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Iranian Dissidents Gather To Discuss Regime Change

Claudia Rosett
18th June 2007 - The New York Sun

Regime change for Iran may be a dead letter in the loftiest councils of world affairs, but as a prime goal, it is very much alive in the plans of some 200 exiled Iranian dissidents who gathered here in a basement conference hall these past three days to launch a movement they are calling "Solidarity Iran."

Inspired by the Polish Solidarity union movement that helped bring down communist rule in the 1980s, the aim of this new Solidarity is to give a more coherent shape and identity to the diverse and often fractious Iranian dissident diaspora. Brought together by about half a dozen organizers of various political stripes, the participants are seeking to devise more and better-coordinated ways of boosting efforts by people within Iran itself to replace the country's terrorist-sponsoring and brutal Islamic regime with secular, democratic rule.

The obstacles are enormous. But as diplomats in Europe and America maneuver to cut deals with the Iranian regime that focus on its nuclear program and dignify its officials, the single most important contribution of this new Solidarity movement may be the insistence of its participants that no such deal will suffice to stop the poisonous influence and terrorist activities of the Iranian theocracy.

They say the regime — they refer to it as "the Islamic Republic" — must go.

The organizing document for the conference declares: "We consider the system of Islamic Republic incorrigible and we think that the establishment of democracy in Iran is conditional upon the abolishment of that regime."

The Iranian regime has "created a wall of separation between the Iranian people and the international community," said one of the organizers, U.K.-based Hossein Bagherzadeh, who left Iran in 1981, two years after the Islamic revolution. "The Iranian people want to join the free world; the free world must respond," he said.

Following less diverse meetings in Berlin in 2005 and London in 2006, this conclave brought together, in some cases for the first time, Iranian-born exiles from a wide array of beliefs and affiliations — some of whom have in past years been at each other's throats, and in some cases on each other's hit lists.

Participants came from places as far-flung as Canada, America, Europe and in a few cases from inside Iran itself. Some had tales of relatives murdered by the regime; some had been beaten and imprisoned before leaving the country. One man lifted his pants leg just enough to show the scars on his ankles from torture at the hands of the Islamic regime. The assembly included leftists, monarchists, ethnic minorities, former student leaders and former adherents of the Islamic regime. There were plenty of women; some wore skirts. There was not a veil in sight.

The ranks included such prominent Iranian exiles as Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, formerly a member in Iran of Ansar Hezbollah, a paramilitary outfit that enforces the dictates of the mullahs. In 2000, Ebrahimi began exposing their abuses. For that he spent four years in prison in Iran before ending up in exile in Germany. In a scene that sums up some of the diversity and spirit of the Solidarity gathering, this past Saturday found Mr. Ebrahimi telling his tale to two reporters in a French hotel lobby, with interpreting help provided by an Iranian-born Jew, Pooya Dayanim, whose family fled the country in 1985. Dayanim recounts that his family made the decision to leave Iran because they expected trouble when he refused, at the age of 14, to join in the obligatory daily chant at his school of "Death to America! Death to Israel." Based in Los Angeles, Dayanim is now president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee.

Unlike the leaders of the original Polish Solidarity, most of those launching Solidarity Iran are forced to operate from outside the country. But some of the participants pointed out that they hope to turn their diversity and distance to advantage — looking for ways from their vantage in the free world to help protesters inside Iran coordinate both with the outside world and with each other.

"There are thousands of circles of protest inside Iran. The government of Iran does not allow them to connect to each other," said one of the conference organizers, Shahriyar Ahy, a spokesman for Reza Pahlavi, the American-based son of the former Shah (Mr. Pahlavi did not attend the gathering).

Most of those at the Paris gathering are opposed to military action to remove the Islamic regime. But not all. One attendee, Faramarz Bakhtiar, who left Iran in 1998 and now lives in Germany, says "We cannot free Iran like Ukraine happened, or Poland." Mr. Bakhtiar, whose uncle (later assassinated) was prime minister under the Shah, says the "the only way that these mullahs will go away is by military," and suggests combining such non-violent activities as those proposed by Solidarity Iran with the bombing of such places inside Iran as terrorist training camps and the nuclear facilities at Natanz. In broken English he delivers a clear message: "When mullah is plus atom, the whole humanity is in danger."

A woman who came from inside Iran, attending under a false name to reduce the risk of retaliation from the regime upon her return, said that the United Nations sanctions to date have made no dent at all. She suggests that given the miserable economic conditions created by the regime itself, a complete embargo on Iranian oil sales — however that might be achieved — could topple the mullahs in a matter of months. Noting, like many here, that the only real solution to the Iranian regime's terrorist-wielding war-mongering ambitions is to get rid of theocratic rule, she asks: "Why is the problem of the atomic bomb more important than human rights?"

Much remains to be done before Solidarity Iran might make a serious mark. Simply arriving at an agreement to go forward entailed much debate among members of this gathering, at one point till 4:30 in the morning. As the meeting drew to a close, a 20-member council was elected, which will now choose a seven-member executive board tasked with coordinating genuine action.

One participant, an Iranian-born economist now living in Britain, compared the creation of this new Solidarity to the act of pressing down the accelerator of a car not yet in gear. But if nothing else, these dissidents came from near and far, and sidelined many deep differences, to agree on a call from Paris that the vital task is not to negotiate with the Islamic Republic, but to get rid of it.

Ms. Rosett is a Journalist-in-Residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

 

 

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