June 14, 2007 – When you read these lines I will be in Paris, attending what promises to be a historic conference of Iranian opposition groups where they plan to announce a new initiative to support pro-democracy forces inside Iran.
They call themselves Solidarity Iran, a conscious reminder of the defiant labor movement inside Poland that helped bring about the end of the Cold War.
Solidarity’s leader, Lech Walesa, went on to become the first freely-elected president of liberated Poland. While the Solidarity Iran organizers do not plan to elect a single leader, they do anticipate the election this weekend of a representative council to represent the group in the months to come as it tours world capitals to build support for the freedom struggle inside Iran.
Why is this historic? Because for 28 years, the Iranian opposition has been fatally divided, unable to present a united front, unable to forge a vision of the future capable of taming the demons of the past.
Several attempts to create a similar, broad-based opposition movement have failed before. For 28 years, opposition leaders in exile have expended great zeal and energy fighting each other instead of fighting the regime. Some continue to do so today. As one skeptic told me recently, “it’s in our genes.”
Some of these leaders cling to hopeless notions they can bring back the Pahlavi dynasty, whose mismanagement and inept brutality helped bring about the 1979 revolution. (Jimmy Carter and the British did much of the political heavy lifting, while the Soviet Union and the PLO provided material support to pro-Khomeini terrorists who murdered former regime members and seized the US embassy).
Ironically, the monarch they would restore – Reza Pahlavi – has expressed little interest in becoming king, although he has said he would serve as a constitutional monarch, in the style of Juan Carlos of Spain, should the Iranian people chose such a government freely.
Others have more to fear from a united opposition front, because it will expose their own lack of legitimacy.
The Iranian political opposition is vibrant, eclectic, prideful, and disorganized. There are hundreds of one-man and one-women organizations floating around, from Los Angeles to Houston to Paris and Berlin, all claiming to represent the Iranian people. These good souls should put their shoulder to the plough, and if so talented, pen to paper and hand to wallet, to support the broad non-partisan goals of Solidarity Iran.
As the Iranian regime races toward nuclear weapons capability, there is little time to get this right, and a sense of urgency impels Solidarity Iran organizers. They know they don’t have another two or three years to build a mass movement. By that time, the regime will have become a nuclear weapons state, backed by Russia, China and North Korea, and the Western democracies will be lining up to pay their respects in exchange for “peace.”
But much work has already been done. Two preparatory conferences, on a much smaller scale, were held in Berlin in September 2005 and in London last June, to hammer out the basic principles on which democratic opposition organizations could agree.
“This initiative is unique and unprecedented in the Iranian political scene”, said Hossein Bagher Zadeh, a founder member of the initiative. “The Iranian political class is very fragmented, and activists have usually worked on party lines. Efforts to unify the opposition have always been aimed at creating exclusive clubs on ideological or political grounds.”
Solidarity Iran hopes to break through this morass through a set of organizing principles, set out in the Berlin Charter, “which puts establishing democracy and human rights as our ultimate objective and recognizes the inalienable right of the Iranian people to determine the form and particulars of the government system in a democratic manner,” he said.
The Berlin chart excludes “all forms of oligarchic rule,” whether by monarch, cult, or mullah, Bagher Zadeh added.
The U.S. government is following these latest efforts of Iranian pro-freedom activists with interest, both at the State Department and at the White House.
For 1995, the United States has refused to fund any Iranian opposition organizations, for fear of provoking Tehran and because the opposition was not united.
The Iranians were begging for help, and told their friends in the administration that they needed the “blessing” of U.S. assistance to demonstrate that they were in charge. The Americans insisted that the Iranians first resolve their political differences, and then they would see.
Solidarity Iran is an attempt to break this logjam. The movement is not a political party, or even a coalition, organizers say. It aspires to create a large political umbrella, where activists from diverse backgrounds and beliefs can unite in their opposition to the regime, without abandoning their principles or agendas.
“Through Solidarity Iran, we want to gather the much needed support for the civil movements in Iran, and to bring to the world’s attention the plights of the Iranians fighting for their basic rights in Iran”, said Shahriar Ahy a key organizer of the Paris conference.
