APRIL 23, 2007
It was twilight for the reform era, with President Mohammed Khatamiin his ineffectual final year and a hard-line resurgence takingshape on the horizon, when I visited the Tehran office of a civilsociety activist named Amir. A slender, clean-shaven man in hisearly thirties, Amir was a networker of sorts; he spoke perfectEnglish and sent out flurries of petitions when Iranian journalistsor activists were imprisoned. He also sat on the boards of fivereformist nongovernmental organizations.
Amir seemed nervous the day I met him. Although he hadn't beenharassed himself, several of his friends had been called into theintelligence ministry and questioned about his activities. Lately,an endless stream of new cases seemed to flow across hisdesk--women's rights activists, bloggers, young people spiritedaway to unknown prisons. The charges were always the same: treason,in the form of participation in a U.S. plot to overthrow theIranian government.
The reform era, Amir explained to me, may not have accomplished allIranians had hoped it would in terms of structural politicalchange. But it had opened a space that had not existed before.Khatami had made it possible for some 37,000 nongovernmentalorganizations to take root, addressing a panoply of social issuesand human rights concerns at a granular level. In time, Amirinsisted, even when the political space for reform had closed, thiscivil society could quietly grow, becoming a powerful force forchange.
But there was a problem. The government had become convinced thatthe United States planned to finance and train these activists tooverthrow the Islamic Republic, much as it had done in Serbia andelsewhere. In leaked intelligence reports Amir had seen, the regimehad meticulously documented its case: "They quote the AmericanEnterprise Institute and Michael Ledeen, as well as the statementsof President Bush about civil society," he told me. On the basis ofsuch evidence, the regime was pursuing an aggressive campaignagainst nongovernmental organizations as well as individualactivists and journalists it named as part of a "spider's web"woven by the CIA.
Amir implored me to bring the message back to the U.S. governmentand think tanks to please stop expressing solidarity with Iraniandissidents. He said that, to his knowledge, all offers of U.S.funding, however tempting, had been refused as too dangerous andcompromising. "If the link is not there, why do this?" he demanded."We have no relations with the United States. We are not receivingmoney."
Indeed, the activists had labored tirelessly to persuade theconservative establishment that their organizations couldpeacefully co-exist with the Islamic Republic, that they werelaw-abiding and did not serve foreign masters. The alternative wasto face closure, fines, imprisonment, and worse. The Americans whowere muddying these waters, Amir surmised, were naive--unschooledin the ways of the Iranian regime and the methods activists hadcarefully calibrated for resisting repression.
The activists, for their part, lived and breathed the problems theysought to ameliorate, and they had worked hard, at great personalrisk, to come up with strategies that fit the context. This did notmean they favored Islamic government. "We have nothing against yourideology," Amir told me with some exasperation. "We hate thissystem ourselves. But we know how to do it."
Why do I register Amir's plea now, two and a half years after hemade it, and at a time of nearly unparalleled tension between theUnited States and Iran? Because the temptation to ignore it couldhardly be greater. Iran presents a tantalizing contradiction. TheUnited States has no greater rival in the Middle East than itsgovernment, and no greater ally than its people. It seems nearlyinconceivable that our government, with its vast wealth anddemocratic ideals, shouldn't be able to turn this situation to itsadvantage.
Moreover, Iran has something unique in the region: a democraticmovement that is large, organized, intellectually sophisticated,and politically skilled. Inspired by liberal Shia thinkers but alsoby Western liberal philosophers, including Jurgen Habermas and KarlPopper, many Iranian liberals seek to enshrine the UniversalDeclaration of Human Rights at the foundation of their state. Ifthis largely youthful movement prevails, the United States, theIranian people, and Iran's neighbors all win.
So where do we Americans come in? Well, that's the thing. We don't.This is an epic struggle, invested with no small measure ofheroism. But that struggle and the associated heroics are not ours.They belong to the Iranians. Getting involved with the Iranianopposition might make us feel good, but it will only hurt thepeople we seek to help.
We have been told this repeatedly by the movement'sprotagonists--not just activists like Amir, but such moralauthorities as Nobel laureate and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi;human rights defender and investigative journalist Emadeddin Baghi;and leading dissident thinker Akbar Ganji, who spent six yearsbehind bars writing a radical manifesto calling for an end to whathe called "sultanism" in Iran. These are some of the leastcompromised and most respected figures in the Iranian opposition.All three have risked their lives and served prison time in thestruggle for human rights, government accountability, anddemocratic liberties in Iran.
