Editor’s Note: Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran program at The Century Foundation. Reza H. Akbari, the research associate for the program, contributed to this article.
By Geneive Abdo – Special to CNN
The speculation over whether Israel will attack Iran this spring is having an unintended consequence: It’s bringing Iranian opposition groups together.
About 50 activists, including university professors, lawyers and students now living outside Iran, met on February 4th and 5th at a snow-covered retreat outside Stockholm. They were the guests of the Olof Palme International Center, a group associated with Sweden’s Social Democratic party with a long history of supporting opposition groups around the world.
I was an observer at this meeting and was struck by how factions who had been at odds for many years - from Kurds to staunch secularists to Green movement leaders - tried to reach common ground.
Most voiced opposition to a military strike against Iran, even though they all agreed that the current government should be toppled. They felt an attack would directly or indirectly harm the population, empower the regime and cause severe instability in the region when Iran retaliates.
Many here believe that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is trying to buy time in order to develop a nuclear weapon and render Iran virtually immune to an attack.
“From the regime’s point of view, there are two scenarios: Libya or North Korea and Khamenei is choosing North Korea,” said one student activist, referring to the fact that North Korean obtained nuclear weapons while Libya stopped its program.
This student expressed anxiety over whether the opposition would be able to destabilize the regime if there were a quick, isolated attack rather than a sustained military operation. “We might not have time to do anything - to mobilize. We need to start getting prepared,” he said.
The activists also agreed to work hard between now and March 2nd when parliamentary elections are held in Iran, to organize a nationwide boycott of the polls.
“We need to encourage people to stay at home that day,” said one well-known activist. A low voter turnout, the activists agreed, would send a message that Iranians do not respect the rigged, opaque electoral process. Already, a governmental body called the Guardian Council has banned many candidates from running in the elections who do not agree with the regime.
The Iranian government considers elections to be critical to convincing the world that the country is democratic. However, after the disputed presidential election in 2009, which returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power and sparked millions of Iranians to protest, the regime has lost legitimacy at home and abroad. The opposition hopes to use the March 2nd parliamentary elections to stage more demonstrations and convince the part of the population that still supports the regime to join their cause.
Inspired by the once severely divided Syrian opposition which faces a brutal regime, the activists believe that this first well-organized meeting will be the beginning to uniting with the opposition inside Iran. By the end of the two-day meeting, they had laughed and cried together, sharing their stories of imprisonment, torture and murder of their relatives in Iran for their political activity.
They issued a report at the end of the conference which states: “The cordial meeting was successful in building a consensus on the continuation of dialogue among (the) opposition, the necessity of a broad coalition against dictatorship and any type of discrimination and violation of human rights, achieving democracy based on the separation of religion and state and free elections in accordance with international standards.”
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Geneive Abdo.