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Iran's Opposition Abroad Swells But Lacks Direction

Members of the Network of Young Iranians in Berlin
Members of the Network of Young Iranians in Berlin
BERLIN -- On a recent Saturday afternoon in the back room of a small restaurant in Berlin, some 20 young Iranians drift in with plates of food, filling the air with the smell of saffron and the sound of Farsi.

They settle in around a long oak table in a dark, wood-paneled room that looks like it belongs in a game of Clue for a meeting of the Network of Young Iranians in Berlin, a student group formed in June 2009 immediately after Iran's disputed presidential election.

Members discuss upcoming events, bicker over who was doing the most work, weigh what to do about the police confiscation of a rented speaker system at a recent demonstration, and pass around an ice cream cone.

Iran's Green Movement and the postelection crisis have revitalized the Iranian opposition abroad. But the new influx of members and ideas -- supporters range from liberal-minded democrats to monarchists to communists -- has also revealed deep divisions about the movement's ideology and tactics. Diversity has been critical to the opposition's rapid growth; but with no strong leadership and no clear program, it could also prove to be its Achilles' heel.

Group member Hajir Pelaschi says the network exists because the political activity of many Iranians changed after June. A lifelong political activist who left Iran in September 2008, Pelaschi says working in Iran was like "trying to bring politics to a nation that had forgotten them." After June, he says, "politics returned to Iranian society" and "pumped new blood into the dried veins of exiles."

Over the past few months, the network has organized a number of events: a press conference on the release of a statement signed by 177 nuclear scientists concerned with human rights violations in Iran; a panel discussion on Iran featuring, among others, Shadi Sadr, the Iranian women's activist recently awarded the U.S. State Department's "Women of Courage" award.

The group occasionally holds cultural evenings with prominent Iranian artists and intellectuals. They put videos of the gatherings, which they call "solidarity evenings," on YouTube in the hope that they can be viewed in Iran. The group also holds street demonstrations, advocates for political prisoners inside Iran, and helps provide political refugees with homes, food, and help with legal documents. (Germany on March 8 announced plans to grant asylum to a number of Iranian refugees, a move that has angered Tehran.)

Personal Tragedies

In addition to recent events in Iran, many of the activists are motivated by the suffering their parents experienced at the hands of the Islamic republic -- some of whom paid the ultimate price.

One of the network's founders is 25-year-old Sohrab Mokhtari, who left Iran in 2003. His father, the prominent poet and author Mohammad Mokhtari, was assassinated in 1998 in a string of suspicious deaths among the country's artists and intellectuals. The year of his father's death, 13-year-old Sohrab testified to Amnesty International that his father went shopping and never returned. His body was found outside a cement factory the next day. He'd been strangled to death.
As soon as I arrived in Germany someone called me and said, 'Go give interviews. If you give enough interviews, you'll be a kind of celebrity.' Apparently, the competition to become a celebrity is quite high.

"When your father is a poet and a writer and is killed by the dictatorial government of your country," Sohrab explains by e-mail, "and your mother is a painter whose works are always concerned with the situation of women [in Iran] and censored by the patriarchy of the state -- so much so that she's not allowed to show her works -- and your brother also writes stories about what happened to your family, I think it's natural that my life is also defined by literature and social activism."

Eighteen years earlier in another Berlin restaurant, a similar back-room meeting of eight Iranian opposition leaders had just started when two masked men stormed in and assassinated four members of the opposition on the orders of then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Mykonos incident, as it was later called -- in reference to the Greek restaurant where they met -- sparked a diplomatic crisis between Iran and several European countries.

One of the victims was Sara Dehkordi's father. It was 1992, and she was 9 years old. Now a spirited 27-year-old woman, she is a founder and key member of the Network of Young Iranians in Berlin.

Dehkordi, who was last in Iran when she was 3 months old, says her father's murder "influenced my life a lot." She adds that "if he were here now, I think he'd also work [in politics] every day, so it's also, you know, kind of my duty."
Gay rights activist Sepehr Masakeni escaped across the Turkish border on a donkey.

Prominent Iranian dissident Mehran Barati, a long-time resident of Berlin, says Dehkordi's and Mokhtari's experiences are shared by many young Iranians whose parents were targeted by the regime and now play a role in the movement.