Ahy and the organizing committee want to create a bridge between civic groups and trade unions outside Iran, and their counterparts operating in Iran.
“Civil society in the outside world can do a lot to support these movements,” Ahy said.. “Women’s organizations can extend a hand to help their sisters in Iran who are fighting in most difficult circumstances. Similarly, trade unions, teachers organizations, student groups and the like can do the same for their professional counterparts in Iran”, he said.
What is most exciting about the Paris conference are the attendees, who include former enemies who have agreed to set aside their past differences to work together toward the common goal of a united Iran free from clerical dictatorship.
In addition to Ahy, who was a long-time advisor to Reza Pahlavi, and Cyrus Amouzegar, a former minister under the Shah, they include leftists who opposed the Shah and initially welcomed the revolution.
Legendary leaders from the July 1999 student uprising in Tehran are scheduled to attend, including Roozbeh Farahanipour, secretary general of Marzeporgohar (Iranians for a Secular Republic). They will sit side by side with people such as Mohsen Sazegara, a founder of the Revolutionary Guards who broke with the regime and was jailed repeatedly in the late 1990s.
And that’s what it’s all about.
Some of the attendees will be coming from inside Iran, and cannot be named. One women’s rights’ activist will be appearing with a mask over her face, since the proceedings will be beamed into Iran via satellite on Pars TV, an exile station in Los Angeles.
Voice of America has committed to sending a film crew –a welcome shift for VOA, which until recently has given short-shift to the opposition, while bloating its taxpayer-funded broadcasts with pro Tehran-regime advocates. Radio Israel’s tiny Persian-language service is also sending a reporting team.
The Iranian regime is terrified of Solidarity Iran, and has spent a great deal of effort to bad-mouth the conference through official media in Tehran, pro-regime blogs, and through open threats and bluster. No wonder. Intelligence minister Mohseini-Ejai has stated repeatedly that the regime’s biggest worry is that the United States will back a “velvet revolution” inside Iran.
The Iranian opposition is finally starting to do its part. Now it’s time for the U.S. government to step up to the plate, and provide substantial assistance to the pro-democracy movement in Iran, not just lip service.
The VOA coverage is a good first gesture. But in the coming weeks and months, the President should welcome a delegation from solidarity Iran at the White House. Members of Congress should invite them to testify. And private organizations, such as the AFL-CIO should help by providing support to sister organizations inside Iran.
I have advocated in this space that the U.S. government allocate a budget of $300 million – for starters – to help the pro-democracy movement. But most of the work can and must be done by Iranians.
Satellite TV networks need U.S. government assistance in getting their broadcasts into Iran. They need help in defeating Iranian government jamming, and government efforts, stepped up recently, to filter the Internet and monitor Internet access.
The Iranian regime is putting out feelers that it is now ready to talk to the United States, and not just about its nuclear programs. You’d have to be naēve, cynical, or a die-hard mullah-lover to fall for that one. This latest Iranian “offer” shows that they are worried. And our answer should be to increase the pressure, not let up.
Senator Joe Lieberman said after returning from Iraq recently that the United States needs no international authorization to go after Iranian military bases on Iran’s side of the border with Iraq that are being used to support Iraqi insurgents.
I certainly agree. Nor do we need anyone’s approval to go after Iraqi terrorist groups such as the Mahdi army, or its offshoot, the Khazali network, which the U.S. believes was responsible for the January 20 attempt to kidnap five U.S. soldiers in Iraq, ostensibly in “retaliation” for the U.S. arrest of five Iranian Guards officers in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil.
Laith and Qais al-Khazali, brothers who run the family terror network, sent 35 members to Iran for training at the Shahid Habibollahi training camp outside of Ahvaz in December 2005.
Since then, the Khazali network has received support from the Revolutionary Guards 31st Ashoura division in Ahvaz, under the command of Col. Majid Arjomand, and from an Iraqi Shia named Abu Hamzeh, who traveled to Tehran in April to meet with top Revolutionary Guards leaders. These basis – and Abu Hamzeh – should be targeted by the U.S.
Squeezing Iran works.
And empowering Iranians works even better.