Sunday, October 29, 2000
Iranian Group Seeks One Voice to Help Democracy at Home
The placards, hung in the banquet room of the Hilton in Woodland Hills, bespoke some fundamental struggles.
"Freedom of Assembly."
"Freedom of Press."
"Recognition of Basic Human Rights."
Most graphic was a black-and-white poster featuring more than a dozen snapshots of men, young and old. The text accompanying the poster read, "Martyrs of Iran." All of those pictured were assassinated activists.
This was the setting Saturday of the first meeting of the Iranian National Congress, a Reseda-based exile group formed last year and dedicated to bringing democracy to Iran.
The congress, its backers say, is an effort to unite what has often been a fractured Iranian opposition abroad.
"We believe in the right of the Iranian people to choose a democratic government for themselves," said Behzad Tabatabaei, a doctoral student at UCLA who serves as the group's chief information officer.
The congress, supporters say, is composed of representatives from many groups, reflecting the Iranian population's cultural and religious diversity. Organizers say membership is in the thousands, including participants from Europe, Canada and the United States. About 150 showed up for Saturday's session.
Although Iran is a predominantly Muslim nation, its population includes substantial numbers of Christians, Jews, Bahai and others. Ethnic groups include Armenians, Kurds and Turks.
Speakers and participants during Saturday's session decried the lack of freedom in contemporary Iran. The Iranian regime has shut down more than a dozen newspapers and jailed opposition leaders since the victory of reformist politicians in parliamentary elections earlier this year. "We do not have freedom of the press in Iran," said Mojgan Moghadam, who works for the Persian- and English-language press in the United States.
According to the group, about 4 million Iranians live outside of Iran, 800,000 of them in California, concentrated in and around Los Angeles. Many are wealthy, with investments of more than $80 billion in California alone, according to the congress.
Nonetheless, differences among Iranian groups in exile have tended to reduce their overall effect in Iran, activists say.
"We are trying to send a message that we are pro-democracy--not just representing a particular faction," said Mohammad T. Moslehi, a translator based in Southern California.
Among the Iranian National Congress' central goals are the establishment of a parliamentary democracy in Iran and the separation of state and religion. A major aim of the congress is to spread knowledge of the repressive nature of Iran's current rulers.
"We have no common point of interest with the regime itself," said Tabatabaei, who, at 27, was one of the youngest speakers.
Many of those addressing the crowd fled the country around the time of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which toppled the shah of Iran, the nation's longtime strongman and a staunch U.S. ally. The revolution also unleashed a wave of emigration from Iran. Some congress members favor the restoration of a monarchist regime.
Among those speaking was Ebrahim Motamedi, a retired major general under the shah.
Though most speakers were men, an oft-repeated theme at the conference was the repression of women in contemporary Iran.
Parvin Darabi, an electronic engineer in Lake Tahoe, recalled during an interview the story of her sister, Homa Darabi, once a prominent child psychiatrist in Iran. She committed suicide in 1994 by burning herself in a public square in Iran to protest the regime.
"Nothing has changed for women in Iran," said Darabi, who noted that they still must wear veils when appearing in public. "Women are not even free to choose the way they dress."
©Copyright 2000, Los Angeles Times