Representatives of various Iranian minorities, including Ahwazi Arabs, participated in a panel discussion chaired by Michael Ledeen at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on Wednesday night.
Persian supremacist groups had tried to stop the meeting entitled "The Unknown Iran: Another Case for Federalism?". Extremist nationalist activists launched petitions and complaints to the AEI claiming that the think tank, which specialises in foreign affairs, was advocating the break-up of Iran. However, the campaign achieved little support within the Iranian diaspora in the US or the rest of the world, with the petition receiving just 900 signatures - many of them anonymous.
Mr Ledeen, a senior fellow at the AEI, insisted the claims made by extremists were unfounded, stating that Iran needed to be understood as a country with a diverse ethnic make-up and where ethnic minorities would play a prominant role in the country's future when the regime falls.
In an interview with the Iranian American radio station Radio Sedaye, Mr Ledeen sought to counter criticism levelled at him by the extremists: "For some reason some people got it into their heads that we were somehow advocating breaking up the Iranian country into little pieces, which is one of the craziest ideas I've ever heard. And I'm extremely annoyed that many people did this without bothering to talk to us about what we were doing. They just imagined what it was going to do and they started attacking us. Not one, not one of the groups that has organized petitions and written letters and done website petitions and so forth, not one of them ever spoke to me before they did this. Not one of them gave us the courtesy of asking what are you doing and why are you doing it.
"And it's particularly irritating because I and my colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute have been among the very few Americans who for years and years have been fighting as hard as we can for the freedom of all Iranians. And the idea that we would lend ourselves to anything that would disrupt the unity of the Iranian people at the moment when they're fighting for their freedom is insulting and outrageous.
"So our discussion will be about the ways in which the various ethnic groups among the Iranian people have been singled out for repression and torture and murder by this regime, so our American listeners will get a chance to see how desperately the regime is trying to isolate various groups among the Iranian population and single them out, which is a way of disrupting the unity of the Iranian people in their fight for freedom."
Mr Ledeen compared Iran's cultural and religious diversity with the US and suggested that the US's experience of federalism shows that devolution of power can strengthen a country's unity and democracy.
The panel included Ahwazi Arab sociologist Dr Ali Al-Taie from Shaw University, Manda Zand Ervin of the Alliance of Iranian Women, Morteza Esfandiari of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, Amanollah Khan Riggi of Alliance for Democracy in Iran and Rahim M. Shahbazi of the Azerbaijani Societies of North America. [Click here for full biographies]
The meeting was described as extremely successful by one Ahwazi member of the audience. The failure of extremist groups to generate enough support to stop the debate indicated that the Iranian diaspora as a whole was open to new ideas for a post-mullah Iran, including federalism and regional autonomy.
Nasser Ban-Assad, spokesman for the British Ahwazi Friendship Society, said: "The extremists only gained support from a marginal element within the Iranian diaspora for their call for the meeting to be cancelled. A petition of just 900 signatures, out of the millions in the Iranian diaspora, shows just how unrepresentative these voices are.
"The fact that someone as senior as Michael Ledeen, who has a long history of support for freedom and democracy in Iran, is prepared to run such a debate indicates that he is convinced the participants are not in the business of violent ethnic secessionism. This should assure all Iranians that federalism is about genuine national unity of all the ethnic nations of Iran, with equality, tolerance and social justice at its heart. We welcome any attempt to promote honest and open debate on the future of Iran, free of prejudice and intolerance."