GREAT NECK, New York — The Chattanooga Restaurant was one of the hippest places to be in Tehran before the 1979 Islamic revolution. Serving continental cuisine, the coffee house-cum-art gallery was a gathering spot for celebrities and royalty and its ice coffee was legendary.
Reflecting the steady influx of Jewish Persian immigrants since the fall of the shah, Great Neck, New York, is home to its own Chatanooga (sic) Restaurant, a glatt kosher establishment founded in 2001 that serves up Middle Eastern salads, stews, and kebabs.
The Great Neck Persian Jewish community, second in size only to Californian enclaves, is rooted, and influential. There are some 15,000-17,000 Persian Jews in the greater New York area, according to the Iranian-American Jewish Federation of New York. A 2011 Jewish community survey found that 38 percent of Great Neck’s Jewish households include someone who identifies as Sephardic, overwhelmingly of Iranian descent. And as of July, even the hamlet’s newly elected mayor, Dr. Pedram Bral, is a Persian Jew.
In the run-up to the Congress’s September vote on the Iran Deal, The Times of Israel sat down with members of the community, who waxed nostalgic for “their” Iran, and largely voiced despair at the naivete of an international community that is legitimizing “a brutal and tyrannical regime.”
Former Tehran native Dr. Naheed Neman, a dentist in Great Neck, recalled fond memories of her pre-Iranian Revolution homeland on a recent Friday afternoon meal at Chatanooga. She eschewed a more elaborate Persian-style dish on the menu for a simple grilled chicken salad.
“It was heaven for young people,” she said, noting the strong support they had from the government in pursuing a higher education. And about Iran’s monarch of 37 years, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, she said, “For Jews, he was the best.”
Neman came to the United States in 1977 to further her dental studies with the intention of returning home. But the Iranian Revolution broke out in 1979, and the Islamic regime led by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah took over.
Neman completed her studies and established her first practice in 1984 in Queens, essentially starting from scratch. Her father was jailed in Iran for two years before eventually obtaining freedom and immigrating to the United States. Through lingering fear perhaps, Neman originally did not want her first name published.
Referring to the July 14 deal reached between Iran and six major powers that would approve sanctions relief in return for restrictions on nuclear activity, Neman said of the regime, “They do what they want to do.”
“Even if they sign the contract, they can break it,” she added. It is “naive to believe they’re going to keep their promises.”
‘Hope and change over reality and logic’
In conversations, The Times of Israel heard that Neman and other suburban Long Island Iranian-Jewish expatriates largely condemned the nuclear deal, which the United States and five other world powers (Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany) signed with Iran in Vienna after months of negotiations.
The 109-page deal limits the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in exchange for progressively lifting sanctions that have crippled its economy for decades. The deal is bitterly opposed by the Israeli government, which views it as a path for Iran to develop a bomb, as well as rewarding the regime tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief.
At the same time, Secretary of State John Kerry has warned members of Congress — who have until mid-September to vote on the deal — that if they reject it, Tehran would move forward toward an atomic bomb, international sanctions would crumble, and the United States would be left without access to inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities that the accord provides for.
Like other Jewish organizations, organized Persian Jewry is not taking this deal lying down. In a statement seemingly directed against President Barack Obama, Sam Kermanian, senior adviser to the Iranian American Jewish Federation, said, “The nuclear agreement with Iran represents the triumph of ‘Hope and Change’ over reality and logic.
“It is an extremely bad deal which will legitimize a brutal and tyrannical regime which suppresses its own people at home and carries a dangerous and adventurous foreign policy abroad,” Kermanian continued. He warned it will “embolden the regime” and further destabilize the region, while allowing Iran to step-up support for global terrorism “from Lebanon to South and Central America and from Yemen to Southeast Asia.”
“Furthermore, this agreement will likely lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and significantly increase the likelihood of increased conflicts in the region. The more one studies this agreement, the worse it looks,” said Kermanian.
Great Neck Village Mayor Bral, 45, told The Times of Israel he also finds fault with many of the deal’s details. Based on what he has read about the agreement he said, “I don’t think there are any guarantees in the deal,” noting the gaps around the issue of facility inspections, for example.
“I want a true, long-lasting peace,” said Bral, an Orthodox Jew who left Iran in 1985 with his mother and sister.
Bral was recently inaugurated as mayor in an upset election that unseated incumbent Ralph Kreitzman. A physician and director of Minimally Invasive & Robotic Gynecologic Surgery at Maimonides Medical Center, Bral has said he will drastically cut his medical practice during his term as mayor — basically a volunteer position that pays a mere $10,000 a year.
