March 18, 2005 Edition > Section: Foreign > Printer-Friendly Version
Iranian Dissident Due in America as Protests Rise
BY ELI LAKE - Staff Reporter of the Sun
March 18, 2005
WASHINGTON - A key opponent of the government of Iran will be arriving here this month to urge American support for the idea of holding a popular referendum in Iran on whether the country should remain a theocracy.
The visit from Mohsen Sazegara comes as demonstrations in Iran have cropped up during the country's festival of fire before the Persian new year, featuring some revelers shouting slogans in favor of President Bush.
With America's Iran policy torn between support for European negotiations over the Islamic republic's nuclear program and the president's support for Iran's democracy movement, Mr. Sazegara's efforts could tilt the White House closer to embracing regime change there. Mr. Bush on Wednesday suggested that is what he would like to see when he said, "I believe that the Iranian people ought to be allowed to freely discuss opinions, read a free press, have free votes, be able to choose amongst political parties. I believe Iran should adopt democracy."
Mr. Sazegara, who shares this vision for Iran, argues that the best to way realize it is by calling on the regime to allow a free vote to change Iran's constitution to make the country a secular state, no longer controlled by unelected clerics. So far this movement has gained support from diverse corners of Iran's opposition, including monarchists, reformists, and student organizations.
Mr. Sazegara, who has lived in London for nearly a year, arrived in England after spending time in an Iranian jail for his opposition activities. In a telephone interview yesterday with The New York Sun, Mr. Sazegara said he is planning to push lawmakers and administration officials to support an international investigation of Iran's role in overseas assassinations such as the 1992 bombing of the Berlin Mykonos restaurant, which a German court in 1997 found was directed by Iranian authorities.
"There is a U.N. committee that has started an investigation into the murder of Rafik Hariri," he said. "We could have a similar committee investigating the role of Iranian leaders involved in terrorism and assassination. This would be a good signal for us."
Mr. Sazegara was a founder of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in 1979, the same organization that is widely believed to have authorized the Mykonos attack and other assassinations inside and outside of Iran such as a chain of murders in the late 1990s and the slaying of former prime minister Shapour Bakhtiar in 1991. He said the Iranian government "must answer to the nation of Iran and to the international community for what they have done."
Mr. Sazegara is scheduled to arrive here on March 29 and will take up a three-month residence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that has published an internal survey in Iran showing widespread discontent with the regime and that has close ties to the pro-Israel community.
Mr. Sazegara told the Sun yesterday that he rejected the position he took when he was an early supporter of the Islamic revolution. "It makes no difference where I do my academic work," he said. "In my opinion Iran is not the enemy of any country and we have to have good relations with all the countries in the world. The peace process is a good thing in Israel and we have to support the process and help the people of that region to live with each other."
He arrives in Washington as Persians in many cities gathered for Chaharshanbe Souri, the festival of fire where, according to Iran's official news agency, local police had to file into the streets of Tehran and use tear gas to disperse crowds. The activities, spurred by the Zoroastrian tradition, have in recent years been intertwined with protests for a regime that has discouraged and in some years made it illegal to celebrate traditional Persian holidays.
At the same time, the exiled Iranian opposition in America has been divided. Over the weekend, a group of activists gathered in Los Angeles, where some denounced the referendum movement that has been endorsed by Mr. Sazegara as well as by Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah.
Mr. Sazegara said he had no problem with any Iranians demonstrating against the government in Tehran. "I think as long as everyone agrees we need to change the structure of the regime, and that means a new regime, as long as they agree with this idea, there is nothing more to say."
Some Iranian activists have reservations about working with Mr. Sazegara because of his history with the most extremist elements of the regime. Human rights activist Ladan Boroumand told the Sun yesterday, "It's hard for me to forget what someone like Sazegara has done. But I am willing to forgive him if he is committed to these democratic principles and if he is struggling for the democratic cause and putting himself at risk. Then my personal feelings do not come before the public good."
Ms. Boroumand, like Mr. Sazegara, was an early supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini as a translator for him in Paris. She said that she distanced herself from him when she read his book and concluded "he did not believe in democratic principles." Ms. Boroumand and her sister Roya run a human rights foundation named for their father, Abdol-Rahman Boroumand, a democracy activist and lawyer who was murdered by Iranian intelligence officials in April 1991. Both also support the movement for a referendum.
The president of the Los Angeles based Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee, Pooya Dayanim, said yesterday, "The significance of Sazegara's presence in the United States is that it will enable Iran analysts and the U.S. government to better analyze the newly claimed unity amongst various factions of the opposition on the inside and outside."
He also said, "Sazegara's presence in the United States will also lead to a battle for the control of the referendum movement." Mr. Dayanim added that Mr. Sazegara represents the elements of the referendum movement inside Iran and for this reason may clash with those in America and Europe who have worked on it.