- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2003

Administration officials have been meeting quietly with an Iranian opposition figure who is trying to unify internal resistance to Iran’s ruling clerics and spur a regime change in his country.

Defense officials acknowledged yesterday they have spoken to Mahmud Ali Chehregani, who heads the Southern Azerbaijan National Awakeness Movement (SANAM) operating inside Iran, but emphasized their meetings were not aimed at supporting or encouraging a change in Iran’s government.

“The role of the U.S. is to communicate to the Iranian people our firm support for their democratic aspirations and human rights, and to let them know their voice is heard,” the officials said in a statement.

“Mister Chehregani is one of many Iranian individuals that the U.S. government speaks with on occasion, but not for the purposes” of setting up, supporting or encouraging internal opposition to Tehran, they stated.

SANAM, which also has offices in Azerbaijan and Turkey, is pushing to supplant the current Iranian cleric-run system with a federal government granting the large ethnic Azeri minority living in Iran a wide degree of autonomy.

“We want to change this regime in Iran and replace it with a democratic, secular and federal government,” said Mr. Chehregani, a former linguistics professor at the University of Tehran who was arrested in 1995 on charges of speaking against the Iranian government and advocating separatism.

Based in Washington since July 2002, Mr. Chehregani said in an interview that his group was working with other Iranian ethnic minority groups — such as the Iranian Kurds, Baluchis, Turkmen and Arabs — to form a common political front that could challenge Tehran.

Mr. Chehregani said he had more than 50 meetings with senators and congressman, State Department officials, the White House to further his cause.

“We already feel their political support, and they are analyzing which financial and physical support they will give to the Iranian opposition. They are analyzing it now and in the near future we will know what kind of support we will have,” he said.

“I have no negative views of the result,” he added.

Spearheaded by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Washington, which cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran in 1979, recently has increased its criticism of Iran, accusing Tehran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, supporting terrorism and interfering with Iraq’s powerful Shi’ite community to undermine U.S. efforts to rebuild the nation.

Patrick Lang, former head of Middle East and North African intelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency said there was a “good deal of interest in the U.S. government” in putting pressure on the Iranian government and a group like Mr. Chehregani’s “would be appealing”.

“I think the judgment that Iran is rather unstable is probably correct,” Mr. Lang said in a telephone interview, but warned that “if you start poking it and encouraging ethnic dissidents you may encourage destabilizing the system. It could come apart spectacularly.”

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