Exiles keep Iran in touch

"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

Standing before the camera in prison garb and bandages, the man confesses to having contacts with the CIA, sleeping with the celebrity wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy as well as actress Angelina Jolie and plotting with counterrevolutionaries to destroy the Islamic Republic.

The man is Ebrahim Nabavi, Iran's most famous satirist, who left the country for Belgium three years after a stint in solitary confinement that he said "shattered" him.

"The Confession," his hilarious parody of Iran's show trials, was posted on the Internet and broadcast on exile channels even before the latest round began in August. It so perfectly captured the forced jailhouse confessions written by Iran's interrogators that it quickly went viral, blunting the effect of the televised court proceedings.

"They thought we would go abroad and just become irrelevant," says political caricaturist Nikahang Kowsar, who left the country after being imprisoned for his biting parodies likening Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor to a crocodile.

Now he's in Canada and is a reporter for Dutch-funded, Persian-language Radio Zamaneh, disseminating digital versions of his caricatures of Ahmadinejad with a chintzy halo above his head via e-mail and his own blog.

"After the revolution, many of those who went abroad were those who were part of a system whose time was ending," director Makhmalbaf says.

"Those who are going abroad now belong to a group of people whose time is just beginning. At the beginning of the revolution, they were part of the past regime. This time they're the harbingers of the next regime."

Diaspora's renewal

The new exiles have also breathed new life into the Iranian diaspora, long a political backwater dominated by monarchists and various strands of Marxists.

They have reinvigorated the Persian-language programming of the U.S.-funded Voice of America news channel, and played a major role in the launch of the BBC's popular Persian-language channel. According to Ali Darabi, the deputy chief of Iran's state broadcaster, 40% of Iranians have access to such satellite channels.

"If I left the country in the 1980s, then I might have worked in McDonald's for a while," says Omid Memarian, a reformist journalist who left Iran in 2005 after several months in prison and now works as a Berkeley-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, the international advocacy group. "But the Internet era has changed this."

Unlike those who fled Iran immediately after the revolution, Memarian knows intimately the institutions of the Islamic Republic. He once worked for a newspaper run by Hadi Khamenei, the reformist brother of Iran's supreme leader, and wrote speeches for a Revolutionary Guard commander.

"I am familiar with the system," he says. "I think they made a mistake to let me go."

Unlike previous waves of exiles, the reformists also tend to be in the communication business, journalists whose job it is to find an audience, speak its language and remain relevant.

"A journalist calls up Iran and says, 'What's going on?' " Makhmalbaf says. "When he's doing analysis, he's investigating yesterday's events not some old history."

He pauses and smiles. "The Iranian government sent a bunch of journalists abroad to freely propagate against the system."

6,000 miles away

Every night in his town-house basement outside Washington, Sazegara attaches a small microphone to the lapel of his golf shirt, turns on a small video camera and speaks to Iranians 6,000 miles away.

"Salaam," he says, speaking in the informal idioms of the contemporary Islamic Republic. "Today I want to bring up four matters with you."

In the daily 10-minute videos, he discusses the day's news, techniques for nonviolent protest, upcoming events and viewers' e-mailed questions. He even sends shout-outs to listeners.

Sazegara once enthusiastically served Khomeini. But in the late 1990s he became a vocal critic of the Islamic Republic that the cleric founded. After he was imprisoned and went on a lengthy hunger strike, Sazegara went abroad in 2003 for medical treatment, and stayed when threatened with a longer sentence if he returned.

"The message was that they preferred me to stay out of Iran," he says.

Sazegara and others provide what amounts to vision and direction for a movement whose leaders are either constrained by constant surveillance or deprived of their smartest advisors, who have been locked up in prison.

It's Sazegara, for example, who explicitly urges the opposition green movement to reach out to Iran's ethnic minorities, factory workers and the lower middle class. He notes small demonstrations in faraway towns and poses questions that opposition leaders such as Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi would never dare ask.

"How do we bring the coup d'etat government down and put pressure on them, and keep the movement going in the best way possible?" Sazegara said in his Nov. 11 video, defining the purpose of his daily talks.

He estimates that as many as 500,000 young Iranians have seen his videos. At least 12,000 a day view them on YouTube and Facebook, in addition to the 12,000 subscribers who receive them via e-mail.

"What I am doing is trying to transfer the experiences of other countries to the people of Iran," he says.

"The ideas also come from hundreds of e-mails I receive a day from Iranians."

Sazegara is sure he'd be in prison if he were still in Iran. And even if he weren't, he doubts he'd have the reach he now has.

"I was considered dangerous because of the more than 50 speeches that I had at big universities of Iran," he says. "Sometimes, in a speech, at most 1,000 students were in the auditorium. But now 50,000 people can listen to or read whatever I say."

daragahi@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
79°