CAIRO, Egypt - In the aftermath of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ascendancy to the presidency of Iran, the country's opposition is beginning to show signs of unifying as the clerical regime wages a war against internal dissent.
Yesterday, the regime closed all schools in Tehran, citing poor air quality, after word leaked of the first major demonstrations since the summer. Nonetheless, a rally at Tehran University attracted 300 demonstrators amid a heavy police presence on campus. Of note is that before the rally against the new president, a coalition of Kurdish students also signed on to the call.
In Brussels on Monday, a meeting of 250 delegates for a new "World Congress of the Iran Referendum Movement," an outgrowth of efforts last year to find support for changing the charter of the Islamic Republic, agreed on a slate of principles and a plan to begin drafting a new constitution by the end of 2006.
The developments in Iran and abroad are significant after many activists became despondent after the hunger strike of dissident author Akbar Ganji did not end with his release from prison. Mr. Ganji, according to his wife, has been confined to a solitary cell for over 90 days at Evin prison. For a brief moment over the summer, his open letters against the supreme leader catapulted him to national attention as he subsisted on water for nearly three months. But as he has remained in jail and the former intelligence commander, Mr. Ahmadinejad, has placed hardliners loyal to the ruling clerics throughout the government, the space for political opposition has dwindled.
But, according to Iranian author and former political prisoner, Amir Abbas Fakhravar, the era of Mr. Ahmadinejad has also spurred previously warring factions among the opposition to come together.
"You cannot imagine to what extent the selection not the election of Ahmadinejad has had a hidden benefit," Mr. Fakhravar said in a telephone interview."All the sectors of the student and labor organizations and young people have become much closer than before, and became more united. There has been a hardened unity created."
Mr. Fakhravar was first sentenced in November 2002 for writing a book, "This Place Is Not a Ditch," which included a brutal assessment of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and urged Iranians to reject the current regime. He was temporarily released from prison this spring to complete his university degree, but has not returned to prison. In October, he learned from his sister that there was a warrant from the government-aligned militia, known as the Basij, to arrest him and is now plotting his escape from the country.
Mr. Fakhravar also noted the participation of three Iranian opposition leaders in the proceedings in Brussels over the weekend. Because they plan on returning to the Islamic Republic, he requested that their names remain anonymous. According to a spokesman for the organization, Pooya Dayanim, other exile leaders at the conference were affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, the Constitutional Monarchists and former supporters of reformist president Mohammed Khatami.
The statement of principles from the group in many ways clarified earlier misgivings some members of the opposition held regarding the strategy of pursuing a constitutional referendum in Iran prior to regime change.
"The referendum is not going to replace the political struggle to change the political regime or the format of the future Iranian government," its statement of principles said. "The referendum movement is going to attempt to expand and bring in people and political organizations of various political persuasions." The document also expresses support for granting ethnic minorities "cultural social and linguistic rights." It did not, however, embrace the principle of federalism, which would invest powers of taxation, for example, in the hands of ethnic geographic conclaves, similar to the arrangement currently in Iraq.
Mr. Fakhravar said that in prison, Mr. Ganji is increasingly emerging as a leader of the opposition as it unifies. "The best person to lead the movement is Akbar Ganji. He is behind bars, but he would be the leader," he said.