Sunday, August 30, 2009

Amidst turmoil, Iranian exiles seek to be heard

Amidst turmoil, Iranian exiles seek to be heard

By Michael Deibert

PARIS - When hundreds of thousands of Iranians flooded the streets to protest what they charged was the rigged re-election victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on June 12, it was seen by many as one of the most significant moments in the country since its 1979 revolution ended the 38-year reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, and replaced it with a theocracy based on the teachings of Shia Islam.

However, as is often the case with internal power struggles in the oil-rich, politically delicate Persian Gulf region, the reverberations from the protests in Iran and the government’s response to them have been felt far beyond Iran’s borders, and have stimulated a whirlwind of debate and lobbying activity among Iranian exiles in North America and Europe.

Between two to three million Iranians are thought to live abroad, with the largest percentage in the Unite States, followed by the European Union, Canada and the United Arab Emirates. In the run-up to June's ballot, the official website of Iran's government said that 304 polling stations had been established in 130 countries outside Iran.

Many voters living abroad are thought to have supported Ahmadinejad’s main opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a supposition that appeared to gain weight with massive pro-Mousavi demonstrations held throughout Europe between the June vote and its formal endorsement by Iran’s designated spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, this August, seven weeks after the election.

Mousavi, who served as Iran’s Prime Minister from 1981 until 1989 (at which point that post was abolished), has run afoul of conservative elements in Iran’s clerical establishment, including Khamenei, with calls for greater civil liberties in the country of 70 million.

A sometimes ally of Ahmadinejad’s, Khamenei’s role in Iran’s political life is specified in Article 107 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a document adopted in a 1979 referendum and modified in 1989. It refers to a “leader” (though not a “supreme leader,” which is an unofficial term of respect), outlining that “the Leader thus elected by the Assembly of Experts shall assume all the powers of the religious leader and all the responsibilities arising therefrom. The Leader is equal with the rest of the people of the country in the eyes of law.”

With Mousavi’s campaign supported by other elements among Iran’s power elite, including Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (who served as Iran’s president from 1981 until 1987), his partisans have been able to marshall a sustained campaign of protests in and outside of Iran that has little been seen since 1979.

The response of the Ahmadinejad government, chiefly through the Revolutionary Guard branch of Iran’s military and the affiliated Basij militia, has been one of extreme violence and mass arrests, with an unknown number of protesters having been killed and hundreds arrested, many disappearing into Tehran's Evin prison. The death of one protester, Neda Soltan, a 26-year-old music student gunned down during a demonstration, was captured on the camera of a mobile phone, and became something of an iconic image of the protest movement.

“What we are seeing is open criticism of the supreme leader and of the supreme leader’s system, and previously that has been the red line that no one has been able to cross,” says Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington DC, referring to Khamenei. “Both the person and the institution of the supreme leader have been above criticism, and that has now changed.”

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are an estimated 1 million Iranian-Americans living in the United States, with substantial Iranian-American communities in San Francisco, New York City and the Washington, DC-Baltimore metropolitan area. In Southern California, the most populous Iranian-American enclave (so much that Los Angeles has occasionally received the sobriquet Tehrangeles), community estimates count some 500,000 among the Iranian-American population there, served by 20 Farsi-language satellite television channels.

In addition, the U.S. government also funds Radio Farda, a Persian language radio station based in Washington, D.C. and Prague, Czech Republic. The station's name means "tomorrow" in Farsi, and its content focuses heavily on Iran, a state of affairs which has resulted in its website being blocked by the Iranian government.

Despite their numbers, however, diaspora voices in the United States and elsewhere have yet to articulate a common approach to Iran’s crisis, with opinions spanning the gamut from former monarchists such as Reza Pahlavi, the former Crown Prince of Iran and eldest son of the late Shah, to civil society groupings such as the Washington, DC-based National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

Founded in 2002 and partially funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and the non-profit Tides Foundation, the NIAC’s website states that “the organization currently supports the idea of resolving the problems between the US and Iran through dialogue in order to avoid war.”

