Iranians living in Oklahoma look eastward 

In 1977, Goli Dunkle came to Oklahoma from her native Iran to pursue a graduate degree in management. By the time she finished, the Iran she had left no longer existed, and there was no going back.

As an adherent of the Baha'i faith " founded in the mid-19th century in what is today Iran " she could not return. By the time she finished her education, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had landed in Tehran on a chartered Boeing 747 from Paris, bringing with him a form of Islamist government that rendered Dunkle and her fellow Baha'is personae non gratae in their own homeland.


Nearly 30 years passed as she married and made Oklahoma her home. She watched from afar as those who shared her beliefs faced suspicion, discrimination and occasional violence.

After the recent death of her father, she returned to Iran to find a country unrecognizable from the one she had left so long ago.

There are hundreds of Baha'i believers across Oklahoma, many of them from the religion's home country, Dunkle said.

It is a tenet of the Baha'i faith to shy away from partisan politics, but Dunkle did not hesitate to say she hopes that the cycle of protest and violence across Iran in recent weeks would pave the way for greater religious freedom in the country.

Her mother and a sibling are still there. Two nieces have taken exams to enter university, but the government requires applicants to list their religion. Those nieces will have to lie or be turned away, she said.

"We are not really considered citizens of the country," Dunkle said. "There is always worry, and I would like to return without fear of what might happen to me."

Iranians across Oklahoma have been transfixed by events since June 12, when they flocked by the dozens to the Biltmore Hotel in western Oklahoma City to cast their vote for one of four candidates in Iran's presidential election.

The street protests and subsequent crackdown have kept them tied to overtaxed phone lines seeking harried conversations in Farsi. The younger of the Iranian immigrants have relied on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, where they show solidarity with their compatriots and argue the finer points of Iranian politics.

They all retain close ties to the country whether they left 30 years ago or just returned last week. Many return home every year to be closer to their families for months at a time.

Since the disputed election, Iranians have held protests or candlelight vigils at the state Capitol to call attention to the situation back home.

Even before the polling station closed in Oklahoma, Iranian state media had released the results of the election: a 62 percent landslide victory for the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Although four candidates were on the ballot, two names floated through the streets of Iran in the unprecedented democratic fervor that preceded the vote: Ahmadinejad and his reformist rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

When the results flashed across Blackberries and iPhones here in the U.S., the reaction for most was utter surprise, followed by a sense of dread.

"As soon as my friend looked up from her Blackberry and told me, I was like, 'People are going to the streets,'" said Misha Goli, a 27-year-old Iranian whose parents moved to the U.S. before the revolution.

"I would have believed 51 percent," he said of the election results, but 62 percent just didn't ring true.

Goli visits Iran every two years and said he had seen previous elections pass not with a bang, but a whimper. He had no reason to believe this one would be any different until the weeks leading up to the election, when dancing and demonstrating in the streets took hold in force, he said.

On June 12, he went to the Biltmore here to cast his vote for Mousavi. Although he doesn't consider himself religious, Goli said his vote was not against the current regime led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"It's a matter of going toward moderation and a more open point-of-view," Goli said. "The things that have been said over the last four years from the government haven't helped at all, and isolationism will not work for Iran."

Another Iranian " a student at the University of Oklahoma who asked not to be named, for fear that it would endanger her family in Iran " said that, of the two dozen people she knew who voted both here and in Iran, none of them sided with Ahmadinejad.

"No one I know wanted another four years like the last four years," she said.

Ahmadinejad's last term had worn mightily on people in the country, she said. In the last election, many of those people had not turned out to vote. But Mousavi's rhetoric had enlivened them.

It is difficult to find anyone in Oklahoma who openly says they are a supporter of the current president because of the stigma attached to Ahmadinejad here in the U.S. and the crackdown now associated with his re-election.

Now, she worries that what she called a stolen election could create a generation of indifferent citizens as the protests eventually fizzle out.

"I'm really concerned about the people, especially the young generation. They don't feel like they have control over the future," the student said.

In the days after the election, green-clad Iranians poured onto the streets of Iran, walking in silent protest day after day between Tehran's Azadi and Engelhab squares. Oklahomans joined Iranian expatriates in turning their Facebook and Twitter profile pictures green.

The flood of support shocked Sahar Noor, an international relations student at OU who moved here seven years ago. In her experience, Oklahomans knew little about her home country, and to see the flood of articles pouring across her computer screen was heartening, she said.

Before the election, Noor saw no way for Ahmadinejad to win the election, given the climate she felt had infused the capital. Her father is a prominent intellectual in Tehran and a strong supporter of Mousavi; her mother, a journalist who for decades worked for news outlets in Iran.

In the early days, Iranian police and plainclothes Basiji militiamen largely let the protesters pass. The true test came after the election as Khamenei took to the stage for an hours-long speech.

The speech was broadcast live on CNN at 3 a.m. in Oklahoma. Noor stayed up to watch with her family as Khamenei's pronouncements became more grave and threatening.

"The first week, we were basically waiting for the Friday prayer," she said. "We were very disappointed (with) what he said. It couldn't have been much worse."

Noor was one organizer of the candlelight vigils and protests in Oklahoma City. She said haunting images, like those of Neda Soltan, a young woman whose death has been viewed by millions on the Internet, and the shouts of "Allahu Akbar" from Tehran's rooftops at night gave her goose bumps. They motivated her to action.

Noor has one friend, a young woman, who voted for Ahmadinejad in Iran. She said they had argued over Facebook about the election results. But the flow of information in the country is so stymied that the friend believed wholly in the outcome of the race.

"She has been watching one of the six state channels they have over there," Noor said.

As the police crackdown intensifies, expatriate Iranians say that the future of the country relies on the people taking to the streets. They are reticent to say where they hope the revolution will lead or whether it is a revolution at all.

In her frequent visits home to Iran, Sahar Jooshani always pays close attention to the way women dress. The ratio of black chadors to Louis Vuitton is a barometer for the state of freedom in the Islamic republic, she said.

In her last visit, she noticed a significant uptick in the number of Dolce & Gabbana headscarves " a sure sign that the atmosphere was ripe for change.

Jooshani is about to enter law school at OU. She recently spent several months as an intern at the National Iranian American Council in Washington, D.C. That organization has served as a major clearinghouse for information coming out of Iran since the elections.

From her vantage point, the events unfolding in Iran do not yet amount to a revolution on the scale of 1979. That revolution simmered for months before it boiled over, and the worldwide attention span may not be long enough to allow that to happen in this case, she said.

"This is not a revolution. I don't think it's as grand as it was in '79," Jooshani said. "The regime right now has an 'oh, crap' mentality. There are people rallying in the streets, and it's definitely an eruption point, but people are accustomed to the way they've been brought up."

If anything, she said, the street protests and the coverage have brought Oklahoma and Iran closer together.

"This brings attention to Iran," she said. "So when the U.S. or Israel talk about the country, people will now see more than just the face of the leader."  "Grant Slater

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Grant Slater

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