By Elie Lake
NEW YORK, 7 Dec. (The New York Sun) After years of bitter internal divisions and a series of crackdowns from the Islamic Republic, the Iranian democratic opposition in the last two weeks has organized a united front to push for a referendum on the powers of the supreme leader.
In an exclusive interview with “The New York Sun”, a founder of the new front, which comprises the major student groups as well as leading lawyers and activists inside the country, said organizers this week began fanning out across Persia to collect the names of fellow citizens for a petition supporting changes to the constitution to allow a referendum.
"We think this is a good step that all the opposition groups are united in one direction, the direction of the referendum", Mohsen Sazegara said in a telephone interview from London. "As far as I know, this is a unique event, all groups from monarchists to republicans, from left to right are now behind us and they support the referendum movement".
We think this is a good step that all the opposition groups are united in one direction, the direction of the referendum
Mr. Sazegara is a founder of what in Farsi is called Tahkime Vahdat, which is translated into "Consolidate unity". The organization includes many of the reformists who had tried to work within the system with President Mohammad Khatami as well as supporters of the son of the deposed Shah, Reza Pahlavi.
Perhaps most important though, the new unified front includes the Islamic student organizations active in the country's universities. These groups originally supported the 1979 Islamic revolution but in recent years have demanded more political freedoms for the Iranian people.
Mr. Sazegara told the Sun yesterday that Tahkime Vahdat sought to enlist handwritten signatures for the referendum petition inside the country to post on their new website, www.60000000.com,a site that hopes to eventually get that many supporters for the referendum. "We have received in the last two days already 350 emails, containing the names of whole families, in some cases with 50 names each. This shows that the referendum is supported by the youth and their parents." In the last two weeks, the website says it has already received 19,000 people who support the national vote.
So concerned have the Mullahs been about the web site that they have blocked it nside the country, borrowing a tactic from Communist China that bars its citizens from accessing even western newspapers. "It's fine that they want to block the website, we are just going to get the people to participate through the email," he said.
Mr. Sazegara said his organization planned to present the names of Iranians who sought the referendum to the United Nations and other international bodies. "We want to show the international community that this is the will of the Iranian people."
Mr. Sazegara arrived in London in March for surgery to his ailing heart; a condition worsened when he was in an Iranian jail and led a 79 day hunger strike. He told the Sun he intended to return to Iran in the coming months, where the regime says he must spend another year in jail for his opposition activities. "If they send me to jail again, I will start another hunger strike".
Unlike many in Iran's exile opposition, Mr. Sazegara was originally a close ally of Grand Ayatollah Roohollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Republic. Indeed he was an early member of the revolutionary guard, the elite military force that has in the past facilitated terrorist activities against America and Israel.
"In those days we thought we were afraid of foreign attacks. I thought if we could have a militia to organize the people in an army then we could protect the country. I thought it was a good idea in those days. After three months after establishing it, I found out that I was not suitable for military action and went into radio and television. The revolutionary guard became something else. Now the revolutionary guard commanders intervene in politics", he said.
Tahkime Vahdat also includes the lawyer for the families victimized by the chain murders of the 1990s, Nasser Zarafshan, who has been in prison since 2002; the former president of Tehran University, Mohammed Maleki; as well as human rights lawyer who was arrested for attending an opposition conference in Berlin in 2001, Mehrangiz Kar. Ms. Kar is now a professor at Harvard University.
From the ranks of student activists inside the country, the organization includes Ali Afshari, Reza Delbary and Akbar Atri. The new group is also significant because it has enlisted support from Iran's ex-patriot community in Europe and America.
We ask all Iranians, progressists and patriots, to join us in our call, and, by signing the present Appeal, echo our voice, with strength and determination, throughout the world
Mr. Sazegara told the Sun yesterday that he was interested in enlisting support from western democracies including America, the country he fought against in 1979 when he was a member of the revolutionary guard.
"We need America to defend the democratic rights of the Iranian people. We want this right to vote in a referendum, we don't want the current constitution, we want to change it", he said. "We need practical help to defend Iranian people. If the Americans can use international policy and sanctions, not against the Iranian people, but against the officials of the regime, this would be good. The people of Iran would like to see the bank accounts frozen for the regime officials. If they publish the bank accounts, the Iranian people will be very happy". Mr. Sazegara also said he would like to see the State Department publicly call for the release of journalists and bloggers arrested in the last month.
Bellow is the text of National Appeal for Referendum in Iran
Translation from the Persian text and introduction by Ramin Parham
Iran will not recover its lost dignity and place among the free nations of the world and the Iranian people will not enjoy the right to freely and responsibly pursue their individual and collective happiness, but in the hands of Iran.
As recent history has shown, the support of the community of democratic nations will be instrumental in freedom’s final victory. But, it will act only as a booster. Iranians alone are the main engine of change. The years of discord and disbelief may be behind us. The battle-ground is no longer blurred by political maneuvering and demagogy. The face of the enemy is emerging, sharper than ever: the fundamental discourse, ideology, constitution, and institutions of the political system known as the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Obsolete is increasingly exposed in its worn out fibers and venomous essence. The New is on its way. Its form and its content will be determined by the people of Iran. The first practical step has now been taken: what follows, is the English translation of a national call that deserves our resolute support. We are “Sixty Million”. The theocrats are alone. Let us blow them away!
National Appeal for Referendum in Iran
The experience of the past 26 years along with dozens of disasters, big and small, which have befallen on the people of Iran, belittling the nation and politically isolating Iran, all indicate that there remains only one indisputable way to resolve the ongoing crisis and liberate the oppressed people of Iran:
The organization of democratic governance based on the Universal Charter of Human Rights
Such a system, backed by the will of the majority of the people and on the basis of our national integrity, interests, and cultural and economic values, while building a trust environment with the international community, is the only one which can steer our battered country towards salvation. To achieve this, drawing up a new Constitution and defining the political system we aspire to, constitute the first and vital step. In particular, the experience of the past 8 years clearly demonstrates that no reform will ever be conceivable within the structural framework of the current Constitution. Therefore, given the fact that the Constitution of the Islamic Republic along with the behavior of the Institutions that emanate from it:
• Is in fundamental opposition with the Universal Charter of Human Rights and with the individual and social rights and liberties of the people;
• Has made official inequalities between Iranian citizens through the legalization of religious, ideological, and gender apartheid, and, based on religious despotism, has, in effect, denied the Iranian people its sovereignty;
• Has erected a major barrier on Iran’s progress in all areas, including economic development and the realization of social justice; and,
• To the detriment of Iran’s national interests in diplomatic relations, has prevented our country from joining the concert of free nations.
Therefore, we, the signatories of the present Appeal, call for the organization of a referendum, expressing the people’s free will under the monitoring of international institutions, in order to convene a Constituent Assembly and draft a new Constitution on the basis of the Universal Charter of Human Rights and its Additional Protocols.
We ask all Iranians, progressists and patriots, to join us in our call, and, by signing the present Appeal, echo our voice, with strength and determination, throughout the world.
Editor’s Note: Some editing and highlights, as well as phonetisation of names are by IPS