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New Iran Regime-Change Think Tank Opens in DC

Hojjati is in the early stages of rolling out her think tank. As she tells it, the IPS will grow from its current humble beginnings -- it's just Hojjati right now and a non-informative website -- into a platform for the Iranian diaspora in the U.S. and Europe to coalesce behind a secular, democratic agenda. Currently, the largest organized force in the Iranian diaspora is the cultish Mojaheddin e-Khalq, a terrorist entity formerly associated with Saddam Hussein.

Hojjati returned this week from a trip to Paris, where she encountered diaspora Iranians who told her they associate with the MEK only because they're the only game in town. Conversations like those, she said, reinforced her belief in what might be called a "diaspora-first" strategy for regime change: uniting Iranians outside of Iran on a practical, specific agenda for post-Islamic Republic governance.

"We have to be able to have people say, 'this is the plan.' They don't know what happens in Iran after the regime falls," Hojjati says. That's where the IPS comes in. Over the next few months, Hojjati intends to unveil a constitution promising democracy and the total separation of Islam from the public sphere, so that Iranians will have a blueprint for what comes after the mullahs. "It's going to fill a void," she says. "Right now, no one's saying anything further than 'regime change.'" It's a deliberate response to the compounded mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which suffered from uncertainty over what political structure followed the destruction of the Saddam and Taliban regimes.

Filling that void means personal sacrifice. Hojjati is going to scale back her consulting work at the Lichfield Group, a boutique image-management firm that boasts of "high level connections with the Department of Justice, the Department of State, and the Central Intelligence Agency" and the media. She's already sold some of her prize possessions to finance the IPS, which she plans to incorporate as a 501 c3 nonprofit. Already, she expressly forswears seeking any U.S. government funding. "It is extremely important that (Iranians) see the institute as free of ulterior motives for it to achieve and sustain legitimacy," she says.

Whether that happens is a big question mark. The regime has used connections with the U.S. -- real or imagined -- to persecute and discredit human-rights activists and dissidents. Some, like journalist Akbar Ganji, have refused to take U.S. aid, and warn well-intentioned Americans against tainting anti-regime activists by association. Even though Hojjati herself won't accept money from the Bush administration, for her, the thorny question of U.S. involvement comes down to timing and savvy.

"Would they be upset if it was the right time? No. They understand that the international community or the U.S. can push (the regime) over the edge," she says. "It's also the way the U.S. is going to handle this. They need to look at who is the leadership, who's willing to be the leadership -- who has the legitimacy to cultivate and the platforms to speak." That, however, doesn't really address the fears of Ganji and others: that any association with the U.S. is an inescapable drain on internal legitimacy.

It's hard to predict where the Iran debate is going. The Bush administration has, on one hand, bolstered its naval forces in the Persian Gulf and accused the Iranians of killing U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; on the other, it has opened limited, direct talks with the Iranians in Baghdad and shut down an interagency working group dedicated to regime change. Even if the administration opts for confrontation, the public is clearly weary from two debilitating wars, and hardly eager to involve itself in a third.

Hojjati emphasizes that she doesn't want war. But what she wants even less -- and what her think tank is designed to fight against -- is for the U.S. to acquiesce to the Iranian regime remaining in power.