ISTANBUL | Three decades ago, Moshen Sazegara quit his studies at the University of Illinois to join Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s return from exile to lead Iran’s Islamic revolution.
A close aide to Ayatollah Khomeini, Mr. Sazegara was a founder of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, but an eventual falling-out with the clerical regime sent him back to the United States as an exile.
Today, he has become a global leader for Iranian dissidents who have risen up in opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the clerics who have endorsed his disputed re-election.
Mr. Sazegara’s image now appears on many Iranians’ computer screens every day, all over the world, against a green background seared with a V for victory sign.
The Washington-based dissident’s wardrobe of green T-shirts and the green ribbon permanently tied around his right wrist adhere strictly to the opposition’s color scheme. Sometimes, the color branding is so strong that only Mr. Sazegara’s pale complexion swims out from a sea of green.
“Everyone in this green democratic wave that starts from the alleys of Tehran and stretches to Australia and California has a role to play,” he said in a recent broadcast dedicated to avoiding fragmentation and uniting the disparate protesters behind the person of presidential candidate and de facto opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.
“No one has the right to walk either in front or behind Mr. Mousavi,” he said. “We only have one rahbar [supreme leader], and that is engineer Mousavi.”
In his 10-minute videos, the balding Mr. Sazegara encourages the demonstrators in well-enunciated conversational Persian to continue taking to the streets. Almost every broadcast contains new suggestions for fighting the regime — such as turning soccer games, religious events or pro-regime rallies into public protests.
Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, used Mr. Sazegara as one of his closest advisers. As Iran bubbled in pre-revolutionary fervor in 1978, Mr. Sazegara dropped out of school and flew to Paris to join the ayatollah, translating his speeches for an English-speaking audience.
Once Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, Mr. Sazegara became a close aide and set up the Revolutionary Guard, an ideological army entrusted with safeguarding the principles of the revolution.
But in an example of revolutions devouring their children, he was arrested in 2003 and fled to the United States soon after his release. He remains one of the highest-ranking Islamic Republic officials ever to have switched sides. Now, he is using his inside knowledge in hopes of hastening the collapse of the same Islamic republic he helped build.
“You have to peel away the people around Khamenei like the skins of an onion until he remains with his four sons and basic supporters like Mr. Ahmadinejad,” Mr. Sazegara said of the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Although isolating Ayatollah Khamenei is improbable by supporting regime mainstays such as Mr. Mousavi, a former two-time prime minister and Khomeini protege, Mr. Sazegara and others with an anti-Islamic Republic of Iran agenda advocate supporting him for the time being.
“The ‘opposition’ in Iran has largely advocated peaceful and nonviolent protests,” said Alireza Nader, an analyst at the Rand Corp. “Even these key figures realize that violent protests may lead to the undesired destabilization of the Islamic system.
“So there may be some room for ‘civil disobedience,’ but not so large that it may result in the downfall of the Islamic Republic, which the opposition does not want to see happen,” Mr. Nader said.
Although protests have become smaller in recent days, demonstrators say they are in for the long haul.
Government-aligned sources such as Borna News and the Documentary Center of the Islamic Revolution have accused Mr. Sazegara of propagating “deviant ideas” and labeled him a spy for U.S. and British intelligence.
Hard-liners mention Mr. Sazegara in the same breath with a roll call of “Westernized” researchers, journalists and feminists who spent time or are still imprisoned in Iranian jails, accused of fomenting a “velvet revolution.”
Many more from Iran’s millions-strong diaspora are supporting the protest movement with innovative tactics.
“We are seeing a new era in the politics of the Iranian exile community,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, the director of Middle East Studies at Syracuse University in New York. “Many former adversaries are now shouting in unison, objecting to the electoral fraud that took place in Iran.”
Iranian officials said the vote was fair, and Mr. Ahmadinejad was sworn in for a second term in early August.
Iranians living in diaspora hubs such as Dubai, Istanbul, Armenia, London and Los Angeles have been calling in news to relatives and friends within Iran who are unable to access opposition Web sites or satellite channels because they are filtered or jammed.
Many protesters have given their e-mail and Facebook passwords to friends abroad who forward them important information, or they change the passwords in the event of their arrest to frustrate interrogators seeking to uncover networks of acquaintances.
“For the last two months we have witnessed the Iranian diaspora organizing an amazing series of protests, demonstrations and hunger strikes coupled with letter-writing campaigns, fundraising events, Web solidarity,” said Mr. Boroujerdi. “They have served such varied capacities as intermediaries, translators, publicity agents, opposition diplomats representing the Iranian people.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Sazegara continues preaching his message of nonviolent action on a nightly basis. Drawing direct parallels with popular uprisings in countries such as Serbia, he advises protesters to reclaim public spaces by flooding them with green colors or spray-painting V signs on every surface.
“Debate every Sepahi [Revolutionary Guard] who lives in your neighborhood or attends the local mosque,” Mr. Sazegara advised in a recent broadcast. “If you find him unflinching in his support of the regime, then speak to his family, ask them why the Sepah are killing our protesters, write this on the walls of their house or stick posters of martyrs on their front doors.”
It is only such unrelenting pressure, Mr. Sazegara said, that will force the regime’s hand.
“Ayatollah Khamenei tried to persuade people that his power is absolutely strong while they are absolutely weak - the two-absolutes theory,” Mr. Sazegara said in a telephone interview. “The two absolutes have now been broken, and we now have problems to persuade the young generation from getting violent and attacking the police forces.”