Saturday, July 15, 2006

Ganji: 'The Regime Must Change'

Maziar Bahari, Newsweek:
Akbar Ganji is the most vocal voice against the government in Iran. A former revolutionary guard turned reformist journalist, he was jailed for six years for revealing that Iran’s ministry of intelligence played a role in the killings of up to 70 intellectuals during the 1990s. After his release from prison last March, Ganji began a tour of Europe to meet Western intellectuals as well as Iranians in exile.

On Saturday, Ganji began a U.S. visit. During his trip, world leaders including French president Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush have requested meetings. Ganji refused, calling himself “only a journalist.” But in an interview with NEWSWEEK, in which he discussed Iran’s confrontation with the West over its nuclear program, he said he could change his stand on political meetings. Ganji and his acolytes in 25 cities around the world have begun a hunger strike to try to force the release the political prisoners in Iran. Ganji himself says he will lead the protests in front of United Nations headquarters in New York. NEWSWEEK’s Maziar Bahari met Ganji in London on Friday. READ MORE

Newsweek: What do you want to achieve by going on a hunger strike?
AKBAR GANJI: We chose three detainees from three different movements as the symbols of the political prisoners in the Iran and are staging a hunger strike to defend them. They include Masoud Ossanloo from the labor movement, Akbar Moussavi Khoeini from the students’ movement and Ramin Jahanbegloo, an intellectual. These people are illegally detained and are denied their basic rights. They are also under constant pressure to say that they are spying for foreigners. By being here we want to tell their families that we feel your pain and at the same time draw the attention of the world to human-rights abuses inside Iran.

You were recently released from prison and plan to go back to Iran in a few weeks time. What do you think will happen to you?
I think they will arrest me as soon as I arrive in the airport and put me in jail.

Yet still you want to go back?
Yeah. It’s the Iranian government’s dream to keep me abroad. If it were up to them they would keep me in jail. But they were worried about more international condemnation after illegally holding me for six years. When I look at the Islamic republic and its constitution I see that there is no possibility that this system can become a democratic one which respects human rights. I, and people like me, are trying to change the system into a democratic means.

Mainly through civil disobedience. Meaning breaking unjust and inhumane laws. The regime uses these laws to contain our movement. If you’re sentenced then you can be denied work as a journalist for the rest of your life. We say that this kind of laws are unjust and have to change.

One of the people you are here for, Ramin Jahanbegloo, has been charged with an attempt to stage a “velvet revolution.” Is this a new phase in the government’s fighting dissent inside the country?
The Iranian government is trying to accuse all those who oppose it of espionage for the West and the Americans. They are forgetting that 30 years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini said, ‘Our forefathers had the right to write a constitution for themselves and we have the same right to write our destiny.’ Right now we are demanding the same thing as Ayatollah Khomeini did before the 1979 revolution.

Do you think things have gotten more repressive since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has taken over?
Ahmadinejad’s election was part of the supreme leader’s plan to consolidate the hardliners’ power inside Iran. So, right now most of the high-ranking officials are chosen from the members of the Revolutionary Guard. But this policy has backfired as even high-ranking conservatives oppose Ahmadinejad’s radical policies and consider it dangerous for the country.

Do you think Iran really wants to have a peaceful nuclear program or do they want to build an atomic bomb?
Well, I’m not sure what they wish or not wish. But I can see that their unwise policies are driving Iran towards a catastrophe. Unfortunately, these unwise policies have created a united international front against Iran. I think that Iran and the U.S. should have direct and transparent negotiations with each other to solve this issue. We Iranians should be more afraid of the government’s nuclear program. They obtained all their equipment in the black market and there is no quality control on the facilities. I’m just afraid that something like Chernobyl can happen in Iran.

How solid is the support for the nuclear program among ordinary Iranians?
Not much. The nuclear program has become the butt of jokes among the ordinary people; they make fun of it. But the government doesn’t allow anyone to criticize it. The reformists within the system are against it and have sent a letter to the supreme leader. Many conservatives within the government disagree with each other about the nuclear program. I know that in a recent meeting of the Supreme Security Council former president Hashemi Rafsanjani said that Iran should suspend its uranium enrichment activities because it is going to be disastrous for the country. He even insisted that his words should be written down so it is documented.

Do you think the American government is honest in its claim that it wants to negotiate with Iran about its nuclear program or is it only interested in regime change in Iran?
I can’t read the Americans’ minds either. But I know that Iranian people want peace not war. We want to have democracy and peace in our country and we cannot achieve this through war and military action. I am against any kind of military action against Iran. The Americans should learn from what happened in Iraq. Military invasion will not help the democratic movement in Iran. Actually it will do exactly the opposite. If they plan to attack our infrastructure that would not destroy the Islamic Republic rather it will destroy Iran.

Are you going to meet with any American government officials while you’re in the United States?
I’m a member of a civil-society movement and not its leader. All we need is the moral support of the intellectuals and the civil society around the world. We have a strong pro-democracy movement in Iran. The world should listen to it and take it seriously. Our goal is to create a bond between Iran and the outside world. Any interference by western politicians in our affairs will make us vulnerable to accusations of espionage and acting as the fifth column of the West. Western governments should not interfere in Iran’s affairs directly as it makes the activists in Iran susceptible to the government’s accusations that they are the Western agents. [Still,] I am now willing to meet any world leader if it can prevent a war against my country.

Do you think sanctions should be imposed on Iran?
No, because sanctions will hurt the people of Iran more than its government. We saw the same thing happen in Iraq: sanctions hurt the people of Iraq much more than Saddam’s government.

What is it that the Americans don’t understand about how Iranian leaders think?
One of the main problems of the Americans in their negotiations with Iran is that most of their advisors are Iranians who have not been to Iran for the past three decades. They have no idea about what’s going on in Iran so they give wrong advice to the American leaders. I think a superpower like the USA should not rely on people who have no real understanding of the situation inside in Iran today to draft its policies. One thing that the Americans should know is that Iranians do not want to have a puppet regime in their country. This regime in Iran has to change. But it’s the Iranians themselves who have to change it.