Thursday, July 06, 2006

Iranian Student Leader Visits LA to Unite Opposition Groups

Peter Prengaman, Mercury News:
An Iranian student leader who was imprisoned for years until he recently fled his homeland arrived in Southern California on Thursday in hopes of uniting Iranian opposition groups, a huge task in an affluent yet fractured community that has never been able to unite around one leader.

Amir Abbas Fakhravar, 31, was to begin several days of meetings Thursday night with a speech to Iranian students in Los Angeles, home to America's largest expatriate Iranian community.

Since fleeing Iran in May, Fakhravar has quickly become a darling among American conservatives who believe the only solution to Iran - which is rushing toward nuclear capabilities - is a complete overhaul of the Islamic government. READ MORE

Fakhravar has been telling Washington officials and opposition groups that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans to build a nuclear bomb, and that helping students in Iran rise up is the key to toppling the government.

"I hope to bring all the opposition groups onto one page," said Fakhravar during a phone interview late Wednesday from Washington, D.C., where he is living.

Fakhravar, who spoke through a translator because he doesn't speak English, said he would succeed where others had failed by making Iranian students the rallying point.

Achieving unity won't be easy.

Iranians started coming to America in large numbers after 1979, when an Islamic revolution toppled the U.S.-friendly shah. Today there are more than 160,000 Californians of Iranian descent statewide, according to U.S. Census data, the majority in the Los Angeles area.

While Iranians have become one of America's most successful immigrant communities - in Southern California they live and own businesses in exclusive areas like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills - they have never united on how to engage their homeland. While older Iranians want the shah's son to take power, younger generations support democracy.

"In Iran it's easier to organize opposition," said Zia Atabay, president of NITV, one of dozens of Los Angeles-based Farsi-language satellite stations that beam opposition rhetoric into Tehran. "But here everybody is always banging into each other."

Still, Atabay and others said they were impressed with Fakhravar.

A former medical student, Fakhravar has been in and out of jail since he was 17, when he made his first anti-government speech. He was serving an eight-year jail sentence for criticizing the government in a book when he fled Iran for Dubai; Fakhravar said he went into hiding for 10 months after being released from jail for 48 hours to take a university exam.

"Everybody in the Islamic regime can be bought," said Fakhravar, declining to provide details on how he escaped Iran.

Gary Sick, former top White House expert on Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis and now a Columbia University professor, said conservative policy makers for years have gone through "screening tests" of Iranian dissidents in hopes of finding a strong opposition leader.

"Fakhravar is perhaps the most serious so far," said Sick. "He's a genuine dissident who put his life on the line and was arrested over and over again, so he clearly speaks quite honestly."

Fakhravar said he has met with officials from the State Department, National Security Administration, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick.

One of Fakhravar's most outspoken supporters is Richard Perle, a former Reagan administration official who later served as chairman of the Pentagon's defense policy board. Perle met with Fakhravar in Dubai, and helped bring him to the U.S.

Perle and others once hailed Ahmed Chalabi, a leader in the Iraqi exile community who provided intelligence to U.S. officials before the U.S. invasion - information that was later discredited.

"The situation in Iran is different from Iraq and Chalabi," said Fakhravar. "Iran is already a war zone, and we need to do whatever is necessary to get rid of the Islamic government."