- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 25, 2009

Iran’s pro-democracy movement is changing strategy and will use smaller and more dispersed demonstrations to try to protect protesters from security forces, who dissidents now say have killed nearly 250 people in the past 10 days.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a prominent Iranian filmmaker who is serving as a spokesman in the West for opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, told The Washington Times that the opposition movement is also asking Iranians all over the world to light candles in silent protest Friday to commemorate Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman killed by security forces Saturday.

Her slaying, captured on video and sent around the world via the Internet, has become a symbol of the protest movement and of the Iranian government’s crackdown on those disputing the purported landslide victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

President Obama on Tuesday called her death “heartbreaking.” His spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said Wednesday that U.S. invitations to Iranian diplomats to attend July 4 parties at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world had been withdrawn. He added that no Iranian diplomats had said they would attend. Mr. Gibbs also declined comment on The Times’ report Wednesday that the Obama administration sent a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei before Iran’s June 12 election proposing better U.S.-Iran relations.

“There has been no communication with Iranian officials since the election,” he said. “But I’m not going to confirm or deny anything around this.”

The Iranian government has said that 17 people have died so far during the postelection protests; Mr. Makhmalbaf said the toll was 249.

As he spoke, the crackdown intensified, and eyewitnesses reported seeing snipers shooting protesters gathered around Baharestan Square near the Iranian parliament.

The protesters marched in silence, holding banners in black and green that read “Where is my vote?” Some held photos of Miss Agha-Soltan.

Inside the parliament, lawmakers congratulated Mr. Ahmadinejad on his re-election.

An Iranian journalist who covers the parliament and asked to be identified only as Reza told The Times by telephone that more than 500 officers of the elite Revolutionary Guards and other high-ranking security officials in plainclothes surrounded the building. Security there has doubled, Reza said, and even some members of parliament were stopped and questioned by security guards before entering the building.

“Mousavi is trying to avoid people being killed and to reduce the costs for people in the streets,” Mr. Makhmalbaf said. “He is asking for a dispersed demonstration in many different areas, rather than gathering in one place, where people will be attacked. Also he is moving toward calling for a strike rather than asking people to put themselves in danger in a street fight.”

Mr. Makhmalbaf, who lives in Paris, has directed or written 18 films - including “Kandahar,” an award-winning movie about a female Afghan refugee from the Taliban who returns home to keep her sister from committing suicide.

The filmmaker said Mr. Mousavi contacted him after the June election and asked him to get the word out about vote-rigging because Mr. Mousavi anticipated his ability to communicate with the outside world would be restricted.

Indeed, Mr. Makhmalbaf said the last time he was able to contact the Mousavi organization was on Monday.

“Right now, many on the Mousavi side have been arrested. Some are hidden inside different houses, and Mr. Mousavi has no communication with the outside world,” Mr. Makhmalbaf said.

Mr. Makhmalbaf also said that the Mousavi organization has received reports that Arabs from either Iraq or Lebanon have been sent to Iran to fire on the protesters.

“We are hearing that Arabs have been brought into Iran to disperse the demonstration,” he said. “Our people say they are covering their heads, and speaking in Arabic. It is hard to say whether they are Iraqis working with Khamenei or Arabs from Lebanon. We have seen this before, Arabs coming to Iran to break up demonstrations in recent years, but we see this now on a much larger scale.”

Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya television network, said he doubted that the Iranian government had imported Arabs to repress demonstrations, although Iran has links with many Arab militant groups in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

“The Iranian regime does not lack for hoodlums,” Mr. Melhem told a conference on Iran at the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank.

Mr. Makhmalbaf said Mr. Mousavi and others in the opposition fear that Western leaders will eventually negotiate with the Iranian government despite its loss of legitimacy since the disputed elections.

“We are afraid Western countries, including the United States, will sign a deal with an Ahmadinejad government [even though] it is an illegal government that has not been elected and has come to power by a coup d’etat,” he said.

Mr. Makhmalbaf predicted that the pro-democracy forces in Iran would eventually triumph.

“Before this, everyone was saying the Iranian people are not ready for democracy, but we see now the Iranian people will die for democracy,” he said. “We cannot lose this time.”

Mehdi Jedinia, Jon Ward and Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.