Living in Tehrangeles: L.A.'s Iranian Community Perhaps nowhere is the standoff over Iran's nuclear enrichment program followed more closely than in Los Angeles' Iranian-American community. Known as Tehrangeles, it's the biggest community of Iranians outside Iran.
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Living in Tehrangeles: L.A.'s Iranian Community

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Living in Tehrangeles: L.A.'s Iranian Community

Living in Tehrangeles: L.A.'s Iranian Community

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The war of words between Iran and the U.S. seems to have eased for the moment. Last week, the administration reversed a nearly 30-year-old policy and said it would talk with Iran, joining the European Union in talks aimed at urging Iran to suspend its program of nuclear enrichment. A package of incentives was presented to Iran this week. That country's nuclear negotiator immediately pronounced it a, quote, "framework for cooperation."

Nowhere are the twists and turns of Iranian politics followed more closely than in a collection of enclaves here in Los Angeles known as Tehrangeles. It is the biggest community of Iranians outside of Iran, most of whom left the country after the Shah was overthrown in 1979.

(Soundbite of car engine)

MONTAGNE: Given all the news, it seemed like a good time to visit. And if there's a downtown Tehrangeles, it is this stretch of Westwood Boulevard on the edge of the UCLA Campus, next door to Beverly Hills. Pop into any shop and you'll hear Farsi. Look up, and the signs are all in Persian.

Sabo Motallebi(ph) works in the popular Ketab Bookshop.

Ms. SABO MOTALLEBI (Employee, Ketab Bookshop, Tehrangeles): Yes. (Unintelligible). Barbershop person. Baker person. Restaurant, many restaurants they have. And book store, too.

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MONTAGNE: The TV at the back of this and other stores is tuned to an Iranian program. There are 20 Farsi language channels to choose from on satellite television. More than a dozen are based in southern California and beamed back to Iran.

(Soundbite of foreign television station, woman speaking foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Another young clerk in the bookstore is named Della Rahm(ph). She came here three years ago figuring rightly that she could find a job in this Persian community. Her father was a general under the Shah, protected after the revolution by family members connected to the new Islamic government.

Ms. DELLA RAHM (Employee, Ketab Bookshop, Tehrangeles): I had been brought up in a system that I was told to walk on the American flag. But because of my own curiosity, I admired it.

MONTAGNE: So much so that Della Rahm started practicing her English as a little girl, long before she'd ever heard of Tehrangeles.

Ms. RAHM: When I came here, I did not believe it, till the first day that I was walking in the street and I tried to ask a person a question in English. I asked him, where is the post office? And then suddenly he looked at me, and in Persian he told me, (foreign language spoken) - are you Persian? And I said, (foreign language spoken) - yes. And then, okay, post office (foreign language spoken). You know, and I have been speaking Persian ever since I came to America. Really, believe it or not. And as a matter of fact, I'm forgetting my English.

MONTAGNE: In Tehrangeles, even the music is in Persian. In fact, some of Iran's biggest pop stars live in southern California. Others come here to record.

Sabo Motallebi points to rack after rack of CDs made here for fans back home who must defy their regime's supreme cultural revolutionary council just to buy them. She came to southern California to study music - not pop, but classical Persian music. She offers to demonstrate and pulls out a traditional stringed instrument called a Tar.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MOTALLEBI: My name is Sabo. I'm playing Persian instrument. I'm going to, a little bit improvisation for you.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Community estimates put the Iranian population in southern California at 500,000 people. An even more astonishing number can be found in Beverly Hills, where Iranians now account for 20 percent of the population and 40 percent of the students in the schools. Representing them is the vice mayor of Beverly Hills, Jimmy Delshad.

Long before the revolution, Jimmy Delshad says he came here for the sunshine. That was 1959. He'd passed briefly through the cold University of Minnesota, and then quickly headed west looking for opportunities not permitted a Jew in Iran. By his calculations, he is now the top elected Iranian-American official in the U.S.

Vice Mayor JIMMY DELSHAD (Vice Mayor of Beverly Hills, California): Whoever thought a little boy coming from Shiraz, Iran, that I had no idea where I'm going to end up - come here with $100 in my pocket to America, ended up making a business and running for a city council. And hopefully next year, will be the mayor of Beverly Hills. I mean, that's unheard of. It's only in America.

MONTAGNE: Jimmy Delshad built a computer hardware company. Like most Iranians, he's thrived in America. The per capita income of Iranian Americans is 50 percent higher than the national average. Just under 40 percent have a college degree. And about the most contentious political problem faced by Iranians in Beverly Hills was when the City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting the building of extravagant white-pillared McMansions, known here as Persian palaces.

In his office in City Hall, Vice Mayor Delshad proudly displays campaign buttons and election brochures written in Farsi - something the city did for the first time when he ran for office.

Vice Mayor DELSHAD: And this is my button that says March Forth With Jimmy, so that let people know that the election is on March 4th - as well as marching forth for me.

MONTAGNE: I gather when you were running for office - for city council here in Beverly Hills - that you had some trouble getting your fellow Iranian-Americans to register and vote out of certain, what? - fear of...

Vice Mayor DELSHAD: (Unintelligible)

MONTAGNE: ...committing their name to (unintelligible)?

Vice Mayor DELSHAD: Yes, to anything. See, in Iran you were - if you were on a list, it was generally not good. It doesn't matter what the list was, because somebody would misuse that list; there was that fear.

MONTAGNE: Here is where a small dark cloud seems to form over Tehrangeles. Even for those who've been here for decades, there is the sense of the watchful eye of a distant regime. No one seems shy to criticize the regime. One man cheerfully called President Ahmadinejad a monkey; another called him a dictator on tape, but then insisted their names not be used. I described this to Vice Mayor Jimmy Delshad.

One man who had given us his name, pleaded afterwards to not actually use it. And his words pretty exactly were, if you went back to Tehran -which he wants to do - he has family there - he says, I'll be at the airport, and they'll take me to the back, a cassette tape will go right down on the table and they'll say, we know what you said. How real is that?

Vice Mayor DELSHAD: The perception is very real. It may not happen that way, but they're very much afraid to be known for anything, because they feel like the families are hostages there.

MONTAGNE: Is it possible that people are being watched?

Vice Mayor DELSHAD: I'm not so sure it's being watched, it's just - it's been heard and there are people that are sympathizers, even that though live in America, they are sympathizers to the regime and so forth. And they, you know, they send messages back and forth, but I don't think it's not an organized watching and listening and all of that.

MONTAGNE: Still, rumors of danger are whispered about on Westwood Boulevard. It's true that for more than a decade after the revolution, hit squads roamed Europe, sent by the regime to silence opposition leaders. One assassination even took place on American soil. And the subterfuge goes both ways.

The Council on Foreign Relations released a report last month citing Tehrangeles as a place the CIA sees as a potential source of intelligence. One example, said the report: information on the existence of a uranium enrichment facility in Iran had come mostly from America's Iranian community.

In the end, the exiles of Tehrangeles have many different visions of how Iran fits into their future. Even with vivid memories of their home country pulling them back, most aren't optimistic about political change - like Jamie(ph), the owner of a printing shop in Westwood.

JAMIE: Of course, I would like to go and visit there again, if possible. I would like to see a freedom Iran, but it doesn't seem to happen soon, even though I wish it happen soon.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: To get a look at other scenes from Tehrangeles, and hear more traditional Persian music, go to

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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