani said she understands President Obama’s non-meddling approach to the unrest, she feels that he is not doing enough. She said his diplomatic approach with the ruling mullahs “won’t work,” and called on the U.S. government to go so far as to use armed force to help the protesters oust the regime.

“This is the best time to do it,” she said, “because now they have the support of the Iranian people. They need help, even just to have communication tools open.”

Others are calling for something different. Max Saatchi, a jewelry store owner in Island Park, has demonstrated for regime change since he was jailed and his store in Tehran was confiscated after he took part in a mass rally there in 1981. He and his wife, Amy, fled with fake passports and ultimately settled on Long Island with their sons, but still have more than 100 relatives in Iran.

Last week, Saatchi flew to Paris with Long Beach resident and attorney Frank McQuade to attend an annual conference to discuss Iran with American and European delegates and Iranian expatriates.

Coinciding with the upheaval in Iran, the event featured a 90,000-person rally in solidarity with the protesters, similar to other demonstrations staged last week in European capitals from London to Stockholm.

“In Europe they are more active and there are more people,” said Amy Saatchi, who noted that local Iranians rarely come forward to protest like her husband, who has demonstrated at many rallies outside the United Nations when Iranian officials have visited.

Max has remained in France this week, but McQuade returned home on Monday. “The agenda quickly became proactive,” he said of the conference, “as the expatriate leadership shifted to plans on how to use the crisis in Tehran to accelerate the push for democratic reform and regime change.”

The conference was sponsored by the People's Mujahadeen of Iran (PMOI), an organization that seeks European and American support of its effort to bring about change in Iran without U.S. troops or funding in order to restore a secular democracy, according to McQuade. The PMOI, he said, is waiting for the protest movement to gain strength and attempt to topple the government. “If the time is right,” McQuade said, “guns, fighters and organizers will slip into Iran to direct the popular protest towards regime change.”

The U.S. State Department, however, lists the PMOI as a terrorist group. In past interviews with the Herald, Saatchi has said that label is misleading because the PMOI’s aggression in Iran has only targeted the regime in order to replace the theocracy with a secular democracy, and that the Clinton administration had the PMOI put on the list to support and appease the "moderate" government elected in 1997.

McQuade said he participated in the conference primarily to lobby for U.S. support of the PMOI’s goals and its removal from the State Department list. And while, for now, he supports the Obama administration’s low-key reaction to the unrest in Tehran, he believes Obama ultimately doesn’t have the stomach to take on the Iranian regime. “His response to the protests, while prudent,” McQuade said, “does not come from a clever mind but from a timid heart.”