PARIS -- Iranian activists from a broad cross-section of opposition groups and ethnic communities met in Paris for a historic three-day conference over the weekend, to launch a new movement aimed at stepping up the fight against the Tehran regime.
The new movement, Solidarity Iran, aims to build bridges between Iranians living in exile and the pro-democracy movement inside Iran, and to build support for the struggle of the Iranian people in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
Sanctions by the international community and by the United States will not be enough to change the behavior of the Tehran regime, or to convince Iran's leaders to suspend their nuclear programs, the activists believe.
"You won't see a significant change -- regime change, or behavior change, whichever you like -- until the external pressure becomes internal pressure by the Iranian people," said Hossein Bagher Zadeh, a spokesman for the group.
Ultimately, the new movement hopes "to supplant the theocracy and bring democracy in Iran," said Shahriar Ahy, a former advisor to Reza Pahlavi, who was elected to a 20-member coordinating council on Sunday.
"Solidarity Iran is a struggle to connect a thousand different parties to each other," he said. "We are teachers, we are women, we are young people. We are Iranian workers seeking better working conditions. We are Kurds, Balouch, Lurs, and Azeris. We are from the left and the right. We are all Iranians, united in the purpose of bringing democracy and the respect of human rights to Iran. That is Solidarity Iran," he said.
Iran's bitterly divided opposition parties have tried for years to build coalitions, but until now these efforts have failed to produce any tangible outcome.
For many years, the lack of an organized alternative to the Tehran regime had convinced the United States and Europe to seek to moderate the behavior of the Iran's ruling clerics through direct negotiations and incentives. When that effort failed, and concern over Iran's nuclear weapons program grew, the West began gradually to ratchet up economic pressure and financial sanctions.
Most of the nearly 200 participants agreed that the Paris conference was a "historic" occasion, because it marked the first time that well-known leaders from established opposition groups and from Iran's diverse ethnic communities have declared their intention to work together against the regime, instead of fighting each other.
"We have a lot of divisions, but we have one thing in common. We all hate this regime and want to get rid of it," said Amir Farshad Ibrahimi, a former aid to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who was jailed after making an underground film documenting the regime's support for international terrorist organizations.
For some of the ethnic leaders, it was the first time they had ever networked with their "Persian" counterparts.
"I found here other hearts that beat with ours," said Azeri activist Dr. Zia Sadr-ol Ashrafi, an agronomist now living in Canada. "This gives us hope we can work for a common future."
Ashrafi reminded the conference that Iran was a multi-cultural nation, with well over 50 percent of the population coming from non-Persian backgrounds.
Iran's 70 million population includes some 23 million Azeri (Turkish) citizens, 22 million Persians, 4 million Kurds, 3.5 million Lurs, as well as Arabs, Balouch, Turkomans and a large number of tribes, he said.
"Solidarity Iran is something unique in contemporary Iranian history," said Ramin Parham, a prominent intellectual.
"Since the movement began in Berlin nearly two years ago, I, a monarchist, have been having vodka and kebob with people who took up arms against the former shah," Parham said. "The old days of fighting each other are gone. And we owe it to this process."
One of those former opponents of the shah, Kambiz Roosta, helped to organize the Paris conference. A prominent socialist in his youth, Roosta helped devise the Solidarity Iran formula of connecting domestic opposition groups and social groups to their counterparts outside Iran.
Solidarity Iran is different from other Iranian opposition groups in that it is not a political party, nor does it represent a particular ideology.
"It allows the various groups and political parties to keep their identity, with individual leaders joining Solidarity Iran in a personal capacity," said Iman Foroutan, another member of the newly-elected coordinating council.
Foroutan, who runs the California-based Iran of Tomorrow Movement, has been recruiting cells of activists inside Iran. "The idea is to come up with a grand plan of civil disobedience and economic action that will allow people to go out and do their own thing, while coordinating all these actions," he said.
Messages of support for the new movement came pouring in over the weekend from activists inside Iran.
Ibrahimi read a letter sent by more than a dozen political prisoners in Iranian jails, who asked that their names be read aloud, even though they knew they would be punished for it.
Mohsen Zarafzadeh, who fled Iran after he was released from jail a few years ago, read a similar letter of support from jailed student leader Hesmatollah Tabarzadeh.
A prominent women's activist inside Iran connected to a friend at the conference through a special computer program that allows users to talk over the Internet without detection. "She said she was willing to serve on the newly-elected Coordinating committee," the friend said.
Kian Sanjari, a well-known Iranian blogger who was forced to flee Iran recently and is currently hiding in a neighboring country, called on a cellphone to see if he could connect as well, to post portions of the speeches on his blog.
The 20-member coordinating council, elected this Sunday, will meet in the near future to select a seven-member Executive Committee, as well as a working group to hammer out a new national compact with Iran's ethnic minorities.
Hamza Bayezid, the representative of Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran, said his 16 member organizations will wait until the details of the national compact can be negotiated before formally joining the new movement.
In an exclusive interview just after the conference ended, the deputy secretary general the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran told NewsMax that the Congress was hopeful the negotiations would be successful.
While some Iranian nationalist organizations feared the ethnic Kurds and other minorities wanted to separate from Iran, Dr. Hassan Sharafi told NewsMax that his party and the Congress of Nationalities were dedicated to a united Iran.
"We are Iranian nationalists," he said. "We want our rights within a federal Iran. Splitting apart Iran is to nobody's benefit."
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