And yet, writing on the American Enterprise Institute website inDecember, Michael Rubin declared that there were only two kinds ofIranian dissidents who rejected U.S. aid: those whose agenda forchange was timid and blinkered and those who labored undermisconceptions about American intentions. In other words, there isno need to take seriously the wisdom such figures have forged instruggle in their own country, let alone their concern for thepersonal safety of Iranian activists and the longevity of theirmovement. If only Ebadi, Baghi, and Ganji shared Rubin's purity ofvision and properly grasped the extent of American benevolence,they would happily accept cash and other assistance that would markthem forever as tools of an enemy nation's foreign policy.
The impulse to write off the expressed wishes of Iranian activistsis dangerous and ill-advised, but it is understandable. To standback and watch Iranian history unfold--to imagine that we cannot,with our dollars and our weapons and our bully pulpit, materiallyassist a vulnerable democratic movement in need--is deeplyunsatisfying, especially to those who imagine the United States asdemocracy's white knight. Alas, nearly all of our options in Iranare unsatisfying. But, if Iraq has taught us nothing else, we shouldknow better than to scorn local knowledge and prudent measures inthe pursuit of grand, self-pleasing gestures.
Of course, many Iranian dissidents will be smeared as Americanstooges whether or not they take U.S. money. But the United Statesonly makes the situation worse by publicly thrusting financial andlogistical support onto the democracy movement. That such tacticsare harmful should be obvious; that the United States has had ahard time finding takers for the additional $75 million itallocated to Iranian dissidents last year should make it clearerstill. As Amir wrote to me in a recent e-mail, "I think thestrategy of the United States to allocate money is the mostunhelpful, unnecessary, and damaging policy that a state couldadopt to destroy or hinder the democratization process in Iran."Just the announcement of this strategy, Amir continued, even if nota cent of the money is distributed, has endangered Iraniandissidents. The women's rights activists who were imprisoned inMarch were interrogated almost entirely about U.S. money: How muchdid they receive, when, and from whom? Even more absurdly, whenthousands of teachers demonstrated across Iran in March for higherwages, the hard-line government attempted to paint them, too, astools of the CIA.
We need to rethink our country's policy toward the Iranianopposition, and we must do so not in isolation, but by listeningrespectfully to the requests of Iranian activists, whose fight thistruly is. One thing they invariably advocate is for Washington topromote cultural and academic exchange between the United Statesand Iran. This will undoubtedly sound like a disappointing comedownto those who dream of fomenting revolution by remote control. Butthere is a deep and genuine thirst among Iranians for knowledge andexperience of Western liberalism, and slaking that thirst can havea far-reaching influence not just on the events of today but on thedemocratic culture Iranian civil society activists seek to buildfor the future. The United States, rather than restricting visas toIranian nationals, as it currently does, should greatly increasethe number of student visas it issues; we should bring Iranianscholars and journalists to our shores; and we should offer todonate English language books to Iranian universities, whoselibraries are currently starved for them. Amir even suggestedholding workshops for Iranian clergymen outside of Iran--on issues"related to human rights, secularism, the relationship betweenstate and religion, understanding democracy, and American history."
Although proclamations of solidarity with democracy activists areill- advised, Washington can still apply some rhetorical pressure,provided its strategy is judicious and undertaken in cooperationwith other countries or international organizations. The object ofsuch pressure should be not democracy but human rights. Thelanguage of democracy, particularly in the shadow of the call forregime change, is ideological, but that of human rights isuniversal, unobjectionable, and much harder to resist. By callingattention to abuses and pressing Iran to release politicalprisoners and respect the freedoms of speech and association, theUnited States, other world powers, and the United Nations canappeal to widely shared ideals and human dignity, rather thanideology and threats of overthrow. The Islamic Republic has showntime and again that it is vulnerable to this kind of shaming.Political prisoners who become internationally renowned, such asGanji and Hashem Aghajari, are far likelier to be released thanthose whose cases remain obscure.
"Democracy in Iran and the Middle East is not a commodity to beimported," Amir wrote to me two weeks ago, invoking the specter ofIraq. "It takes time and needs educated, knowledgeable people inthe society. It's a long-term process, which needs people whounderstand the West and its values and are not hostile to it."
The United States has much to contribute to that process by way ofideas and information. In this, our own civil society, includingmedia and academe, has a crucial role to play. But to truly act asa friend to the Iranian opposition, let alone the Iranian people,requires the U.S. government to exercise virtues that are not amongAmerica's strengths: restraint, subtlety, and a willingness toparse fine distinctions that can be matters of life and death.Fortunately, these are among the hard-won virtues of the Iranianopposition. If we are lucky, we will have friends from whom tolearn. d
Laura Secor is a staff editor of the op-ed page at The New YorkTimes.
By Laura Secor