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Exiles keep Iran in touch

The latest wave in the diaspora is tech-savvy and playing a key role in countering hard-liners at home.

December 10, 2009|By Borzou Daragahi
  • Mohsen Sazegara, a founder of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, posts daily videos on the Internet, working from his home in a Washington suburb.
Mohsen Sazegara, a founder of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, posts… (Chris Usher / For The Times )

Reporting from Paris — "Tehran is online," the director's wife announces.

For the third time in less than an hour, Mohsen Makhmalbaf politely excuses himself. He ambles off to the other end of a sparsely furnished salon-turned-makeshift war room: a desktop computer, two laptops perched on end tables and a giant television screen. He fits on a headset and begins speaking to an aide of one of Iran's opposition figures.

One of his country's most highly regarded filmmakers, Makhmalbaf has lived abroad for five years, moving his family first to Afghanistan and then to Paris. Iran's censors, he complained, refused to grant him permission to make the movies he wanted.

The authorities were happy to let him go, along with thousands of other young, tech-savvy Iranians -- a gambit that may have proved a grave miscalculation.

Now the black-clad director spends most of his time serving as an unofficial spokesman for the green movement that sprang to life after Iran's disputed June 12 presidential election, a soldier in an army of Iranian exiles who from abroad have taken up the fight against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his hard-line allies.

There are e-mails from expatriates in California to answer, chats with counterparts in Germany, politicians in European capitals and Washington to lobby, and the frequent calls from Tehran and other Iranian cities via Skype, the voice-over- Internet software popular among plugged-in Iranians.

"Thirty years ago if I wanted to get in touch with someone in Iran from abroad, I had to send a letter or make a phone call," Makhmalbaf says. "Phones are expensive and are monitored. Now I get online and instantly have a connection to Iran.

"Cellphones, computers, the Internet -- they are the weapons of the new war."

Perpetual exile

Iran has long used exile as a tool to rid itself of political opponents. Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi sent a rabble-rousing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini abroad to Turkey, keeping him at bay for more than 14 years.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, hordes of Iranians fled abroad -- many settling in Los Angeles, which has the largest Iranian community outside the Middle East. They vowed to pursue the fight for freedom in Iran from a distance, and failed miserably, drifting into lives of perpetual exile, their dreams of triumphant returns receding as they lost contact with the old country.

After the crackdown on Iran's reformist movement this decade, hundreds more Iranian intellectuals and dissidents left the country. Thousands of physicians, engineers and scholars, unable to tolerate Iran under the harsh rule of the hard-liners, followed suit, immigrating to the United Arab Emirates, Canada and Western Europe as well as the U.S.

Pleased by the irrelevance of those who had left during the 1980s exodus, authorities issued passports, responded to paperwork and all but encouraged the charismatic activists and the disgruntled middle class to head out.

But new technology and the character of the new emigres have foiled the hard-liners' plans, resulting perhaps in Iran's biggest demographic blunder since a 1980s fertility drive bred a generation of educated malcontents seeking to change the country.

Communication tools such as e-mail, blogs and Twitter have created virtual communities where Iranians in the diaspora and in the country can mingle, instantly and effortlessly, circumventing restrictions on broadcast and telephone communications.

Although not the lead actor in Iran's political drama, the diaspora, as even Iranian authorities acknowledge, plays a supporting role by "re-tweeting" reports, videos, ideas and photographs that the exiles trawl from Iran, flooding the country's throttled Internet and heavily controlled airwaves with news, videos and insight.

Iranian authorities have struggled to comprehend the new rules of the political environment. For months they described the innovative tools as instruments used by the West in a "soft war" against Iran, even naming Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as co-conspirators during the trials of activists this summer.

Although Iran's Revolutionary Guard and Basiji militia have recently announced plans to confront the threat of the new technologies, tens of thousands of Iranians continue to flood the nation's communication channels with messages that contradict Tehran's official narratives.

"The regime didn't have any understanding of the power of the new communications, satellite TV, Internet," says Mohsen Sazegara, a founder of the Revolutionary Guard and former journalist who now lives in a Washington suburb.

"Letting us go abroad was the policy, and I call it the short-term policy," he says. "They just see a few steps ahead of themselves."

A confession of sorts

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