‘I’m worried that the deal will create a nuclear arms race in the Middle East’
“I’m worried that the deal will create a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” said Bral, with countries such as Saudi Arabia scrambling to acquire weapons.
Although he yearns for the day when Israel and Iran may be at peace, Bral is also concerned that Iran is using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to divert attention from the regime. “It has nothing to do with Iran.”
Like many Persian Jews who spoke with The Times of Israel, Bral hopes Congress can stop the deal.
“Until the United States is a little more familiar with their way of thinking, I’m hoping that they can stop, or super majority veto-proof, what President Obama has suggested.”
Online petitions and grassroots grumbling
The logic of the deal also escapes Kimya Kreinik, a resident of neighboring Roslyn, New York.
“It just doesn’t make sense how it could be supported,” said Kreinik, who signed and circulated an online petition urging Congress to oppose the agreement, “because the security of Israel is at stake.”
“Iran is one of the main supporters of terrorism,” Kreinik said. “This decision shouldn’t be in the hands of Obama.”
Kreinik, who came to the United States at age nine with memories of being called a “dirty Jew” as a six year old in Iran, believes the militaries of the United States and Israel should have more input into this issue. “We have to save lives,” said Kreinik.
Benjamin Navi, 29, a resident of Manhattan who grew up in Roslyn, agreed the deal is “definitely frightening.”
A real estate developer, Navi said, “I really don’t see the reasoning of where the Obama administration is coming from,” and called for a different approach to the negotiations.
“Their focus should be to empower the Iranian people,” he said, referring to the Green Movement protests that arose after the 2009 Iranian presidential election, in which demonstrators demanded the removal of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office.
With 60 percent of Iran’s population between the ages of 18 and 30, “you have a very young generation that is very Western,” Navi said. “The people are pro-democracy.”
Among the older generation of Long Island Persian Jews, it is more difficult to find a resident who supports the deal.
“As a community, we are very united,” explained a 65-year-old teacher in Great Neck who agreed only to be identified by her Hebrew name, Penina. “We are Jews, period.”
Penina, who first came to the United States in 1972, said she is “absolutely” against any deal. “They lie and nobody does anything,” she said of the government, which she views in sharp contrast to ordinary Iranians, who are “kind, nice, good people.”
The ‘devil’ you know?
Some younger members of the Long Island Persian community, however, fail to see any viable alternative. Great Neck resident Esther Alian, who has three young children, asked, “How far can we go in meddling in [Iran’s] affairs and prevent them from attaining their goals?”
“I don’t think that our lobbying Congress is going to change the atmosphere of Iran,” said Alian, a graduate of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem with an international relations degree. “The conflict with the Western world is still going to exist and it’s going to manifest itself.”
“The deal is probably the only thing we can do to limit and oversee what’s going on,” said Alian, noting it is in the United States’ strategic interest to maintain friendly relations with Iran. Alian also believes that efforts to lobby Congress serve only one constituency: a domestic one.
“Is lobbying going to prevent Iran from having nuclear technology?” she asked. “It’s really not going to affect anyone who is outside the United States.”
‘People should know the pros and cons of what is going on’
At least one other community member found himself in agreement with Alian’s position. A 65-year-old physician who also did not want his name used for fear of reprisal acknowledged that while regime members “are known to be liars,” he doesn’t “see any other choice” besides the deal. Even former Israeli Mossad chief Efraim Halevy supports the agreement and has criticized Netanyahu for his opposition, he pointed out. “People should know the pros and cons of what is going on.”
The physician, who came to the United States in 1978, cited geopolitical factors in support of the deal, including that Iran’s ally Russia — whose own domestic challenges include a “very radical” Muslim Chechen population — is also opposed to letting Iran have an atomic bomb. He also has faith that Western intelligence is able to detect illicit nuclear activity.
“If the American intelligence find that they are cheating… all the sanctions are going to be put back on them,” he said.
‘This deal is not bad for Israel at all, but is good for everyone’
Israel’s benefits also outweigh the risks, said the doctor. “This deal is not bad for Israel at all, but is good for everyone.” However, lobbying groups such as AIPAC have negative ramifications for Israel in the long run, he said, potentially breeding resentment within the American public.
“I really think there is going to be a backlash,” he said.
He knows he is in the minority among his community, but believes he needs to speak up.
“In my heart, I think I should be truthful,” he said. “This is the way it is.”