“As long as we have a state of flux, the proper path is to do nothing,” says NIAC’s president Trita Parsi, of the proper response of the international community to Iran’s upheaval. “Once you reach a position where a greater consensus has formed, however distasteful engagement might appear, that is the only option the United States hasn’t pursued in the last 30 years. And it has worked to the detriment of the forces of democracy inside the country.”

However, Parsi cautions that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama should “not engage the Ahmadinejad government prematurely” as the true measure of current developments in Iran “may take months or perhaps years, not weeks.”

Many critics of the Iranian government’s response to the protests cite what they charge as its failure to honor the terms of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Article 27 of which states that “public gatherings and marches may be freely held, provided arms are not carried and that they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.”

In the wake of the crackdown, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the Mousavi campaign’s key backers, told thousands of worshippers at a prayer event in July that the Islamic Republic was in crisis and the Ahmadinejad government had lost the trust of millions of Iranians who didn’t believe that their votes had been counted.

Another former president, Mohammad Khatami, who governed that country from 1997 until Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election, called for a nationwide referendum on the legitimacy of the Ahmadinejad government, though not the Islamic system itself.

“This is not a prelude to a revolution, but a specific demand for civil liberties,” says Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York and a native of the city of Ahvaz in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan province. “The ruling elite is seriously divided...Everybody has known that there were divisions of opinions and factions within the body politic of the Islamic Republic, but it has never been so open.”

Indeed, as opposed to the Tiananmen Square protests which rocked China in 1989 and were met with a more or less unified iron fist by the Chinese Communist party (and initially, according to the Chinese Red Cross, 2,600 fatalities), today’s dissent in Iran appears to be echoed at the very highest levels of the country’s clerical establishment. Expressions of discontent have be voiced not only by former presidents such as Rafsanjani and Khatami, but also by influential religious leaders such as the long-dissenting cleric Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, based in the holy city of Qom.

The risks run by the clerics and protestors have been signifiant, as Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have tried to label the current power struggle as little more than treason being orchestrated by foreign governments. Staring down at those moved to act, as well, is Iran’s grim human rights record, which, according the New York-based Human Rights watch, has led to Iran being the world’s leader in overall executions, executing more people than any other country except China, with executions having undergone a 300% increase since Ahmadinejad took office in 2005. Iran also leads the world in executing juvenile offenders, persons under 18 at the time of their crime.

Of all diaspora centres in Europe, France has historically been the most vibrant nexus of expatriate Iranian political and cultural life.

Perhaps Iran’s best known author, Sādeq Hedāyat lived off and on in France for much of his adult life, drawing deeply upon the influence of French writers such as Guy de Maupassant before gassing himself in his Paris flat in 1951. Buried in the city's storied Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Hedāyat’s most famous book, Boof-e koor (The Blind Owl), has been heavily censored in modern-day Iran.

In 1978, following his expulsion from the holy city of Najaf, Iraq (where he had lived since 1965) by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of Iran’s Islamic revolution, spent four critical months strategizing and plotting his return to Iran in the village of Neauphle-le-Château, just outside of Paris.

Today, the Tehran-raised and now Paris-based graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi chronicled her experiences growing up in the Islamic Republic and in exile in Europe in her much-praised works, Persepolis and Persepolis 2.

Following Iran's disputed ballot this year, Satrapi and Vienna-based filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (whose 2001 film Kandahar won the Federico Fellini Prize from UNESCO, and who serves as the the spokesman for the Mousavi campaign abroad), met with Green Party MPs in the European parliament in Brussels. The pair presented what they said was a document from the Iranian electoral commission showing that Mousavi had won the ballot with 19 million votes, a far cry from the official tally that showed 24.5 million votes for the victorious Ahmadinejad and 13.2 million votes for Mousavi.

“We,the Iranian nation, have been taken hostage by the government of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei,” Makhmalbaf said in a speech to the European Parliament in July. “We call on you, the nations and governments of the world, not to give official recognition to the hostage-takers.”

Beyond the passionate artistic dissent of Satrapi and Makhmalbaf, France is also the base for one of the murkiest and most controversial of the exile groups opposing the Ahmadinejad government and Iran’s conservative clerics, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).

