Iranian emigres form group to improve homeland's image
WASHINGTON - By almost any measure, Susan and Mady Jalinous are the epitome of successful, sophisticated immigrants.
They own an elegant Tudor-style house in Northwest Washington and several thriving businesses in technology and healthcare. They have three handsome sons in private schools and a living room full of distinguished family portraits.
Like other Iranian emigres in the United States, a group estimated at half a million, they also have an image problem. Many Americans know little of ancient Persia's proud and cultured history, but they have heard a lot about modern Iran's radical ayatollahs and nuclear ambitions.
They do not generally think cradle of civilization; they think axis of evil.
That is why the Jalinouses, who value their privacy and dignity, are enthusiastic about the launching of a lobbying and public relations group in Washington, the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans.
The organization aims to unite the scattered community, promote its image, and build political influence that has long lagged behind its size and affluence.
"This is way overdue," Susan Jalinous said. "Our people are very determined and driven as individuals, but we have never had a voice or a group that would represent us as a community. We need to let others know who we are, what we have contributed."
So far, the lobbying group has hit all the right buttons: opening sleek offices in the capital, hiring a young staff, and gathering a deep-pocketed board of directors and an executive committee that includes financial leaders, astrophysicists, corporate lawyers, and Ivy League academics.
"There is more to Iran and Iranians than the current government, and we want to focus on the positive dimensions of our heritage and history. We don't want to complain; we want to construct," said Babak Hoghooghi, a Washington lawyer who is executive director of the alliance.
The next step is to attract members; officials hope to enroll an alliance of 2,000 by year's end. To do so, they must skirt a political minefield that could sabotage the effort before it gets off the ground.
But with US-Iran tensions in the news and war not out of the question, other Iranian-American activists say alliance officials might have to take positions on contentious issues such as whether to pursue regime change or dialogue in Tehran if they hope to become politically relevant and socially prominent.
Iranian emigres are typically secular-leaning Muslims and, for years, they have avoided political debates.
And then Islamic terrorists attacked New York and Washington. Iranians elected a radical leader who threatened to obliterate Israel and spouted anti-American rhetoric. And President Bush labeled their homeland part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and North Korea.
As a result, Iranians who had long viewed themselves as respected, assimilated Americans began to feel the heat of hostility.
Mady and Susan Jalinous taught their sons to honor their heritage. Their oldest boy, 13, is named Cyrus, after the king who founded the Persian Empire in the sixth century B.C. and conquered much of Asia.
Not long after the terrorist attacks of 2001, Susan Jalinous learned that a boy had called Cyrus "kissing Laden." He thought the boy meant Aladdin, but his parents realized their son had been associated with Osama bin Laden.
"When the kids hear negative stuff, it affects them," she said. "We have so many reasons to be proud of what we are, and we want our children to be proud of it, too."