Hunger Strikers Rally for Iran at U.N. Headquarters

(CBS/Pamela Falk)
This story was filed by CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk, reporting from the U.N.

Hundreds of protesters, some wearing green sashes to indicate they're on hunger strike, have gathered in tents across from U.N. Headquarters for the start of a three-day event in support of Iran's beleaguered opposition movement.

At noon on Wednesday, as Iranian-born diva and protest organizer Googoosh gave her opening speech, organizers say the crowd swelled to about 500. That number included almost 200 hunger strikers. Most of the participants are Iranian Americans — all of whom spoke of events back in Tehran, where protests are not being tolerated.

As police and Basiji militiamen crackdown hard on potential demonstrators in Tehran, the protesters, including academics and some big names from the Iranian entertainment world gathered, hoping to bring visibility to the pro-democracy movement.

With the support of Hollywood stars including Robert Redford and Sean Penn, and backed up by a Farsi-language version of "We Shall Overcome" sung by Joan Baez, the organizers of the protest at the U.N. called for the release of Iranian activists, a condemnation of the violent reaction to protests in Tehran, the repudiation of the June 12 election, and the appointment of a Special Envoy for Iran by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Buoyed by support from within the U.S. and around the world, the camped-out hunger strikers spoke of the divisions they see between the major clerics in Iran, and of Iran's continuing defiance of U.N. sanctions on its nuclear program.

Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University, told CBS News the fissure among the clerics shows "there is a legitimacy crisis" in Iran.

The pressure, he said, is being felt by the custodians of the Islamic Republic. But he also cautioned not to expect overnight changes. "This is a marathon," he said, "not a 100-meter race — more like the civil rights movement in this country."

(CBS/Pamela Falk)
Iranian journalist and former political prisoner, Akbar Ganji (at left), who left Iran three years ago after serving two separate prison terms (one of them six years long) said that the goal of the protest was to "mobilize civil society in Iran."

Nader Hashemi, an Iranian-American professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, said it took courage for Iranian-Americans to appear at the event because of possible repercussions for family members in Iran. Some of those at the U.N. demonstration wore masks to hide their identities.

"This event is an embarrassment to the regime; it shines a spotlight on the human rights record," said Hashemi.

As the hunger strike got underway in New York, a back-and-forth was occurring in Tehran between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, about Ahmadinejad's chosen vice president.

"Sovereignty in Iran," Hashemi said, "should rest with the people of Iran, not a few clerics." He added that the pro-democracy movement in Iran was taking advantage of the divisions at the elite level of the country's leadership — among both the clerics and the politicians — to move their agenda forward. That, he said optimistically, "is a good sign."

Some of the protestors in front of U.N. Headquarters were personally involved in the upheaval back home. Mehdi Saharkhiz said his father, a freelance journalist, was taken by police because of his support for an opposition candidate in the election, and the family has not been able to locate him.

Perhaps the most pointed message of the demonstration came from two Iranian-American elementary school kids (pictured at top), aged 10 and 11 — both wearing green sashes to show their participation in the hunger strike: "This will pressure the U.N. to do something, and that is the important thing," said the younger boy. The 11-year-old chimed in for emphasis, "to do something."

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.