Amir Abbas Fakhravar (Photo: WND)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – With Tehran threatening nuclear holocaust, an Iranian student leader who recently escaped to the U.S. after years of political imprisonment is urging Washington to hold a “two-edged sword” over the mullah-led regime by supporting internal opposition movements along with tough economic sanctions.

“You need to have the sword on the top of their head and keep holding it there,” said Amir Abbas Fakhravar, who spoke with WND through an interpreter at the Secular Islam Summit in St. Petersburg.

Noting 72 percent of Iranians are under 30 years of age, Fakhravar contends many young people are prepared to join the opposition.

“We have the ability inside,” he said. “This is the silent army inside Iran, and we need the media to encourage them. American policy should trust us. We could do it.”

Fakhravar became a fugitive last year while on leave from Tehran’s infamous Evin prison, escaped to a neighboring country and met up with Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. The Iranian, Perle wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, acted on President Bush’s promise to dissidents that “when you stand for liberty, we will stand with you.”

Alireza Jafarzadeh (Photo: International Intelligence Summit)

Iran analyst Alireza Jafarzadeh agrees that the best hope for the U.S. to eliminate Iran’s nuclear threat is to abandon a decades-old policy of seeking out negotiating partners within Tehran’s cleric-led regime and instead support internal opposition groups.

He maintains the U.S. has engaged in an “erroneous policy” of making concessions to Tehran and searching for so-called moderates within the regime.

More than 4,000 anti-government demonstrations have taken place in Iran over the past year, pointed out Jafarzadeh, who warned of Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities in a presentation at the International Intelligence Summit, a non-profit educational group that hosted the Secular Islam Summit along with its own conference.

Movements of students, women, ethnic and religious minorities increasingly are turning political, said Jafarzadeh, known for revealing in August 2002 that Tehran had been running a secret nuclear facility.

At a campus protest in December, he pointed out, students called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “dictator” and a “fascist” and burned pictures of him.

Jafarzadeh, however, differs not only with the U.S. State Department but with some other opponents of the regime in his belief Washington should back what he describes as Iran’s best-organized and most capable opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK.

The MEK’s battle against Tehran goes back to the Shah’s regime in the 1960s, and it now aims to overthrow Ahmadinejad and the mullahs that hold ultimate power.

But the MEK – the main group in an umbrella coalition called the National Council of Resistance of Iran – was designated a terrorist organization by the Clinton administration in 1997 as a “good will gesture,” Jafarzadeh says, to improve relations.

Michael Ledeen, an Iran scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, told WND that while he favors the strategy of supporting internal opposition groups, he is against backing the MEK.

“They have virtually no support in Iran, because they were agents of Saddam,” he said.

Ledeen said the MEK is a first-class espionage organization that has provided valuable information to the West, but “I just can’t imagine they are going to be an effective force in a non-violent revolution, which is what I favor.”

Ledeen, who said he’s also concerned about the MEK’s “cult of personality,” believes the U.S. should emulate the policy that helped precipitate the fall of the Soviet empire, supporting movements of workers, teachers, women and students.

The State Department has described the MEK’s philosophy as a mixture of Marxism, nationalism and Islam.

State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus told WND U.S. policy toward the MEK has not changed.

“It is a designated foreign terrorist organization, and we believe the individuals responsible for terrorism or other crimes should face justice,” she said.

Hironimus argued the MEK participated in the 1979 American Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran, has killed American citizens and targeted Iranian interests in the U.S.

“We are not in the business of choosing leaders in Iran, and we look forward to the day the Iranian people will be able to choose their leaders in a free and fair democratic system,” she said.

Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi, an Iranian activist in the U.S. who helped organize the Secular Islam Summit, insists the MEK, which she describes as an “Islamo-Leninist force,” has virtually no support in Iran – fewer than 200,000 supporters – and “refuses to accept the fact that the people of Iran should be permitted to chose their next form of government in an internationally monitored referendum.”

Defending the MEK, Jafarzadeh referred to a report by the Iran Policy Committee – comprised of former officials from the White House, State Department, Pentagon, intelligence agencies and experts from think tanks and universities – that disputes the major objections. The IPC study said it “finds that allegations against the MEK charging involvement in the killing of Americans in Iran in the 1970s, support for the Tehran Embassy seizure and hostage crisis, collusion with Saddam Hussein in suppression of the Kurds and Shiites, and launching of cross-border terrorist attacks against Iran are unsupported by the facts.”

Jafarzadeh, formerly a spokesman for the NCRI, argues the MEK is now helping the U.S. with valuable intelligence – including information he has presented on Iran’s nuclear program – and helped ease relations between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq.

Jafarzadeh contends that as long as the current regime remains in power in Tehran, there will be no democracy in Iraq.

“The destiny of the two countries is intertwined,” he said. “You are going to see a solution in both countries at the same time.”

Another Iran analyst at the summit, Clare Lopez, a former CIA operative who now serves as a private consultant on strategic policy and intelligence, also favors U.S. political support for the MEK.

Lopez, an author of the IPC study, says a frequently proposed strategy to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities, through bombing or other means, is not enough.

“If you don’t take out the regime all you are doing is compelling them to redouble their efforts,” she said in a summit session titled “The Iranian Threat.”

Lopez said the West might not be in this situation today if it had helped the opposition two years ago. The student organizers she said, “desperately need not much more than cell phones with cameras and text messaging” to record the regime’s violent response for the world to see.

Emphasizing the urgency of acting, Jafarzadeh said he has sources in the country who believe Tehran is one to three years away from having the capacity to build a nuclear bomb – but he would not be suprised if it were sooner.

“There is certainly a price to pay for removing the main source of instability and chaos and the epicenter of terrorism in that part of the world,” he said. “If you are not ready to pay that price you are going to pay that price 10 times higher down the road.”


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