Many Iranian-American protesters fear to speak too boldly

They want the story of their homeland told, but they worry about reprisals against relatives in Iran, as well as from pro-regime groups here in the US.

Dan Wood/The Christian Science Monitor
A woman looked at photos of alleged repression in Iran at a public meetingSaturday at the Hyatt Regency in Irvine, Calif.
Dan Wood/The Christian Science Monitor
Iranian-American lawyer Maziar Mafi, at the Hyatt Regency in Irvine, Calif.,said Saturday that he is careful in phone conversations with his relativesin Iran.

Sixteen-year-old Noosha wears a green head scarf to express support for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition candidate who many Iranians say should have won the June 12 presidential election. Noosha, whose parents left Iran during the 1979 revolution, has spent all her time in the past week listening to radio, TV, and watching YouTube videos of the protests in Iran.

She also uses Facebook and Yahoo! messenger to talk with her cousins in Shiraz in southwestern Iran. "One of the cousins on my dad's side says it's hard to get online, but he just got hold of a computer and tries to get past that," said Noosha, who asked that her last name be withheld for fear of reprisal against relatives in Iran. "He lets off a lot of steam, and I know what keeps him going is the fact that he knows this story is getting out."

Determined, if somewhat guarded, the hundreds of thousands of Iranian-Americans that live in southern California are expressing solidarity with the protestors in their homeland – through demonstrations, press conferences, and television appearances and by keeping their friends and relatives back home updated on the watching outside world.

Interviews with Iranian-Americans at a rally here Saturday offered a glimpse into their hopes and fears in these tense days. Some of them fled Iran during the revolution and were afraid to give their names, concerned about retaliation by pro-mullah groups in California against their relatives in Iran or . Many were so upset they couldn't speak or were interrupted by tears. Some told graphic stories of friends and relatives tortured or killed in the past few years.

And all were thankful for the opportunity, however brief, to tell the world about the regime in Iran. A press conference at the Hyatt Regency hotel here included a "Wall of Shame" that displayed graphic photos of violent repression in Iran going back 30 years.

"We are just trying to get help for a very, very bad situation," said Suzy Yashar, who was an actress when she left Iran in 1978 and who is now an activist for the Iranian Woman's Organization and also hosts a one-hour daily program on Channel One TV. "There is a massacre going on there, and it will be another Holocaust unless we get the people of free democracies everywhere to stand beside the people of Iran ... not the government but the people in the streets who need their support."

She claimed that she has received death threats over the phone from who suspects are members of pro-Islamic Republic groups. At a Washington rally in 2002, she said, her car windows were beaten in.

Maziar Mafi, a lawyer who has lived in southern California for 30 years, is also "monitoring" the situation in Iran. The first Iranian-American to run for Congress from California, he also said he received death threats during his 2000 campaign after he compared Ayatollah Khomeini to the Shah of Iran. He has helped to draft a preliminary Iranian Bill of Rights in the hope of regime change.

Mr. Mafi said he stays in contact with 70 relatives in Iran via phone, but he does not encourage political discussions on the phone. Mafi says he spoke to his cousin in Iran on Saturday, and his cousin seemed uncharacteristically bold about giving the details of the demonstrations. "I did not encourage him to continue," he says.

Another man, an architect who asked for his name to be withheld, struggled to compose himself as he recounted stories of his family and friends being killed over the years.

"We can talk to them on the phone, but we should not incite anything," he said. Some of his high school friends have been executed under the severe Islamic laws there, he said: "The government listens to all conversations and they will be prosecuted."

Although some in the US have called for President Obama to speak out more vigorously against the Iranian government, Mafi, the lawyer, is not so sure. The situation needs to play out without too much intervention from Western democracies, he warned.

Besides, Iranian expatriates are united against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but are not of one mind about who or what form of government should take his place, he pointed out.

"This situation is for the kids of Iran to decide how they will rebel," he said. "They are the ones who are paying with their blood."

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