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Why many Iranian-Americans are wary of Tehran, and vice versa

Iranian-Americans have long kept a low political profile in America but, as US-Iran tensions escalate, that is changing. They are worried not only about war, but also about possible reprisals against them from Iran.

By Staff writer / February 2, 2012

Iranian-American Amir Hekmati has been sentenced to death by Iran’s Revolutionary Court on the charge of spying.

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Washington

When, in early January, Iran sentenced Arizona-born Iranian-American Amir Hekmati to death for allegedly spying for the CIA, the case cast a spotlight on a prosperous American community that had long lived under the radar. Not anymore.

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With US-Iran tensions rising over recent months to what some fear is the brink of war, a community that long shunned politics in favor of professional and academic advancement is ramping up its profile.

And signs are growing that the Iranian regime has taken notice and is acting to chill the trend. Activists in the United States cite the Hekmati case, but also warnings in the form of Facebook and other electronic messages sent to Iranian-Americans who have gone public with pro-democracy views.

Even the mysterious mid-January murder in Houston of a young Iranian-American woman, Gelareh Bagherzadeh, who had converted to Christianity and taken up the cause of human rights in Iran, has some Iranian-Americans wondering who is behind a killing that has stumped police. She was shot in her car five days after Iran vowed to retaliate for the killing of a nuclear scientist in Tehran.

For years after the advent of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Iranian-Americans kept their heads down, focusing on professional practices and business pursuits in enclaves in northern New Jersey and in Washington, D.C.; Dallas; and "Tehrangeles" – which boasts the largest concentration of Iranians outside Iran. But Iran's captivating yet ultimately unsuccessful "Green Revolution" in June 2009 awakened a hope for change that has led to a rise of political activity in the US, many Iranian-Americans say. Increasingly, the activity of a community that maintains very close ties to Iran is aimed at influencing US-Iran relations.

The case of Mr. Hekmati, age 28, a former US Marine and video-game specialist who, according to his family, went to Tehran last summer to visit his grandmothers, suggests the close-knit nature of Iranian-Americans' relations with their homeland. By some estimates, as many as a quarter of the approximately 1 million Iranian-American US citizens and residents visit Iran every year.

"A lot of people thought it was actually pretty crazy for someone to go to Iran who had been working for the US [military]. It's hard to see how anyone could expect to keep their identity unknown," says Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, a New York-based Iranian journalist and blogger who came to the US after being jailed for his work in Tehran in 2004. "It was risky, but it shows how even for people born in the US, it's important to go back to Iran."

That closeness to family back in Iran is a large part of what drives Iranian-American opinion on US-Iran relations. They don't want bombs falling on Tehran, and for the most part they don't want ever-tighter sanctions that, opinion polls show, they believe will hurt the general population without prompting the mullah-led regime to change course.

"When Iranian-Americans go to Iran, they are visiting parents and siblings and first cousins. It's not distant cousins in some ancestral home, and that has an important influence on how they view relations between the two countries," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) in Washington. "Surveys show that sanctions are not supported by the majority of the people, and as for a military attack," he adds, "that idea gets less than 5 percent support."

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