Iranian American Expatriates Ask for Voting Venues

( Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson- LA Times Staff Writer)

Confusion reigned Thursday in Southern California's Iranian American community as expatriates tried to sort out how--and where--they would cast absentee ballots in today's election for their homeland's president.

Polling places had been arranged at a variety of venues, mostly hotels, in Los Angeles and Orange counties, but as election day approached, the hotels began balking at allowing the voting after receiving complaints from opponents of the Islamic republic.

Opponents threatened to boycott the businesses or reminded hotel managements that they technically were becoming involved with a country that has no diplomatic relations with the United States.

Among those establishments was the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City, where Katie Callahan-Giobbi, director of sales and marketing, said its cancellation was an "effort to stay neutral in any of the political situations in that country."


Though many Iranians said they planned to vote at Irvine's Hilton Hotel--listed on an Iranian government Web site as Orange County's only polling place--a hotel spokesman said would-be voters will be turned away.

"We had an inquiry," said Philip Campanelli, the hotel's general manager, "but they elected to relocate the event and haven't told us where."

Indeed, few people knew Thursday where the voting would take place. To cut down on protests or sabotage, polling places will only be announced this morning via a Web site (

The balloting will not be run by Iranian government officials, but by expatriate volunteers who, with the government's blessing, organized the polling places. One had been arranged at the New Otani Hotel in downtown Los Angeles but it was canceled.

"I tried telling them [Otani officials] you are doing business with a local business, not Iran, but it made no difference," said Mohammad, an organizer who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals from government opponents. "Ironically, I work for the state [of California]," he said. Mohammad and another frustrated organizer, Sousan Arfaania, scrambled to find new polling sites Thursday.

"What about the right of the people who want to vote?" asked Arfaania, an investment banker. She said her phone was ringing constantly with calls from voters trying to figure out what to do.

"What do these people exactly want?" she asked of government opponents. "We are trying to elect a reformist. We are trying to do the best we can with what we have among the candidates."

Those opponents, meanwhile, were making their voice heard Thursday afternoon in front of the CNN building on Sunset Boulevard, where they blasted the elections as a "mockery of democracy."

"What we expect from the world community in general and the media in particular is to view elections in Iran with the same criteria they apply to their own elections," said one of the protest organizers, *Mohammad Parvin, founder of the Mission for Establishment for Human Rights in Iran. "If only Christian Catholic men were permitted to become candidates and even those men must be approved by the Vatican, would you call that an election?"

In Iran, only Muslim men can run for president, and those candidates must be approved by the Council of Guardians, appointed by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and answerable to no one but him. The number of Iranian Americans voting in the Southland today is expected to be in the tens of thousands, organizers said.


Imam Moustafa Qazwini, spiritual leader of Orange County's largest Iranian mosque, said dozens of members of his congregation are planning to vote after worship services today.

"I'd like to encourage Iranians to vote and I am going to vote," Qazwini said. " Most who came here to America came for political reasons, and this is about political change in Iran--they have to have a voice."

The Los Angeles area polling places were among 50 sites across the United States set up to allow Iranians to take part in the political process. It was unclear if disruptions occurred elsewhere.

*Times staff writers David Haldane, Ofelia Casillas and Josh Meyer contributed to this story.

*Mohammad Parvin, Ph.D., is a former faculty member of California Institute of Technology and an adjunct professor at the California State University, an Aerospace Specialist, and Founding Director of the Mission for Establishment of Human Rights in Iran (MEHR)

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