When the Green Movement started, Barati says, "it affected the youth outside the country, but the strange thing is, most of these kids are the children of former, or older, political activists -- especially in Berlin."

Divisions Within

Iran's postelection events may have rejuvenated the opposition-in-exile, but the movement is far from united on aims, tactics, and the best strategy in moving forward.

Twenty-two-year-old Sepehr Masakeni, a gay and political activist, left Iran in August 2009, crossing the border into Turkey on a donkey. He spent almost six months dodging Turkish authorities until he made his way to Berlin, where he is now living in a refugee camp.

After arriving in Berlin, he immediately looked for ways to stay politically involved. But when he encountered the Iranian opposition, he was shocked.

"As soon as I arrived in Germany someone called me and said, 'Go give interviews. If you give enough interviews, you'll be a kind of celebrity,'" he says. "Apparently, the competition to become a celebrity is quite high."

A dark-haired, slender, bright-eyed sociology student, Masakeni was an active member of the Green Movement while inside Iran. He is one of around 4,000 Iranian refugees and asylum seekers registered by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Turkey in 2009. Some 1,200 of them have arrived since June. The UNHCR reported a 7-percent rise in asylum seekers from Iran in 2009 in comparison with the previous year, but human rights activist Farin Fakhari, who works with refugees in Turkey, says there are thousands more who haven't been registered under the UN.

Publicity often boosts refugee cases like Masakeni's. But he isn't having it.

"They shouldn't leave the country and fashion themselves as symbols of resistance -- they should leave the country and talk about their mistakes," he says, explaining that many young Iranians who became politically active in recent months were unprepared for the subtleties of government interrogation. Many who flee the country have been severely traumatized by tactics used by the Iranian authorities.

Masakeni left before anything happened to him. After receiving unidentified phone calls warning of his imminent arrest and threatening harm to his family, he went into hiding to plan his escape. He knew his writings on homosexuality, some under his own name -- a risky move in a country that forbids homosexuality on pain of execution -- could land him in even more trouble.

Until June, the Iranian exile community in Berlin was largely characterized by a generation of left-wing activists who left Iran in the 1970s.

The influx of exiles in recent years has left a hodgepodge of competing ideological interests. Some opposition supporters want to topple the Islamic regime. Others advocate a return to monarchy, while still others believe in gradually reforming Iran's theocratic system from within.

One member of the Network of Young Iranians in Berlin complains that the group can't even unite behind the principles laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Another member, a young lawyer who asks to be identified as "Dana" because she spends a month in Iran every year, says she feels uncomfortable in the group. Her parents, political refugees, left Iran when she was young. "I'm not a political activist," she says. "It's not that I want to do this; it's much rather I feel I have to."

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Dana, whose parents escaped from Iran when she was 2 years old, passed her law exams a few months ago. She is small, intense, bookish, and skeptical of populist politics -- even when they serve the interests of the Iranian opposition. She says her parents warned her that some people join groups like the Network of Young Iranians in Berlin purely to boost their applications for political asylum, not because they are, or had been, politically active.

Dana joined the group because she felt like she had to do something. "Maybe a little bit from an egocentric point of view," she says, because "I want to preserve my parents' legacy, so to speak." But she is concerned that the group is "just activism" and less concerned with "substantial political ideas that will last."

The core members of the network are a group of friends from university, some of whom share the same flat. They drink together, they plan events together, and they follow events in Iran together. Dehkordi says that the group's intimacy is a "good thing," because "we also like each other, you know? We are good friends all together." She laughs. "Sometimes, it's not always serious political work -- it's also fun."

This, of course, can prompt criticism. Masakeni wonders how much political activity is concerned with Iran itself and how much is a way to escape the pain of having left one's homeland. "I think many of these activities are not seeking a change in Iran," he says. "Instead, it's a sort of political masturbation."

Masakeni criticizes Iranians who seem content with seeing newspaper photos of their faces painted green instead of taking fuller advantage of their access to free media.

"I must say that I think what's going on outside the country is more about the pain of being outside the country, the pain of diaspora, and the pain of being in a minority," Masakeni says. He draws a contrast with what goes on inside Iran, where "it's clear what you are fighting for."

"The Green Movement outside the country is very much backwards when compared to the movement inside the country," he says. "I have a largely critical approach towards this situation right now -- the opposition in Turkey or Germany or anywhere else in Europe.

