Iranian diplomats' defections signal fissures in Islamic Republic leaders over election unrest

OSLO, Norway (AP) — The defection of a third Iranian diplomat in Europe hints at widening fissures within Iran's government over its crackdown on protesters after the disputed 2009 election that kept hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power.

Farzad Farhangian, who quit his job as press attache at the Iranian Embassy in Brussels last week, said in Oslo that he would ask Norway for political asylum. He told reporters Tuesday that he wanted to "take a stand in support of the Iranian people and the (opposition) movement."

Farhangian, 46, was joined by Mohammed Reza Heydari, a former Iranian diplomat in Oslo who defected in January and was granted asylum by Norway. Also defecting this month was Hossein Alizadeh, the No. 2 man at Iran's mission in Helsinki, who said he would seek political asylum in Finland.

The unrest after the June 2009 election was Iran's worst domestic upheaval since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Charges of election fraud prompted massive protests and a brutal response. Authorities have tried more than 100 activists and opposition members on security charges. More than 80 of them have been sentenced to prison terms from six months to 15 years, and 10 of them been sentenced to death.

The unrest exposed divisions among authorities as well as ordinary citizens. Even some Muslim clerics rejected the election results. And although largely stifled in Iran now, opposition forces overseas, including the Europe-based Green Wave movement, have rallied activists.

Farhangian said top-level officials in the Revolutionary Guard in Iran were considering joining the opposition movement, but gave no details.

Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C., said the diplomats' defections reflect widespread discontent about the Iranian regime.

"There is enormous disaffection within the Iranian Foreign Ministry," he said. "But Iranian diplomats abroad face a difficult dilemma. If they resign out of principle they lose their livelihoods and have to apply for political asylum. That's not an easy decision to make when you have a family to feed."

Meir Javendafar, an Iran analyst based in Israel, said the defections primarily show "deep resentment" over the regime's crackdown, but could also be related to a perception that Ahmadinejad, who is supposed to answer to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is trying to exert more direct control over Iran's foreign policy.

The Iranian president has become a lightning rod overseas for his statements questioning the Holocaust and his defense of Iran's nuclear program, which the U.S. suspects is intended for weapons, not energy as Tehran insists.

The opposition in Iran has not held any street demonstrations since February and canceled plans for a rally on the anniversary of the election, but pro-government crowds have continued protests against opposition leaders.

Earlier this month, demonstrators assaulted the house of key opposition leader Mahdi Karroubi, just hours before major state-backed rallies. The increasing efforts to isolate and harass top opposition figures after relentless crackdowns appear to have driven protesters from the streets.

Sverre Lodgaard, a security analyst at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, said the defections are a loss of prestige to Tehran but don't present a major challenge to the Iranian regime.

"It appears that the regime has quite good control of the opposition," he said.

Farhangian said the turning point for him came after the election, adding that he could not "come to any agreement" with the Iranian ambassador at the embassy in Brussels. "We have had a lot of arguments since last year," he said.

Farhangian declined to give details about his family but confirmed that he will seek asylum for both them and himself.

There has been no coverage of the defections in Iran's domestic press.

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Associated Press Writer Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.