Founded in Paris in 1981 by Massoud Rajavi, a former supporter of Iran’s Islamic revolution who had fallen out with the Khomeini government, the NCRI grew directly out of the role of Rajavi and his wife, Maryam, as leaders of the Mojāhedin-e Khalq (People's Mujahedin of Iran or MEK, sometimes also abbreviated as PMOI).

With its roots in the firmament of university opposition to the Shah in 1960s Iran and a large portion of its membership female, the MEK blend a peculiar mix of Marxist and Islamic fervor with a rather pronounced and somewhat eerie focus on the Rajavis as objects of public adoration. Leaving Paris in 1986, Massoud Rajavi set up MEK military bases in Iraq for the next two decades with the blessing of Saddam Hussein.

When Massoud Rajavi disappeared in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (he is now thought to be dead or in hiding), responsibility for the day-to-day running of the NCRI fell to Maryam Rajavi. Following the U.S invasion of Iraq, the MEK was largely disarmed, though its sprawling camps in Iraq’s Diyala Province remained until a violent July 2009 incursion by Iraqi security forces sought to dismantle the camps and evict their residents.

Placed on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations in 1997, the MEK was also placed on the European Union's list of terrorist organizations in 2002, but removed it in early 2009

In a 2005 report titled “No Exit,” Human Rights Watch wrote that former MEK members at the camps “reported abuses ranging from detention and persecution of ordinary members wishing to leave the organization, to lengthy solitary confinements, severe beatings, and torture of dissident members.”

As a measure of the devotion of the group’s followers, when Maryam Rajavi was arrested by French police in June 2003 along with 160 MEK followers on the basis of a court order accusing them of preparing terrorist acts and financing terrorist enterprises from French soil, the group’s supporters staged noisy protests in several European capitals, with several partisans setting themselves ablaze in protest. Rajavi was subsequently released.

The NCRI has apparently taken a page out of the book of the Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi exile group whose assertions that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction gained it great influence among Washington’s power elite even though they were later proved false.

In February 2008, the NCRI held a press conference where they charged that Iran was still actively pursuing a nuclear weapons programme, a claim that ran counter the assessment of the US National Intelligence Estimate - the collective wisdom of all 16 U.S. spy agencies - that Iran halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003.

Though the group’s links with Saddam Hussein during the vicious 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war are said to have cost it dearly in terms of support on the ground in Iran, the group still has its admirers in Washington.

Tom Tancredo, former Republican member of the United States House of Representatives and failed 2008 presidential candidate, was a vocal supporter of the group during his 10 year stint on Capital Hill, while California Democratic Congressman Bob Filner addressed an NCRI rally in Paris in June 2007, praising the group and Maryam Rajavi in particular. Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee under George W. Bush and a leading proponent of the invasion of Iraq, and Florida Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen are also viewed as being sympathetic to the group.

Among quieter voices in the Iranian exile community, however, is the recognition that Iran is currently passing through a supremely delicate and painful moment in its political history.

Above all, they say, the significance of what is happening in Iran now should not be lost on outside observers of the region, and foreign governments should approach this crisis with a new set of eyes, avoiding a repeat of such infamous moments as the ill-fated 1954 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq (carried out with the complicity of British and American intelligence service) or the 2003 Iraq invasion.

While some political players in the West appear genetically disposed to throw their weight behind fire-and-brimstone military scenarios when confronted with the crisis, and while some of those of the intellectual left wrap themselves in ideologically bankrupt slogans about U.S. hegemony far removed from the reality of Iranian risking their lives on the ground, voices in the Iranian diaspora continue to urge, above all things, caution and moderation.

“Any principled person who has a venue and who has a position where they can inform has to be supple intellectually, politically and morally, and be open to the possibility that things can happen beyond our expectations, beyond our theories, beyond our political positioning,” says Hamid Dabashi. “To not allow the facts on the ground as they are unfolding to inform politics and theories, this to me is irresponsible.”

“I think what we are witnessing is not only the rise of national politics into the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf region, but the rise of a civil rights movements quite beyond ideological persuasions or formations.”

Michael Deibert is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.

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