Iranians Oppose US "Pro-Democracy" Efforts
    By Arlen Parsa

Dissidents claim America's policy is doing more harm than good, and Iranian
people will pay the price.

    On July 15, 2006, a short, gray-bearded man with dark, piercing eyes
stepped out of the SUV he was being chauffeured in, leaving a New York Times
reporter on the seat behind him. The ride from the airport was over, and so
was the interview. A crowd that had been milling around and waiting, across
the street from the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, quickly
gathered around him, chanting slogans to show their support. He wore a
simple strip of white fabric across his chest which read in black marker "On
Hunger Strike."

    Later that day, a Fox News correspondent would ask the man if he was
foolish enough to think that a hunger strike could actually "do anything."

    His name was Akbar Ganji, and he was no stranger to hunger strikes.
Ganji, a high-profile Iranian dissident, had gone on a ten-month hunger
strike while in prison after he wrote a book accusing his government of
killing scores of dissidents. As an award-winning journalist, Ganji is
regarded by many as a hero for his unwavering belief in nonviolence, despite
having been tortured and imprisoned for nearly six years by the Iranian
regime for his writings.

    The White House demanded that the Iranian government release Ganji in
2005, saying "The president ... calls on the government of Iran to release
Mr. Ganji immediately and unconditionally, and to allow him access to
medical assistance. Mr. Ganji, please know that as you stand for your own
liberty, America stands with you." When Ganji was released in spring of
2006, he declined a White House invitation, preferring to meet with American
intellectuals such as MIT professor Noam Chomsky.

    Ganji is not alone among Iranian dissidents in his refusal to speak with
the US government, despite their repeated requests. In exclusive interviews,
noted dissidents explained their concerns about US policy towards Iran and
why they fear not only military action against their home country, but also
the more moderate Bush administration policy of funding pro-democracy
movements within Iran.

    In attendance at the Ganji rally (which called for the release of
political prisoners in Iran) was Fatemeh Haghighatjou, another respected
dissident who declined to speak with US government officials about Iran.
"Two senators last year invited me to go to Congress, but I refused to go,"
she said in an interview. Haghighatjou was invited by Senator Joe Lieberman
(D-Conn.) and then- Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) to participate in a
Capitol Hill forum on the state of human rights in Iran. Although she said
she strongly believes in the importance of diplomacy and talks between the
US and Iran, the American government should not be trying merely to talk
with Iranian dissidents and refusing to talk with the Iranian government

    "I think talking between two governments is useful ... diplomacy - we
should reduce tension between US and Iran; this is important for both sides,
and normalization is very important," she said. "But you know, this
should be [done] formally, not informally."

    Haghighatjou was one of only 12 female members of the Iranian parliament
when she was first elected in 2000 (the Iranian parliament, called the
Majlis, is a 290-person body). After she was elected, Haghighatjou proved to
be one of the parliament's most outspoken voices in favor of human rights
and critical of the regime for its activities suppressing dissidents and
torturing political prisoners.

    "All of my speeches were problematic for the government's side," she
explained. This was because Haghighatjou's speeches were broadcast live on
Iranian State Radio and picked up in foreign media outlets. After a string
of speeches blasting the regime for its human rights record and for wrongly
imprisoning journalists (like Ganji, who was first imprisoned around the
same time) Iranian security forces arrived at her house one day and arrested
her. She was sentenced to nearly a year in prison, although after keeping a
low profile in Iran, she was able to slip out of the country with her
husband and young daughter.

    Haghighatjou has still not served her time, and the Iranian government
has three outstanding cases against her as well. She fears that if she
returns to her home country, she will be arrested right at the airport
itself. "This is unfortunately very common," the former MP said regarding
the regime's habit of arresting and imprisoning dissidents immediately upon
their return to Iran.

    After Haghighatjou declined to participate in the Iran panel organized
by senators Santorum and Lieberman, because she said it would be "harmful
for us - for reformists inside the country," former Iranian president
Mohammed Khatami personally thanked her for her refusal.

    A translator explained, "last year when former president Khatami came to
the United States, he thanked her for not going to the Senate to testify: he
said 'we were under a lot of [political] attack in Iran, and I thank you for
not going.' If she had gone, they would have attacked [reformists] more as
traitors and sellouts." Both Khatami and Haghighatjou are members of the
Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest reformist party in Iran. "If
she accepted to go to the Senate and testify, in Iran they would have
criticized her, [saying] 'oh, she is talking with Americans; look, our
enemy; reformists are all traitors.'"

    In fact, after Lieberman and Santorum held their forum, the Iranian
government did use the opportunity to crack down on pro- democracy
activists, accusing them of working with in concert with the American

    One notable former student leader, Ali Afshari, attended the forum at
the senators' request, and used the opportunity to speak out against the
Iranian government's human rights record. Afshari had been imprisoned and
tortured by the Iranian government for more than a year, due to his
prominence in the Iranian student movement. Like Ganji, whom Afshari has
said he regards as a hero, he was also invited to the White House. Also like
Ganji, however, he declined that invitation, refusing to meet with the Bush
administration because he believes that the eventual regime change that will
happen in Iran must be organic and not influenced by outside governments.

