- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006


For decades, Iranian opposition groups overseas have agreed on almost nothing — not even whether to support their country’s soccer team at the World Cup this month.

Instead of coalescing into a powerful alternative to the Islamic regime, Iran’s dissident diaspora has splintered into myriad factions scattered from London to Los Angeles that embrace political ideologies ranging from Marxism to constitutional monarchism. Few have much of a following at home or abroad.

But as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hardens his rhetoric against Israel and the standoff with the West, some say his overseas opposition is finally finding its voice.

“It may have been true that in the past, the Iranian opposition was more divided among themselves than opposed to the current regime,” said Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah of Iran, at a press conference in Paris this month. “But that has changed.”

Citing several recent meetings in Europe and elsewhere, Mr. Pahlavi described a change in attitudes within the formerly bickering groups. “We are not today fighting on ideological grounds,” he said, “but against the clerical regime, irrespective of our ideologies.”

The only significant faction that has not joined the discussions, Mr. Pahlavi said, is the Paris-based People’s Mojahedin, a controversial group on the State Department’s terrorist list that nonetheless has some support from the U.S. military and members of Congress.

Even if Iranian dissidents unite, some critics doubt their effectiveness.

“There’s a lot of discontent and frustration among Iranians within and outside the country,” said Ali Ansari, a Middle East analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. “But nobody has any faith in the Iranian opposition’s ability to do anything.”

Historically, dissident groups have a mixed record of being able to bring about regime change, much less to supply accurate information about their countries. Assumptions about Saddam Hussein’s reputed weapons of mass destruction, for example, were partly based on false information from Iraqi opposition groups.

But Iran’s own 1979 revolution was encouraged by cassette recordings smuggled into Iran from abroad by exiles like the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and other anti-establishment figures who urged change.

Now, Mr. Pahlavi suggests that dissent like that which helped end his father’s rule nearly three decades ago can play a similar role in ousting the present Tehran regime by providing news to Iranians by radio and over the Internet, uniting dissidents in Iran and rallying support for their cause from Western governments.

“What we can do here is limited,” he conceded. “But that doesn’t exclude us from [participating in] what eventually is going to happen politically in Iran.”

The Bush administration also believes there is a role for Iranian opposition groups. This year it sought $75 million from Congress to encourage democracy in Iran by supporting labor unions and other civic movements.

Mr. Pahlavi’s own role within the opposition remains controversial, however. Some see the 45-year-old heir to the vanished Peacock Throne as the kind of charismatic figure Iranians of all political tendencies can rally behind.

“Reza Pahlavi still has credibility because of what he says, and because of who he is,” said Reza Bayegan, a Paris-based commentator on Iran. “He’s the son of the shah, but more than that, he’s the heir to 3,000 years of monarchy that has established itself in people’s consciousness. He’s the only figure who can unite people and change the regime.”

Some reports speculate that Mr. Pahlavi may join forces with Hossein Khomeini, a grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in promoting regime change in Iran. The younger Mr. Khomeini has urged Western intervention in Iran.

But the chances of such a coalition seem remote. Mr. Pahlavi opposes military intervention, preferring peaceful, democratic change from within. And he denies having any political ambitions, portraying himself simply as a facilitator.

Mr. Ansari of the Royal Institute in London doubts that Mr. Pahlavi or any other exiled dissident can fulfill even this modest role.

“He lacks the moral fiber or the moral courage to do anything,” Mr. Ansari said. “There’s no point running around the world giving interesting speeches. The fact is that Reza Pahlavi has singularly failed to engage the Iranian diaspora.”

Iran’s former president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, is similarly dismissive.

“In my opinion, Reza Pahlavi doesn’t tell the truth,” said Mr. Bani-Sadr in a telephone interview from his home at Versailles, outside Paris. “These different opposition factions have no meaning,” he said.

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