Friday, July 14, 2006

Ganji Says Iran Dissidents Will Spurn U.S. Funds

Eli Lake, The New York Sun:
On the eve of his first visit to America, Iran's leading dissident says Iran's democracy movement will reject American financial assistance, and that he would meet with American officials only to urge them not to bomb his country.

Akbar Ganji, an author and dissident celebrated for his calls from prison last summer for the supreme leader of Iran to step down, said in an interview with The New York Sun this week that the $75 million proposed by President Bush in February to aid indigenous liberal forces in Iran not only would endanger the intended recipients, but ultimately would fail to bring his people closer to creating the preconditions necessary for a velvet revolution.

Mr. Ganji's visit to America must be a balancing act for a dissident who seeks to return to Iran and who could be arrested again. Earlier this spring, the regime arrested a Canadian-Iranian reformist thinker and author, Ramin Jahanbegloo, on espionage charges, possibly based on his work with the National Endowment for Democracy and at the University of Toronto. READ MORE

One of Mr. Ganji's lawyers was held in prison for nearly eight months on charges of espionage last year. He told the Sun that one of his main goals for the visit is to raise awareness for other political prisoners and to build solidarity with Iran's democracy movement. "On this tour I am trying to reach out with one voice from Iran. This voice does not want this regime, but it does not want war," he said.

Mr. Ganji said any American aggression against Iran over its nuclear program would hinder the democratic opposition. A bombing campaign of Iran's nuclear facilities "will ruin and damage our movement's substructure," he said. "And no one can claim that by attacking the facilities the Islamic Republic will be toppled."

Of the $75 million Mr.Bush requested from Congress in February, Mr.
Ganji said, "You cannot find even one individual in Iran willing to accept this money. And presenting such a plan and offer definitely will damage the democratic movement in Iran. The Islamic Republic claims all dissidents in the opposition are allies of the United States already." But Mr. Ganji was clear about his view of the current rulers of Iran. He said he considers President Ahmadinejad a "sultan" who is buying off segments of the Revolutionary Guards with public contracts, a violation of the original warnings of Ayatollah Khomenei.The dissident also said he still supports holding a national referendum on the Islamic Republic's constitution, which empowers the supreme leader to oversee the military and a council of clerics to veto legislation passed in parliament. Though Iranians inside and outside the country first launched a campaign in support of a constitutional referendum at the end of 2004, the movement has had trouble organizing since then.

Mr. Ganji is one of the mullahs' most potent foes. A popular figure in Iran and a leading reformer in the 1990s, he later broke with many of his peers and began writing a series of scathing investigative pieces about the role of the mullahs and a former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, in murders of intellectuals. The publication of those articles and a book making the same accusation landed him in jail in 2001. In June 2005, he led a hunger strike in Evin prison, attracting the solidarity of many world leaders.The first world leader to call for his release was Mr. Bush.
While in prison, Mr. Ganji published his second manifesto, which outlined a plan for Iranians to gradually withdraw their consent to be governed by the unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Once a supporter of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Mr. Ganji, like Iran¹s most senior cleric, Ayatollah Montazeri, has come to the position that the current regime has violated the democratic promise of the revolution.

Mr. Ganji¹s view that at this point, the American government cannot help Iran's nonviolent opposition could prove to be the death knell for a policy that was already floundering.The State Department is still sifting through the applications for the $75 million the president proposed for Iranian democracy earlier this year after Iran withdrew from nuclear negotiations and announced its enrichment of uranium. But since the White House has said it believes that Iran and Syria were responsible for Hezbollah's raid into Israel on Wednesday, a policy of funding the opposition may come back into vogue.

"The regime says the CIA's agents come to Iran with black suitcases and distribute money among the people. This kind of suggestion and plans just will prove their allegations and accusations. With this money, you cannot make any democracy," he said. "Every society needs prerequisites and preconditions for establishing this. One of these preconditions is a middle class. We believe in a short time you can provide and establish a middle class. One precondition is the democratic culture. Do you think with $75 million or a thousand times more than that, you can provide a democratic culture in a society?" However, Mr. Ganji said he was optimistic about the state of the nonviolent democratic opposition in Iran. "I am really hopeful and optimistic about the democratic project in Iran," he said. "We don¹t need any charity. And the Iranian population does agree on this point. Does any nation accept a leader from outside?" One reason for this optimism, he said, is the consensus now among the country's intellectuals to support human rights and democracy. He did, however, identify what he called two "deficiencies" in the democratic movement: "We do not have a good organization and we don't have any leaders right now. The leader should not be a political activist, the leader should be a Gandhi," he said, referring to the Indian civil rights leader who helped win Indian independence through a strategy of strikes, marches, and civil disobedience.

When this reporter pointed out that Mr. Ganji's last name was very similar to that of the Indian leader, he said, "I am not Gandhi, but he is my role model." He added, "I know we don't have any other choice other than having a leader like Gandhi. I know we can do nothing with violence and hatred. We have to be able to forgive to establish democracy. I am not talking about forgiving those people who make mistakes. I mean forgiving murderers and criminals. But we never forget this." Mr. Ganji is scheduled to arrive in New York on Saturday.