Iran on the Potomac

Sunday, June 25, 2006

As the Bush administration frets over Iran's nuclear program, Iranian dissidents are descending on Washington, seeking help in fostering regime change back home. Just one problem: The exiles can't agree on a strategy.

Iran's oppositionists are divided over what kind of government should follow the Islamic republic, who should lead it and how the United States can help them bring about regime change in Tehran. There is no Iranian equivalent to the Iraqi National Congress, and the exiles have yet to coalesce around a platform or leader. Herewith a brief guide to the leading Iranian activists in town:


Reza Pahlavi , 45,

the son of the late shah of Iran, advocates nonviolent regime change. A U.S.-trained pilot, Pahlavi lives in Potomac and keeps an office in McLean. His followers, many of whom fled Iran after the shah's overthrow in 1979, still dream that Pahlavi will play a leadership role if Iran adopts a pro-Western secular government. Pahlavi and his advisers have had ties to U.S. officials dating to the Reagan administration, when he was reportedly involved with CIA programs to dislodge Iran's Islamist regime. More recently, Iran hawks close to the Pentagon and the vice president's office have tapped into Pahlavi's circle, seeking ways to undermine Tehran. Shahriar Ahy, Pahlavi's MIT-educated political adviser, is a key force seeking to unite the Iranian opposition abroad.


Mohsen Sazegara , 51,

a former aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and founder of the Revolutionary Guard, became disillusioned with the Islamic Revolution, quit the government in 1989, started reform-minded newspapers and was later imprisoned. After his eyesight suffered because of two hunger strikes, Sazegara sought medical treatment last year in the United States, where he continued to organize a petition demanding a referendum on Iran's constitution as a means of regime change. He has met informally with State Department officials -- whom he counsels against anointing a single exile leader -- and has strong links to student activist groups back home. He is close to Akbar Ganji, one of Iran's leading dissident writers.


Amir Abbas Fakhravar , 30, a former medical student, served time in Iran's notorious Evin prison after publishing an award-winning book, "This Place Is Not a Ditch," and launching a pro-regime-change student group. He has been championed recently by neocon thinker Richard Perle, who organized a private lunch for Fakhravar at the American Enterprise Institute last month, attended by Pentagon and State Department officials.


Trita Parsi , 31, president of the National Iranian American Council, calls for greater U.S. engagement and business ties with Iran. Parsi is a former adviser to the only Farsi-speaking member of the House, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), and recently completed a PhD at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, studying under Francis Fukuyama and Carter-era national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. The NIAC helped persuade a dozen conservative House members to sign a letter to President Bush earlier this month calling for unconditional negotiations with Iran's regime.


Alireza Jafarzadeh , 49, is the longtime Washington spokesman for the National Council of the Resistance of Iran, the political wing of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, an anti-regime militant group supported for years by Saddam Hussein. MEK has been on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations since 1997. In 2002, Jafarzadeh and the group announced details of Iran's previously unknown nuclear program. With NCRI's Washington office shut down since 2003, Jafarzadeh has reinvented himself as an expert commentator on Iran's nuclear program. The MEK is reviled by Iran but it has support from the Iran Policy Committee, a group of conservative retired U.S. military officers and Reagan-era officials, who say Washington should work with the MEK to overthrow the Tehran regime.

-- Laura Rozen

senior correspondent, the American Prospect

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