LA Iranian-Americans welcome dialogue with Trump administration official

Trump administration's Brian Hook addresses Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Iranians in LA following elimination of Qassem Soleimani.

Karmel Melamed ,

left to right; Brian Hook and Iranian American Jewish activist George Haroonian
left to right; Brian Hook and Iranian American Jewish activist George Haroonian
courtesy of Eretz Cultural Center

On January 6th, roughly 600 Iranian Americans of various faiths packed the “Eretz Cultural Center”, an Iranian synagogue in Los Angeles, to hear a speech and ask questions from Brian Hook, the U.S. State Department’s Special Representative for Iran.

The event was just one of four gatherings Hook attended earlier this month to enter into a dialogue with the largest Iranian community living outside of Iran regarding the Trump administration’s policies on their former homeland.

While the venues Hook visited where Jewish during his two-day visit to Los Angeles, he met with and heard from Iranian Americans of different religions in what the community warmly welcomed after nearly four decades of living in America.

Left to right: LA Iranian American community activists Bijan Khalili, George Haroonian photo by Karmel Melamed

“I believe our entire Iranian community here in Los Angeles is especially grateful to Mr. Hook and Mr. Pompeo who have shown that they have a lot of value for our community by being the first administration officials in 40 years to meet with us, to hear our views and talk about the human rights violations going on Iran,” said Bijan Khalili, an Iranian activist and owner of the L.A.-based Farsi language “Ketab” publishing company.

Before taking questions from the audiences at both the Eretz Cultural Center and at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, Hook called on the Iranian American community to be more active in their advocacy concerning the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses and also publicly share their own painful experiences in fleeing their former homeland.

“We must all speak the truth together and do everything in our power to hold the regime accountable,” said Hook in his speech. “Not only for the Iranian people but for the cause of peace for generations to come.”

Brian Hook speaking at L.A.'s Museum of Tolerance photo by Karmel Melamed

During the event at the Eretz Cultural Center, the synagogue’s Torah ark was opened displaying the various ornate Torahs in a spirit of friendship for all in attendance. Some non-Jewish Iranians attending the Eretz Center event said they felt welcomed and appreciated by having their questions answered by a high-level administration official.

During his visit to Los Angeles, Hook also met with more than a dozen national interfaith leaders as well as local Iranian Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders in a closed door meeting on policy related to Iran at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance.

Interestingly, Hook’s visit to Los Angeles was pre-planned many months in advance and coincidentally came a few days after the U.S. military killed the Iranian regime’s Revolutionary Guard Corps leader Qassem Soleimani. Iranian American leaders who met with Hook at the museum, praised the Trump administration for eliminating Soleimani because of his history of terrorism.

“Today, his (Soleimani’s) reign of terror has come to an end. Today, I join the millions who are breathing a sigh of relief,” said Juliana Taimoorazy, an Iranian Christian Assyrian leader and founder of the Chicago-based “Iraqi Christian Relief Council” non-profit group. “And today, we unite, our hearts with all those who have lost loved ones and with all those who suffered because of Soleimani’s tyranny.”

Juliana Taimoorazy photo by Karmel Melamed

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Associate Dean said Hook had a chance to view documents and exhibits from the Holocaust during his visit. He praised the Trump administration for correctly condemning the Iranian regime’s repeated denial of the Holocaust and expressed disappointment at European leaders who have not yet confronted the Iranian regime on the topic.

“Not enough European leaders have addressed the fact that Iran continues to deny the Holocaust and their silence is shameful,” said Cooper. “For the Iranian regime, the only way they will stop their actions is if there’s a political price for them to pay in Europe, otherwise it will continue.”

Amidst support for the U.S. administration among most in the L.A. Iranian community, there were still some who said they disagree with U.S. President Donald Trump’s overall strategy in dealing with Iran. California Assembly member Adrin Nazarian (D-Van Nuys), currently the only Iranian-born elected official serving in state government, said he was critical of the Trump administration’s policies towards Iran which may indirectly harm innocents in Iran.

“Whether you’re Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Baha’i or a member of any other religious group, many members of our Persian community are concerned about their relatives and loved ones in Iran,” said Nazarian who is of Iranian-Armenian heritage and fled Iran with his family more than 30 years ago.

George Haroonian, an L.A. area Iranian Jewish activist said Hook’s visit exposed an on-going rift between many local Iranian Jewish activists and a small segment of Iranian Jewish leaders. While the activists have been very vocal in their public criticism of the Iranian regime for decades, some of the community’s leaders have long advocated keeping public criticism of the regime to a minimum for fear of the potential negative repercussions for the remaining Jews in Iran at the hands of the regime.

“I personally believe that we have a duty to share our historic perspective as people who have lived with and dealt with this Islamic regime without any bias,” said Haroonian. “This would be good information for policymakers and the media to use.”

Jonathan Bass, the Los Angeles area American organizer of the Hook visit to the city, said he received repeated threatening phone calls prior to the events from roughly 30 local Iranian Jews who he did not know. He said these individuals indicated that they did not want the larger Iranian Jewish community to engaging in a public forum with Hook. Bass said he ignored this small group of agitators and has since received wide support from many in the community for the events with Hook.

“Thirty Jews from this (Iranian) community wanted to control the narrative of the community,” said Bass. “The truth is they lost, we were able to share the community’s thoughts directly with the administration and they were able to share their opinions with the community.”

Leaders from a few of the L.A. area Iranian Jewish organizations did not return calls for comment regarding the internal controversy with the Hook visit.

Additionally, Hook briefly visited the Iranian Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills which had been vandalized during an attack in this past December. Haroonian and other Nessah members said they were pleasantly surprised that a high level administration official came to visit them.

“I can tell you it was very heart-warming to have Mr. Hook visit Nessah,” Haroonian said. “It showed us this administration genuinely cares since it was the first time any high level U.S. government official has been kind and concerned enough to meet with us in person”.

In full disclosure, Karmel Melamed served as a moderator during the question and answer period with Brian Hook at the Eretz Cultural Center.

Karmel Melamed is an internationally published award-winning journalist based in Southern California.