WASHINGTON - A key student leader of the Iranian referendum movement has fled the Islamic republic amid a court investigation into his organizing activities.
In a phone interview last week, Akbar Atri, an organizer of the movement in Iran to win a national vote on the legitimacy of the Islamic republic, said he managed to slip out of his homeland last month despite an open government investigation into his efforts to gather signatures for a petition demanding the referendum.
"The court is saying I am attempting to overthrow the Islamic government. In another case they are saying I am guilty of making propaganda against the regime. For the propaganda charge I have been sentenced to four months of jail, but this is being appealed," Mr. Atri said.
"It is common in Iran to have an open charge against political activists in order to intimidate us," he said. "They can bring these charges to the court anytime they want. I was surprised I got out so easily. Usually people with open charges against them cannot leave the country, but there was obviously a loophole in the system this time. So I got out."
The recent charges against him are not Mr. Atri's first brush with the law. In the interview yesterday he said that in 2000 he was beaten so badly by the plainclothes religious police known as the Bassij that his jaw was broken and he lost two teeth. When his case was finally heard by a judge, the court ruled that he owed his attackers money for assaulting them.
"The judge ruled that I owed the traditional Islamic penalty, the price of a camel," he said. "When I finally heard the sentence I thought that camels have become very expensive."
Mr. Atri is a member of the central committee for Tahkimeh Vahdat, a national student organization whose leaders support the referendum movement. Mr. Atri and his colleagues have publicly called on their government to allow a referendum vote, a strategy first reported by The New York Sun last month. The referendum would be on whether Islam should be the basis of Iranian law and politics, almost a mirror image of a 1980 referendum, which the Iranian regime to this day touts as proof the 1979 Islamic revolution had popular legitimacy. If the opposition leaders' referendum push succeeds, they expect to reverse the 1979 uprising led by Ayatollah Khomeini, not only stripping the constitution of the extraordinary powers accorded the supreme leader but also declaring that Iran is not an Islamic state.
In the interview, Mr. Atri said that he believes some mistakes have been made so far in the political strategy of the opposition, but he was confident the referendum would gain support from the people. "The referendum is not yet on the lips of most people," he said, "but we think by the May presidential elections this will be seen as the only alternative."
Mr. Atri also said he wished there was more support from the purged reformist legislators still loyal to the lame-duck president, Mohammed Khatami. Last February, most of Mr. Khatami's allies in the legislature were barred from standing for office.
"The first stage is to get people discussing the referendum and to know the reform movement has been defeated and there is no hope for it," Mr. Atri said. "It is a very difficult and bumpy road, because the hardliners and many reformists are against us for now. The opposition abroad has not been fully committed to us yet."
In particular, Mr. Atri singled out the Iranian-language satellite television and radio stations based in Los Angeles for not endorsing the call for a referendum. Several American legislators have pushed in recent years for government money to go to those stations. "Some people are upset because they are not the leader of the movement," he said, referring to monarchists and other exile oppositionists who have not yet signed the call for a referendum.
Mr. Atri's harshest words, though, were leveled at Mr. Khatami's allies. "Some of the reformists in particular are not with us yet because they still hope the conservatives will give them a chance to become part of the system," he said. "When will they learn that their plan has not accomplished anything?"
Nonetheless, the call for the referendum has slowly begun attracting support from outside Iran. Last week, parliamentarians from Sweden's Folkpartiet Liberalerna signed the petition, as well as new student organizations. "We see progress every week," he said.
Mr. Atri said that organizers of the referendum also had for-now-silent support from some members of Iran's military and security services. Support from within such institutions is critical to the success of nonviolent movements seeking to topple dictators. It took not only an unprecedented coalition of groups in Ukraine, for example, to overturn November's elections there, but also the agreement of the state police and military not to suppress the crowds of protesters who stormed Kiev in the aftermath of the fixed runoff vote.
Mr. Atri said he was watching closely the developments in Kiev. "I am sure many people in our military and other government agencies support this movement," Mr. Atri said. "This is not going to affect only Iran, but also the region. Just like the Ukraine, this will work. We announced before, that we are longing for a nonviolent movement. The Ukrainian movement proved the nonviolent approach was successful. But if our movement is violent then it will usher in a government worse than we have now."
For now, Mr. Atri said, the greatest need from the West was solidarity. When asked about American government support at first, he answered the question in terms of support from the world.
"I expect people of the world to support the democratic movement in Iran," he said. "Right now, the Iranian people are suffering from a lack of information. The 20 Iranian satellite networks, mostly controlled by the monarchists, are not helping the referendum. I think the American media should give the message of the Iranian people to the world."
When asked about a new proposal from the Committee on the Present Danger to try persuading Supreme Leader Khamenei to allow for free and fair elections through formal negotiations with the State Department, Mr. Atri said he doubted it would work.
"This will never happen, the mullahs will never leave like this," he said. "The Islamic republic will give up anything to foreign countries, just so long as they stay in power. But they will not give anything to the Iranian people. I hope the world will consider the interests of the Iranian people, our human rights, and to live in a free country, before anything is signed with the Islamic government."