Émigré from Iran becomes US mayor

The highest-ranking Iranian-American in the US expresses his patriotism and outlines his priorities for Beverly Hills.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Outside the opulent city hall chambers where he now presides as America's highest-ranking Iranian-American, Jimmy Jamshid Delshad, the incoming mayor of Beverly Hills, Calif., is getting grilled by the media.

"Should Americans believe Iran is enriching uranium only for electricity?" asks a local TV reporter.

"What about the British sailors who are now being held by Iranian authorities?" asks another.

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"How will you keep American-Iranian tensions low and keep your heritage from making this city an international terror target?" asks a third.

One by one, Mr. Delshad deflects the verbal arrows, answering calmly, articulately.

"I am in politics simply to make my local community better," he says, staring into glaring lights and protruding microphones. Saying his role is not to be a spokesman on international relations for Iranian-Americans, he is nonetheless unafraid to criticize the Iranian government. Iran's leadership is misguided on several fronts he tells reporters, but Americans should know that Iranian people love America – as he does. It's his way of trying to steer every conversation back to safer, common ground.

Delshad, a Jew, also noted the opportunities he's had since he immigrated to the US nearly 50 years ago. He came to America with about $100 in his pocket and went on to be a computer entrepreneur.

"I am here to give back to the country which made me rich from nothing, and show other minorities that America is indeed still the land of opportunity for all," he says. "Persians all over the world see pride in my becoming mayor ... a chance for something good to come into the news after all the negativity between the US and Iran."

Wearing a hand-tailored suit and purple silk tie, Delshad exhibits the same elegance and elan that won him election for the second time to the Beverly Hills City Council earlier this month. He then was formally selected as mayor. Some news reports say his election by a mere 171 votes heightened ethnic tensions in this wealthy conclave of 35,000, where many of the 8,000 Iranians who live here fled their native country in 1979 after the fall of the Shah.

But none of that is evident from crowd comments at his white-tent inauguration Tuesday.

"Ethnicity was not an issue, as I saw it," says Bert Serden, a 32-year Beverly Hills resident. "For voters here, it was the individual who was important. [Delshad] comes across as being very straightforward and without any bias or ax to grind, and that's what really attracted people to him. People find him very direct and wanting to help."

That assessment of ethnicity-blind voting is music to the ears of Iranian-American political activists who see the selection of Delshad as Beverly Hills's mayor as a turning point for Iranian participation in American politics.

"This is very significant. It is the first time an Iranian-American has risen to this high a level," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington. "It proves there has been a political maturing of a community that has become extremely wealthy and successful in many areas of American life, but has still been [a community] that has marginalized itself by taking a very low profile as long ago as the hostage crisis of 1979 and as recently as 9/11."

Nationwide, census figures show about 350,000 Iranians in the US, but the number may be three times that because there is a lack of ways to easily identify them on census forms, Mr. Parsi says. Many identify themselves in other ways, from Jewish to Christian Armenian.

"We are seeing greater participation by Iranians in elections across the country, but more importantly in making their views known to elected officials from Congress to statehouses," says Parsi. "This will have a symbolic effect on increasing that."

In interviews, Delshad says he wants to put Beverly Hills on the national map as the "safest and smartest" community in America. At the outset that means placing surveillance cameras on various neighborhood streets to report to local police activities that range from traffic violations to theft to injury. After traveling to Israel, London, and Paris, he says that a new, intelligent "forensic and analytical" software is available that can detect if a person has fallen down, or whether a package has been left unattended.

"These cameras will make us an example for homeland security for cities across America," he says.

To deal with one of the city's thorniest quality-of-life issues, he wants to install new, mini-parking meters that accept dollar bills and credit cards and allow people to use their cellphones to reserve additional time.

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