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U.S.: Anti-Regime Exiles Galvanised by Iran Unrest

WASHINGTON, Jun 29 2009 (IPS) - While mass demonstrations in Iran are dwindling – with large gatherings and the opposition appearing largely paralysed by the authorities’ crackdown – the crisis there is causing a return to prominence for groups of Iranians living in the West: the exiles who have long advocated regime change in Iran, sometimes by armed means.

Experts with intimate knowledge of Iranian reformist politics say that the involvement of these exiles, who are sometimes reviled by ordinary Iranians, and the promotion of these figures and their open desire for regime change are damaging to the goals of demonstrators.

“Having these [anti-regime] opposition at the time talking about Iran has brought about enormous hardships on the ground,” said Asieh Mir, an Iranian scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace who works on democracy issues and participated in the reformist governments of the early 2000s.

Mir says that Iranian state-run news has been carrying Western news outlets’ interviews with anti-regime exiles. “This kind of media coverage and inviting the opposition is harming the movement,” he told IPS.

The Iranian authorities, led by harsh statements from its top theocratic and political figures – Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei and the election’s ostensible winner President Mahmoud Amhadinejad, respectively – have repeatedly asserted that foreign meddlers support the protests against the government.

The leader of the opposition in Iran and the loser of the disputed election, Mir Hossein Moussavi, has repeatedly said that he in no way seeks the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.

On the contrary, Moussavi, a player in the early republic and the revolution, says that the crowds of Iranians are rallying for a return “to the pure principles of the Islamic Revolution.”

The stated ultimate goal of the rallies and demonstrations, which united varying segments of Iranian society, was to annul the election results and hold a free and fair poll – a far cry from overthrowing Iran’s unique mix of Islamic theocracy and republicanism.

Not all Iranian exiles are so forward about their desire for regime change, but these groups stand out in their attempts to claim the mantle of leadership to the masses of Iranians on the streets of Iran, though most of the groups and figures lack legitimacy there.

Among the leaders of these disparate groups of anti-regime exiles are Reza Pahlavi, the suburban Washington-based son of the last Shah, and Maryam Rajavi, leader of the controversial French-based Mujahadin-e-Khalq (MEK).

These figures have had their views amplified by appearances in mainstream U.S. and Western media – a fact that the Iranian government has seized upon to discredit Iran’s demonstrators.

State-run media in Iran is replaying clips of interviews and speeches by Rajavi and Pahlavi in an attempt to tie demonstrators to the anti-regime figures and cast their aspirations as an attempt to destabilise Iran from within.

The government has accused protesters and foreign governments of colluding to foment a “colour revolution”, the allegedly U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-backed popular uprisings that reshaped Eastern Europe and which hawks in the U.S. have long advocated for Iran.

But the MEK and Pahlavi are both in situations where U.S. backing is unlikely. Pahlavi, in an interview with the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, denied any support from the U.S. government: “I don’t rely on any sources other than my own compatriots,” he said, calling his alleged ties the CIA and groups trying to destabilise Iran “absolutely and unequivocally false”.

But Pahlavi, a symbol of the Shah, a dictator whose secret police was known for brutal repression, including disappearances, holds more sway with the monarchist exile communities abroad than with Iranians in Iran.

Pahlavi dismissed the leader of protests, Moussavi, as a “prescreen[ed]” candidate who could therefore “not be a true representative of the nation”.

In the sometimes combative Times interview, Pahlavi claims he maintains ties to “all sorts of groups that are committed to a secular, democratic alternative to the current regime.”

But asked about his father’s rule, Pahlavi said he left “this judgment to history” – a view unlikely to be taken by most Iranians who tend to have long political memories, evidenced by the continuing resentment of the 1953 CIA-backed coup that overthrew a democratically-elected government and re-installed the autocratic Shah.

Pahlavi also recently gave an interview to the MSNBC news channel and made a speech at the National Press Club in Washington.

Despite his proclaimed eschewing of U.S. government support, at the Press Club Pahlavi urged the U.S. and the international community to intervene and help demonstrators, which experts, including Iranian dissidents, contend will discredit Iranian-based opposition to the point of ruin.

“I have seldom seen nonviolent movements for change succeed without international assistance,” he said. “Let’s not have the regime in Iran define what is interference and what is not.”

Since 1997, the U.S. considers the MEK a terrorist group because of its assassinations of six U.S. citizens.

But more important than being spurned by the U.S., the MEK, a cultish Islamist Marxist group, is incredibly unpopular in Iran because it sided with Iraq in the bloody and traumatic Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Likely due to both the infeasibility of the MEK as a popular force for change in Iran and the ‘terrorist’ stigma attached to it, Rajavi and her group have gotten less mainstream media attention in the U.S. But commentators, most prominently U.S. neoconservatives, have published endorsements of the MEK in smaller and foreign publications.

A longtime proponent of U.S. covert support and funding for the MEK, Raymond Tanter, of the so-called ‘Israel lobby’ think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), and the president of the pro-regime change Iran Policy Committee (IPC), wrote an opinion piece for the Jerusalem Post where he encouraged the U.S. and Israel to give broad support to MEK and its umbrella organisation, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).

Fellow neoconservative Daniel Pipes, who had stated his support for the hardliner Ahmadinejad in the elections, also wrote a piece for the Jerusalem Post where he voiced support for a regime change plan that “takes advantage” of the MEK, calling for their prompt removal from U.S. list of terror groups. Pipes said he attended a June 20 NCRI summit outside Paris.

Projecting MEK views onto dissent within the Islamic Republic, Pipes said that during her speech, Rajavi called for regime change: “Like the street protesters, she also called for the demise of the Khomeinist regime.”

Iranian state media has been publishing clips and pictures of Rajavi wearing a green headscarf in an attempt to tie her to the protests by her use of the colour – the same as Moussavi’s campaign and featured prominently in the protests. Notably, however, green is also the colour of Islam.

This segment of exile views, however, seems not to have penetrated the Barack Obama administration. In the New York Times on Sunday, David Sanger quoted a U.S. official who grasped some of the nuances of the positions of opposition within Iran.

“The students in Tiananmen wanted real democracy, the Poles wanted regime change, but the Iranians might be looking for something in between,” the unnamed official told Sanger, noting that further radicalisation, if it occurs, will likely be because of the actions of the regime itself.

*Danielle Kurtzleben contributed to this story.

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