EL SOBRANTE — As Parviz Yazdanpanah fled political repression and death threats in Iran almost 30 years ago and began a new life as a Bay Area florist, two of his sisters went in a starkly different direction.
The women migrated to the desert of neighboring Iraq, joining an armed rebel force that aimed to topple Iran's government.
One sister died fighting a border skirmish about 20 years ago. The other, Fereshteh, became a teacher in Camp Ashraf, an outpost of Iranian exiles whose lives, Yazdanpanah said, are now in grave danger and in need of action from the United States.
Yazdanpanah, an El Sobrante resident, is among a group of Iranian-Americans calling on the U.S. government, which until recently protected Camp Ashraf, to take action to prevent catastrophe there.
At least 13 people are reported to have died and many more were injured or detained since Iraqi police forces July 28 raided the fenced-in community for reasons that remain unclear. The camp is home to about 3,500 members of the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, a group of Iranian dissidents who oppose the Islamic government that has ruled Iran since 1979.
"I'm watching every minute to see her," said Ensieh Yazdanpanah, Parviz's wife, as the couple watched a satellite TV station broadcast live images of the bloodshed last week. "It's not an even fight. They're living in this camp peacefully."
The United States, though it helped protect them
To some Iranian-Americans and their political backers in Congress, the terrorist label unfairly maligns a group of former militants who have cooperated with the United States and dedicated their lives to ending an Iranian regime that had oppressed them.
The residents of Camp Ashraf pledged to give up their tanks and weapons when coalition forces took over the site in 2003. In return, they lived in relative peace under the protection of those troops until the beginning of this year, when the U.S. began a promised withdrawal.
The Iranian rebels once had the backing of Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, during and after his war with Iran. But Iraq's subsequent leadership has grown friendlier with Iran. Iranian rulers would like to have the camp disbanded, and the camp's supporters fear local Iraqi forces will do Iran's bidding by repatriating residents who could face punishment in their homeland.
Executions and exile
The mujahedeen initially formed in the mid-1960s to help topple the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. After the 1979 revolution that deposed the shah, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini turned against the group, executing more than 100,000 of its members and supporters — and driving others, such as the surviving Yazdanpanahs, into exile.
Many of those exiles landed in the Bay Area, which has an Iranian-American population of more than 200,000.
"I haven't slept for two days," said Albany resident Nasrin Seifi, who said she is worried for the safety of a cousin living at Camp Ashraf. "I have nightmares."Like many Iranian-Americans with kin there, Seifi was at first perplexed, but she later came to admire the choice her cousin made. As a graduate student in Germany in the 1980s, Seifi said her cousin "was a guy who was into going to clubs, dancing, girlfriends. He wasn't into politics at all. Then, after awhile, we hadn't heard from him."
Family members eventually tracked the cousin down to Camp Ashraf, which Seifi visited in the 1990s to check on him.
"I asked him, why, you know, why did you do this?" Seifi said. "He felt that he needed to do something, and that was the best thing that was fighting the government of Iran."
Fred Dastmalchi. a Sacramento resident and Caltrans engineer, took a leave from work last week to join a hunger strike in Washington, D.C., demanding intervention to stop the violence at the camp. It's the least he can do, he said, to help a cousin who gave up a promising graduate education in Canada to join the Iranian opposition movement. The cousin has lived for years in the camp, which is located about 40 miles north of Baghdad.
"I didn't have that much strength, myself, to do that," Dastmalchi said. "That's why I always admired him."
Police arrested 36 dissidents after the raid, and exiles say they fear they will be executed. One of those arrested, Jamshid Kargar, used to live in San Jose when he was a college student, Ensieh Yazdanpanah said.
With phone access to the camp cut off since July 28, the family is also worried about a 25-year-old woman, Asieh, who the Yazdanpanahs helped raise in the Bay Area. The woman came here as a little girl during the first Persian Gulf War after the Iraqis let some Iranian children out of the country for their safety.
In their living room, the Yazdanpanahs display a portrait of the France-based leader of the People's Mujahedeen, Maryam Rajavi, and her husband, Mahmoud Rajavi. The latter's whereabouts have been unknown since the beginning of the Iraq war.
The group's detractors, including the authors of a U.S. State Department report on them, have described the leaders as having developed a cultlike following that urged participants to separate from their children for the cause and launched deadly terrorist attacks inside Iran and on its embassies abroad. Supporters argue the archenemies of Iran's fundamentalist regime, who want a more secular government back home, are natural pro-democracy allies of the United States.
"The Iranian dictatorship's fingerprints are all over this attack," said U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., in a statement last week, denouncing the recent violence. "The residents of Camp Ashraf are enemies of the Iranian regime. Camp Ashraf residents have been a vital source of intelligence information on the Iranian regime's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs."
The Yazdanpanahs said they feared, and warned, that violence would come to Ashraf if local forces took control. In September, they were among a few hundred Iranian-Americans from California who went to the nation's capital to protest the pending handover of authority over the camp.
Now, they say they will lobby and protest until the United States shows it won't abandon the lives of the camp residents who laid down their arms under the promise of safety.
"We told (the U.S. government) it's going to happen like this," Parviz Yazdanpanah said. "And now, who's responsible for these people? If my sister dies, who's responsible?"
Staff writer Ken McLaughlin contributed to this report.