"Sometimes," he says, "I think that not doing anything is better than making a mistake."

Generational Divide

It is estimated that around 4 million Iranians left Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. There are sizable Iranian communities in Los Angeles (some 700,000), London, Paris, Dubai, parts of Australia, and, more recently, Turkey's southwestern city of Van.

In Berlin, there are now officially 4,236 Iranians living in a city of some 3 million. Earlier this month, Iran's ambassador to Germany, Alireza Sheikh Attar, said Germany is the third target country -- after the United States and Canada -- for migrating Iranians.

Long-time dissident Barati heads the opposition group, the Unity of Democratic and Secular Republic in Iran, which claims some 15,000 members worldwide. He is one of the many left-wing intellectual and political figures who left Iran before or soon after the rise of the Islamic republic. His daughter, who publicly supports the Green Movement, married German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in 2005.

Barati had planned to attend the fatal Mykonos restaurant meeting on September 17, 1992, until a last-minute scheduling issue changed his plans. His empty chair was riddled with bullets.

Now 68, Barati betrays a fondness for wire-rimmed glasses, carefully polished shoes, and thoughtful conversation. His cell phone rings to the sounds of Mozart.

Before the revolution, Barati says they established what they called a "student confederation," a structure that united their opposition ideals in a loose confederation but allowed each city's unit to operate fairly independently. A similar arrangement is reportedly being discussed among the scattered Green Movement opposition groups in Europe and North America.

Mehran Barati
Barati has seen multiple generations of young Iranians pass through Berlin.

"When it comes to this political generation that has recently come from Iran," he says, "they're not really fighting for the same ideological things we were fighting for at that time [in the 1970s], talking about masses or the proletariat or whatever."

They are focused on things like "freedom of thought and speech, having a job, having access to information and media, the freedom to go to a cafe and movies, and music," he says.

Hajo Funke, a German academic from the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science and friend of Barati, was involved in advocacy with the Iranian opposition in Berlin when hundreds of Iranian intellectuals were killed in the late 1990s.

Asked to compare activists of two different generations -- Sohrab Moktahi and Mehran Barati -- Funke says, "It's a new generation, you know? We are the elder ones, so to speak, and Sohrab is so committed. So personally committed. Not in any sense provocative, but working on his aim." But sometimes, he says, they are "a bit chaotic, as we were."

Barati agrees that the new generation has its differences. "The older generation did not have such personal reasons, like individual rights -- from a theoretical point of view it was against our principles," he says. But "the ideas of this group do not fall under one ideological umbrella."

'Finding Period'

With the authorities crushing the last large-scale protest on February 15 in Iran, the opposition inside and outside the country is dispirited.

Berlin Network member Pedram Shahyar describes himself as a "24/7" activist in the weeks following the election. He says the group is now in a "finding period," and may change gears to focus on bringing "intellectual impulses" to the movement inside the country. "Not in the sense of being leadership -- this is crap, to be leadership from outside, yeah?" he says, "But the people in Iran are very restricted in what they can read, what they can get on ideas."

Masakeni agrees, saying he supports "a sort of intellectual model over a political model" when it comes to the activities of Iranians living abroad.

"I have to say that meeting the members of the Iranian opposition in Germany really shocked me," he says. "I thought, am I really in the land of Marx and Arendt? If so, why isn't Germany's intellectual heritage affecting the mentality of these people? Why aren't they taking advantage of this opportunity?"

Twenty-eight-year-old Shahyar, who left Iran when he was 12, says he's an exception in the group because he left the country so long ago. Most of the members, he says, are "young people who came here in the last few years" so the group has "no problem" getting a lot of information from Iran. Four of the group's members left Iran after June.

Shahyar, who is pursing his doctorate in social activism, calls the Green Movement a "global exception." He says Iran is unique because it is a modernized society living under a political dictatorship with a mass movement using new technologies, such as Twitter and Facebook. "It is a decentralized movement, it is very pluralistic, and it is reticulated, it is webbed together," he says.

"In this sense it is very..." he grins, "avant-garde-istic."

Exiles have always played a crucial role in Iranian history. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini spent 14 years abroad before returning to lead the Islamic Revolution in 1979. For Iran's opposition abroad, many of its members are motivated, daring, young, and tech-savvy. But without defined leadership and concrete plans, that might not be enough.