Iranian dissidents want regime change

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Europe Correspondent  |  Feb. 11, 2010 at 3:19 PM
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BERLIN, Feb. 11 (UPI) -- As regime supporters and opponents marched in Iran on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution Thursday, several hundred Iranian expatriates called for a regime change in front of the Iranian Embassy in Berlin.

"Down with the dictators, down with the mullahs," chanted some 200 Iranian expatriates who assembled with placards and flags on an ice-covered footpath in front of the Iranian Embassy in Berlin's posh Dahlem district.

Organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a Paris-based umbrella group of the Iranian opposition, the demonstration, said NCRI spokesman Javad Dabiran, was aimed at voicing several demands: an immediate halt to the executions of dissidents, a release of those still in jail and Western-imposed sanctions on Tehran to show solidarity with the opposition.

The NCRI is controversial because it includes the People's Mujahedin of Iran, classified as a terror organization by Iran and the United States for its armed struggle against the regime in the 1980s and 1990s. However, the EU removed the group from its terrorist list in January 2009 after Britain had done so in 2008, and its members have abstained from armed opposition.

While the Iranian opposition is highly diverse, with groups campaigning for different goals, they are united by their eagerness to end what they say is an oppressive regime.

"A movement of change has been launched in Iran, and the people behind it are determined," Dabiran told UPI. "No intimidation can keep them from taking the streets to voice their demands for more freedom."

The movement of change Dabiran was referring to started last summer, when massive demonstrations took place in protest of what critics say were rigged elections that saw President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad emerge winning. Tehran cracked down violently on the protesters, with thousands arrested. The West harshly criticized Iran for the violence.

Ahead of Thursday's 31st anniversary of the revolution that toppled the Shah, pro- and anti-regime leaders had called for their people to take the streets again.

Hundreds of thousands of regime supporters attended a speech by Ahmadinejad in downtown Tehran, with the president declaring Iran a nuclear power. While the West fears that Iran is on the way to a nuclear weapon, Ahmadinejad vowed that Tehran was using the technology for civil purposes only.

In other parts of the city, police fired tear gas and paint bullets at supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, a correspondent monitoring the events told BBC radio. Several hundred protesters are reported to have been detained.

Opposition Web sites claim that another senior regime critic, Mehdi Karroubi, and moderate former President Mohammad Khatami were attacked by security forces when they tried to join the protests.

Iranian officials have so far not commented on the claims, and they are hard to verify, as the regime has barred foreign journalists from monitoring the opposition protests.

Yet the West is looking wary at Tehran: German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union in a statement Thursday denounced the police violence, adding it "stands firmly on the side of those who are peacefully campaigning for a free democracy and human rights in Iran."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the BBC, "The mood around the world is now increasingly one where, patience not being inexhaustible, people are turning to look at the specific sanctions we can plan on Iran."

In Berlin demonstrators had erected nine gallows in front of the embassy, a modern limestone building, in a nod to the nine jailed regime opponents currently appealing their death sentences in Iran.

The regime last month hanged two people sentenced in post-election trials, and more than 80 people were jailed for up to 15 years, including several senior former officials.

Many Iranians know how it feels to lose a loved one to jail or the gallows.

One of them is Bahram Mavaddat, a tall man with bear-like hands. Some three decades ago he was a goalkeeper for the Iranian national team that qualified for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

When the Islamic revolution swept the country a year later, Mavaddat, like most Iranians, was hopeful that his country would change for the better -- "toward democracy, toward freedom," he said.

But the opposite was the case, with soccer being banned for two years, and regime critics being jailed for voicing their frustration with the mullahs.

In the aftermath of the revolution, Mavaddat's teammate, the hugely talented Habib Khabiri, who with his dramatic goal from 40 yards against Kuwait put Iran into the World Cup finals for the first time ever, was arrested as an enemy of the regime. In 1984 he was executed.

That same year Mavaddat fled to Germany, where he has been living since, and from where he has supported the regime opponents.

"As an athlete, you want to play soccer, you don't want to get in touch with politics," he told UPI. "But when the fate of your country is at stake, you have to do something. I am here to call for freedom for Iran. It's our right."

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