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SOLIDARITY
IRANIAN OPPOSITION IS FINALLY GETTING ITS ACT TOGETHER
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
July 9, 2006

July 9, 2006 -- SINCE the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last sum mer, opponents of the Islamic Republic have sought to unite in a plan for action on specific issues. It now seems that those efforts have met with some success, enabling the opposition to coordinate tactics against the Ahmadinejad administration.

"Everyone has the feeling that things are coming to a head [in Iran]," says a former Cabinet minister under President Muhammad Khatami. "People seem ready to forget [past] disputes and work together to save the nation from the most dangerous crisis in its recent history."

Efforts to harmonize oppositional action come after years of fruitless negotiations to form a united front capable of offering a credible alternative to the regime.

The reasons for the past failure might have been evident from the start.

A GOOD part of the opposi tion consists of individuals and groups that, having participated in the Khomeinist revolution of 1978-79, have broken with it over the years. While admitting that Iran is on the wrong trajectory, these former Khomeinists are not prepared to condemn the revolution as the source of the nation's misfortunes, including an eight-year war with Iraq and more than 150,000 executions, over the past 27 years.

Another major bloc within the opposition consists of those who speak in the name of Iranian nationalism and/or pluralistic democracy and see the revolution itself as the evil child of religious despotism.

Then there are groups that have waged armed struggle against the Islamic Republic in the name of ethnic rights, religious differences and ideological enmities.

Another cause of cleavage: A good part of the opposition, ranging from monarchist to Communists and passing by conservative republicans, has had its leadership in exile for years. The exiles have held a series of meetings (most recently in Berlin and London) to harmonize their activities - but without agreeing on a common platform.

The arrival into exile in recent months of several former prominent figures of the Islamic regime - including four Cabinet ministers, a former mayor of Tehran and some former commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps - has helped facilitate contact between internal and external dissidents.

However, the real impetus for greater harmony among opposition groups has come from the emergence of a new form of opposition based on economic and/or social grievances. Within these new groups, university students and industrial workers have the greatest potential for challenging the regime in a meaningful way.

THE emerging consensus within the opposition ap pears to be based on at least six points:

1) Set aside past differences in favor of joint action. Some anti-regime groups are even prepared to envisage a broad front that would include former figures of the regime who have decided to distance themselves from the radical Ahmadinejad administration. The idea is that, provided they are allocated a certain space, many former regime insiders will be ready to switch sides as the crisis intensifies.

2) Organize around specific issues tied to the interests of broad segments of society. In that spirit, opposition groups from different backgrounds have worked together in support of a series of industrial strikes that have hit various cities, including Tehran itself, in recent weeks.

3) Don't politicize. Speedy polarization of economic, social, ethnic and cultural demands could be counterproductive. Thus, most opposition groups, including those in exile, have refrained from claiming credit for the recent industrial strikes and student unrest.

The emerging opposition analysis assumes that the regime is more vulnerable when forced to offer economic, social and cultural concessions that could undermine its totalitarian stranglehold on society.

4) Avoid needless division. Most opposition groups have agreed to set aside their maximum demands with regard to the future form of government on hold. The monarchists no longer insist on a straight return to the pre-revolution system; the disillusioned Khomeinists have toned down their opposition to a constitutional referendum that might allow a return to monarchy in any form. Even the People's Combatant Organization (Mujahedin Khalq) now agrees that the future form of government should be decided by the people after the regime is brought down.

5) Don't let the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions divert world attention from the growing internal unrest. Opposition leaders believe that Ahmadinejad is deliberately seeking a limited military clash with the United States on the nuclear issue to defuse the internal tension and rally the people behind his increasingly unpopular administration.

While no one in the opposition is publicly asking the United States to withdraw the threat of military action, everyone agrees that any limited operation that would wound the regime but leave it alive and in place could give the Khomeinist system a second life.

6) Let independents lead. The initial phase of action against the Ahmadinejad administration must be led by independent personalities with no partisan affiliations. Student activists, leaders of unofficial trade unions, women's-rights advocates, well-known academics, managers of nongovernmental organizations and even independent theologians are expected to feature prominently in the initial stages of what opposition leaders believe is the coming showdown with the regime.

THE new consensus is al ready facing its first test over the campaign launched in favor of political prisoners.

The signal for the campaign was given by Akbar Ganji, a former Revolutionary Guard interrogator turned dissident, during his current tour of Western democracies. Ganji, recently released from political prison after a solo hunger strike in Tehran, has called for a massive hunger strike, inside and outside Iran, in sympathy with political prisoners in the Islamic Republic.

Ganji's call has already been echoed by a number of prominent figures inside Iran. These include: Muhammad Maleki, a former Chancellor of Tehran University under the Khomeinist regime; Simin Behbahani, possibly the most popular Persian poet alive, and prominent Iranian-Kurdish writer Jalal Qavami. Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian winner of the Nobel Prize for peace, is also expected to join, although she has consistently been reluctant to challenge the regime openly. A number of prominent theologians in Qom and Mashad have also been contacted and are expected to endorse the campaign.

NO one knows quite how many political prisoners the Islamic Republic holds. Estimates by human-rights groups, including Amnesty International, vary from 3,000 and 85,000. Iranian human-rights groups say that more than 2.5 million Iranians have been in and out of prison on political charges since 1979.

"It is a measure of our national tragedy that almost anybody who is somebody has spent some time as political prisoner in the past quarter of a century," says Maleki. "We must make it clear that we cannot take any more of this. Enough is enough. No civilized society would put people in jail because of disagreement with the rulers."

AHMADINEJAD is trying to cast himself in the role of a champion of Islam against the "Infidel" by adopting a tough stance on the nuclear issue and preparing for a showdown with the G-8 next month. The challenge to his administration, however, may well be coming from Iran's factories, offices, universities and religious seminaries.

Amir Taheri was executive editor of Kayhan, Iran's top newspaper before the revolution. He is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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