Local Iranian-Americans debate voting in Iranian presidential elections

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Iranian-Americans are eligible to vote in Iran’s presidential election today. That means several hundred thousand people in Southern California could cast ballots. KPCC’s Shirley Jahad reports that Persians are debating whether to boycott the few available polling places in the Southland.

Shirley Jahad: Southern California home to this country’s largest concentrations of Iranian Jews, Muslims, and Christians, has also been the epicenter of a political debate as fierce as any that marked the last American presidential campaign.

Homa Sarshar: It has been a very hot subject for the last two weeks.

Jahad: Homa Sarshar is a prominent Iranian-American journalist with a program on the Persian-language AM radio station KIRN. She says very few Iranian-Americans voted four years ago and many have entertained second thoughts since then.

Last election, the election was boycotted, and this time most people are telling each other because we have not voted, we ended up with Amadinejad, and this time we should not make the same mistake. It’s a question of bad versus worse. So maybe it’s better to vote for the bad person and do not end up with worse.

During the week before the election, UCLA and USC have hosted three debates over whether to vote. The Islamic Republic of Iran says that anyone born in Iran may vote; so can their adult children. Iranian-American satellite TV programs produced in Los Angeles have been urging Iranian-Americans to stay home.

Sarshar, who is Jewish, says she doesn't plan to cast a ballot.

Sarshar: I don’t vote myself because this election and any election regarding Islamic Republic of Iran, there is no place for me as a woman and minority. Whoever is protecting the constitution of this regime, this constitution is good for Iranian Shiite men. It doesn’t have anything to offer for women let alone minority women.

Jahad: Others harbor stronger objections to the vote.

Bijan Khallili: If South Africa in the time of apartheid had polling places here in the United States, what would be the reaction of the American community?

Jahad: Bijan Khallili owns Ketab Corporation, a book store and publishing company on Westwood Boulevard – the center of West L.A.'s Iranian-American commercial district.

Khallili: This is the same reaction we as an Iranian community have to have against these polling places or Islamic Republic behavior.
Jahad: You’re saying any participation is legitimizing this government?
Kahlilli: Yes, and I am strongly against it. When there are bad people in power and they give you a choice, you should not choose. You should resist.

Jahad: Khallili and others have organized to ensure that polling places for this election won’t open in Southern California. To a degree, they’ve succeeded – the only two places to cast ballots in the region will be in Irvine and Ontario.

Ali Shakeri lives in Irvine. He maintains a pragmatic approach to this vote, even though the Islamic Republic kept him in solitary confinement for months at a prison in Tehran. Shakeri, who sits on the advisory board of UC Irvine's Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, says it’s important for Iranian-Americans to speak up.

Ali Shakeri: This revolution happened in 1979. If you want to change Iran to better situation, you have to be proactive, not reactive.
Jahad: And you have to vote in this election.
Shakeri: Absolutely. As Iranian-American living in Southern California, every one of us, we are sensitive for bitterness of Iranian society. Because we have mother, brothers, sisters, cousins. We are so attached to Iranian culture. We love our society to be better. Pride of Iranian is pride of Iranian-American. Better life for them is better life for us.

Jahad: Unlike fellow exiles who plan to sit out this election, Shakeri says its results may help to generate constructive dialogue between the United States and his native country.