    In interviews, prominent dissidents said they felt the Iranian regime
was using the accusation that pro-democracy student groups might be working
with America in efforts to discredit them. One Iranian activist lamented in
an interview, "Our government says that if anyone wants human rights and
democracy, 'this group is an agent of the CIA.'" Ganji has cited much the
same concern. "We do not want the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
However, this is our problem. Any intervention by any foreign power would
bring charges of conspiracy against us," he has told reporters.

    Akbar Atri, another Iranian dissident interviewed, was a former leader
in Takhim Vahdat (known in English as the Office for Consolidation and
Unity), the same student group whose founders were responsible for the 1979
US embassy hostage crisis in Iran. As the group evolved through the years,
however, it grew further apart from the Islamic regime with which it had
been so closely allied initially. The Islamic regime has now, ironically,
begun to accuse it of acting as an agent of the United States.

    Atri, who left his home country while under investigation by the Iranian
government in 2004, was sentenced to half a decade in prison for his
pro-human rights activities while in Iran. Atri suggested that outstanding
arrest warrants were used as a means of deterrence to stop former dissidents
from returning to their home country. "If we stay in Iran, we are activists
and can make problems. After we leave Iran, they accuse us [so] we can't go
back," he explained. Like Haghighatjou, he would likely be arrested upon
arriving at the airport in Iran, should he return.

    "It is common in Iran to have an open charge against political activists
in order to intimidate us," Atri told the New York Sun in early 2005,
shortly after his arrival in the United States. "They can bring these
charges to the court anytime they want."

    Atri, like Afshari, was invited by senators Lieberman and Santorum to
speak on Capitol Hill about human rights in Iran. The event was cosponsored
by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a right- wing think-tank based
in Washington, DC. Atri came under fire from some Iranian dissidents in his
home country after speaking with the group, which advocates military action
against Iran.

    Nevertheless, Atri said he is committed to diplomacy and nonviolent
means of regime change, and and expressed great admiration towards the
American civil rights movement. Atri also said he was impressed with the
Orange Revolution in Ukraine, through which regime change occurred after
massive peaceful protests during late 2004 and early 2005. Atri explained,
"this regime is very worried of anything like the Orange Revolution in Iran.

    "They're very sensitive. Everybody who is talking about an Orange
Revolution or nonviolent action, they say 'okay, this is a CIA program.'"

    The fact that Atri (himself a prominent student leader who had been
severely beaten by the Iranian secret police), was criticized by some
Iranians back home for meeting with senators who support forceful regime
change, demonstrates the seriousness that Iranian students have about
keeping their democratization movement organic and free of governmental

    The Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress allocated
millions of dollars to fund pro-democracy groups within Iran. While the
dissidents interviewed for this piece were strident in their belief that no
serious groups would consider taking money from the US government (and that
it would be extremely dangerous for them to do so even if they wanted to),
they wondered where that money would end up.

    Still, Iranian dissidents said, there were some things that the United
could do to help. For example, Atri said that he welcomed US efforts
to support free media in Iran, such as Voice of America satellite television
broadcasts, to which Congress has committed several tens of millions of
dollars over recent years.

    Haghighatjou agreed, adding that these broadcasts would be viewed with
more legitimacy if they were not entirely funded by the US government. She
suggested that wealthy Iranians in exile could assist with efforts to
bolster free media in Iran instead. Most Iranian expatriates in the United
live in Westwood, a district of Los Angeles. There are so many
Persian-Americans living there that some refer to the area as 'Tehrangeles'
(a combination of the name of Iran's capital, Tehran, and Los Angeles).

    As Akbar Ganji spoke to supporters in New York on that summer day in
2006, it began to rain. Undaunted, he continued his speech into a megaphone,
and aides took turns holding an umbrella above his head while everyone else
got soaked. A few Iranians were staging a counter- protest across the street
on the sidewalk adjacent to the UN compound. Their sign reads "We support
the national security of the USA and the leadership of President Bush." The
words "President Bush" were written in red and proceeded by a heart.

    They were monarchists who wished to return to the days of the
US-supported shah's regime. After they originally tried to join the much
larger assembly of Iranian dissidents meeting with Ganji, Ganji's supporters
rejected them, echoing their leader's unyielding belief in peaceful regime

    The moment was in many ways representative of the same debate taking
place within the US government. On the one hand are those, like Lieberman
and Santorum, who have signaled that they advocate a US strike on Iran.
Others, who are more aligned with Iranian dissidents, want to reduce tension
between the two countries. It seems, for the moment at least, that voices
who want to ease tensions with Iran are being largely drowned out. On
January 10, President Bush announced he was sending another carrier strike
group to the region - a move seen by many observers as aimed at intimidating
Iran's government.

    "If we continue [going the direction we're going] maybe the US will use
military action," one Iranian dissident feared. "But Iranians pay this
price, not the government. The Iranian people pay the price."


    Arlen Parsa is a documentary film student at Columbia College Chicago.
In between classes, Parsa writes about American politics and current events