Little-known community has achieved great success in business and professional life
while remaining mostly anonymous to those around them.
By Stan Brin
Arezou Bakhtjou considers herself typical of young Iranian-American professionals. She
is university-educated, works as a licensed real estate broker and expects to enroll at
Whittier law school next fall with an eye on becoming a patent attorney.
But Bakhtjou is not a typical immigrant: She has been living in the United States for only
18 months. While even most Iranian-Americans consider her story somewhat unusual,
she illustrates the rapid success this new local community has experienced in the past
25 years. From the Moshayedi brothers, founders of SimpleTech, a $300-million public
company included on Inc. Magazine’s list of the Fastest Growing Companies in
America, to Paul Makarechian, owner of the St. Regis Resort and Spa in Dana Point, to Dr. Fardad Fateri, former president of DeVry
University, Iranians have achieved prominence in every aspect of business and the professions, from high-tech to education and the arts.
Persian accents are heard everywhere in Orange County, especially in Irvine and the South County area, but most people don’t know who
Iranian-Americans are. In fact, nobody seems to know how many Iranian-Americans actually live in Orange County.
Worse, Iranian-Americans have had a difficult time being recognized as a distinct community by the public, the mass media, even the
government, all of which tend to confuse them with Arab-Americans.
“We’re not Arabs!”
But as any Iranian-American will tell you, Persians are not Arabs, any more than Koreans are Japanese.
“Meaning no disrespect to Arab-Americans,” they tell everyone who will listen. “We are very proud of our own culture, our own language,
cuisine and history.”
In fact, relations between Iran, or Persia, as the country was traditionally called, and the Arab world have been tense for many centuries (see
sidebar, “The Tragic Pageant of Persian History”). And nothing annoys Iranian-Americans more than being mistaken for Arabs their accent
and appearance is very different.
Furthermore, most Iranian-Americans consider themselves to be secular refugees from theocratic tyranny. They have no connection,
whatsoever, with the current government of Iran, which they contemptuously dismiss as the “mullah regime.” In fact, many Iranian-
Americans are not Muslim at all, but Jews, Bahais, Christians and even followers of the Zoroastrian religion of the ancient Persian Empire.
No one knows how many Iranians and Iranian-Americans live in the United States. Census figures indicate a nationwide population of
roughly 400,000, but the Washington-based National Iranian American Council estimates that the actual number is at least 3 times as high.
According to an NIAC report, this undercount is due to the lack of an “Iranian” box on census forms. Anyone who wants to be counted as of
Iranian descent must specifically write in his or her origin by hand.
One thing is clear: While there are many working-class Iranians who can be seen stocking shelves at local discount stores, the majority are
NIAC Executive Director Dokhi Fassihian says, “Iranians rank as having the highest percentage of master’s degrees of any ethnic group in
the United States. Iranian culture puts a great deal of value on education, more than on other aspects of life.”