Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Human rights in Iran: What should the U.S. do?

The human rights situation in Iran, while never good, has deteriorated even more under the rightwing Ahmadinejad regime. Ethnic and religious minorities, sexual minorities, labor activists, and political opponents are targeted for persecution by the conservative government and its supporters. Most recently there has been an enforced dress code on women by the police and vigilantes. According to the Council on Foreign Relations,

Human rights have steadily eroded across the board under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Disappearances and deaths by stoning are now common, according to the State Department, as are extrajudicial killings, restrictions on civil liberties, and “violence by vigilante groups with ties to the government.” Last December the UN General Assembly also censured Tehran for various human rights violations, including its use of torture and press restrictions.

This is, of course, an outrage but what is the U.S. to do? The United States does not even have an ambassador in Tehran. There are stories coming out about clandestine activities aimed at the government and there is the allocation of $75 million for the promotion of democracy in Iran. Will this help?

Akbar Ganji is a former Revolutionary Guard turned reformist journalist. He was imprisoned for five years for his writings critical of Iran’s abuses of human rights against its citizens. He travels around the world to advocate for Iranian democracy but his advice to the American government is to stay away because it will do more harm than good.

This is from the Chicago Tribune:

Since 2006, Akbar Ganji has been invited three times to the White House. Three times, Iran's most famous dissident has declined the invitation. He has met with Sean Penn and Warren Beatty, Noam Chomsky and Northwestern University philosopher Charles Taylor. But an appointment with President Bush has never been on his agenda.

There's little doubt the Bush administration would love the photo opportunity. The White House has long sought ways to foster opposition inside Iran, including allocating an additional $75 million last year to aid the democracy movement there.

But Ganji, visiting Chicago recently to meet with Taylor and others, has no intention of accepting U.S. aid or meeting with U.S. officials. He worries, he said, that such contact would ruin his reputation as an independent thinker. And he has no desire to become "Iran's Ahmad Chalabi," the Iraqi opposition figure courted by the Bush administration in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion. Chalabi, now discredited and sidelined in Iraq, promised a swift victory to his U.S. backers who pushed for war.

Ganji makes no such promises. He adamantly opposes U.S. military intervention in Iran, fearing it will result in an Iraq-like quagmire and fracture the country. The mere threat of war with the U.S., he said, strengthens Iran's theocratic regime. Likewise, the allocation of U.S. aid to Iran's struggling democracy movement, he said, threatens the very people it is intended to help. They are often arrested and questioned about receiving U.S. funds, he said.

"This $75 million will not contribute to the development of democracy in Iran," Ganji said. "It will make the work of the pro-democracy movement more difficult. The government of Iran describes all of its opponents as agents of the United States [and] claims they are on the payroll of the Bush administration."


Trying to help reformers with grand proclamations and millions in aid is tempting, particularly to Americans unused to sitting on the sidelines. Conversely, much has been made lately about the strategy of doing nothing. There is a powerful undercurrent for change under way in Iran in the form of women's organizations, teachers unions, student groups and factory workers. The do-nothing theory says: It's their struggle. Let them be.

Ganji agrees. Democracy, he said, is best fostered slowly -- and indigenously. It isn't ushered in overnight by toppling statues or staging revolts. It requires institutions and a civil society. Then, when the moment is right, the wall will crumble.

"It's not going to come out of a violent revolution," he said.

There are small steps that he says Americans can take: Create channels between intellectuals in Iran and America, between sports teams and performing artists, students and non-governmental organizations -- what former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called the "dialogue of civilizations." The U.S. government is taking some of these steps: Iranian doctors have recently visited; the U.S. wrestling team went to Iran; and Iranian athletes have been invited to America to train for the Olympics.


…Ganji is blunt in his criticism of the Islamic regime. It's propped up by oil, he said, despotic, corrupt, nepotistic and dependent on empty slogans.

"It's a dictatorship. It suppresses human rights," he said.

He's also highly critical of Iran's financial support for armed groups in the region -- including Hamas and Hezbollah -- and his country's nuclear ambitions. He paints both endeavors as a waste of money.

"At the same time, our own workers don't make a decent salary," he said. "There's widespread discontent because of this."

He is equally critical of Bush administration policies, which he calls "warmongering." He worries that Bush's heated rhetoric might lead to war and says too much emphasis is placed on the nuclear issue, Israel and oil. He would rather the administration focus on Iran's dismal human-rights record.


Above all, he wants the U.S. government to leave Iran's dissidents alone. It's their struggle to win or lose, their slow march to freedom. Ahmadinejad's rise to power belies Iranians' yearning for democracy, he said. Millions of people unhappy with Iran's political system -- people who would have voted for a democrat -- boycotted the 2005 elections that brought Ahmadinejad to office. (Ganji has been accused of aiding Ahmadinejad's victory by contributing to the call for the boycott.)

Therefore, Ahmadinejad doesn't truly represent the Iranian electorate, Ganji said. Moreover, Iran's government controls the media and suppresses news about the many strikes and protests against it. But in recent months there have been student protests, teacher strikes and marches in support of women's rights, to name a few signs of civil discontent.

"The word of discontent doesn't always reach the outside world," Ganji said. "But it exists. It will continue to grow. And this will transform to democracy in Iran."

The best way Americans -- and the U.S. government -- can ensure that it does is to heed Ganji's words.

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