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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.

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Many Iranian-Americans agree that it was the promise of the aborted Persian Spring in June 2009, when the Iranian regime successfully silenced a blossoming pro-democracy movement through brutal repression, that got a largely quiet US community to act.

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"There has been an uptick in political activity in the Iranian-American community, and you can tie that to the 2009 uprising and the hopes it raised that change in Iran is possible," says Majid Roshani, a Virginia pharmacist and spokesman for the US Committee for Camp Ashraf Residents, which lobbies for protection of an antiregime Iranian population living in a refugee camp in Iraq.

Even though the Green Revolution failed, Mr. Roshani says, it "shattered a prevailing feeling among Iranian-Americans of 'what's the use?' when it came to antiregime activity. When you saw Iranians ready to die for change," he adds, "it raised this need to get involved."

Mr. Parsi says he founded NIAC in 2002 to involve Iranian-Americans in American domestic issues. But what he claims has become the largest grass-roots organization of Iranian-Americans has shifted its attention outward as world powers have focused more on Iran. "It was really the world focusing more on Iran that turned us toward diplomatic issues like dealing with Iran's nuclear program," he says.

Despite a common disdain for Iran's Islamic regime, Iranian-Americans are not a united community, experts in and out of the community agree.

"There was some unity in supporting the 2009 demonstrations, but that's pretty much gone now," says Mr. Mirebrahimi, the New York journalist. "Maybe there is a common desire about replacing the Iranian regime," he adds, "but then that unity breaks down into a thousand views on how to replace it and with what."

Perhaps the most glaring division in the Iranian-American community is over the People's Mujahideen of Iran (known by its Persian acronym MEK), a radical antiregime organization that received asylum from Saddam Hussein and mounted attacks against Iran from its Iraqi base. The group, the organization behind the refugees of Camp Ashraf, says it has renounced violence and is seeking to be removed from the US list of terrorist organizations.

A State Department review is in progress, but in the meantime groups like NIAC are lobbying for the designation to remain. Many Iranian-Americans say they will never forgive the MEK for siding with Mr. Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War.

Parsi worries about something else. He says that, once delisted, what he calls a "marginal group with virtually no support inside Iran" would "position themselves as the face of the opposition, and the real pro-democracy forces inside the country and out would be overshadowed."

Mr. Roshani, the Camp Ashraf spokesman, says that while he is not an MEK member, he does see it as "the only organized group that is capable of bringing change to Iran."

Divisions or no, it's the desire for change in Iran among Iranian-Americans that the regime seems bent on squelching.

The Iranian regime has never executed an American, and most experts don't think it will start with Hekmati. His sentence is being appealed. But Iranian-Americans who received Facebook and e-mail messages in 2009 warning them of the consequences for visitors to Iran of their pro-Green activities say the message behind the Hekmati case is clear: We are watching, and if you actively oppose us, we will act to stop you when we can.

RECOMMENDED: Five reasons to attack Iran and 5 reasons US must avoid war with Iran

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