I NEED OTHER HUMAN BEINGS IN ORDER TO BE HUMAN-WE ARE MADE FOR INTERDEPENDENCE. DESMOND TUTU
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The Case For Doing Nothing
Author: Laura Secor, The New Republic
Date: Wed May 2nd 04:10:02 2007
Issue date 04.23.07
It was twilight for the reform era, with President Mohammed Khatami in his ineffectual final year and a hard-line resurgence taking shape on the horizon, when I visited the Tehran office of a civil society activist named Amir. A slender, clean-shaven man in his early thirties, Amir was a networker of sorts; he spoke perfect English and sent out flurries of petitions when Iranian journalists or activists were imprisoned. He also sat on the boards of five reformist nongovernmental organizations.
Amir seemed nervous the day I met him. Although he hadn't been harassed himself, several of his friends had been called into the intelligence ministry and questioned about his activities. Lately, an endless stream of new cases seemed to flow across his desk--women's rights activists, bloggers, young people spirited away to unknown prisons. The charges were always the same: treason, in the form of participation in a U.S. plot to overthrow the Iranian government.
The reform era, Amir explained to me, may not have accomplished all Iranians had hoped it would in terms of structural political change. But it had opened a space that had not existed before. Khatami had made it possible for some 37,000 nongovernmental organizations to take root, addressing a panoply of social issues and human rights concerns at a granular level. In time, Amir insisted, even when the political space for reform had closed, this civil society could quietly grow, becoming a powerful force for change.
But there was a problem. The government had become convinced that the United States planned to finance and train these activists to overthrow the Islamic Republic, much as it had done in Serbia and elsewhere. In leaked intelligence reports Amir had seen, the regime had meticulously documented its case: "They quote the American Enterprise Institute and Michael Ledeen, as well as the statements of President Bush about civil society," he told me. On the basis of such evidence, the regime was pursuing an aggressive campaign against nongovernmental organizations as well as individual activists 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. government and think tanks to please stop expressing solidarity with Iranian dissidents. He said that, to his knowledge, all offers of U.S. funding, however tempting, had been refused as too dangerous and compromising. "If the link is not there, why do this?" he demanded. "We have no relations with the United States. We are not receiving money."
Indeed, the activists had labored tirelessly to persuade the conservative establishment that their organizations could peacefully co-exist with the Islamic Republic, that they were law-abiding and did not serve foreign masters. The alternative was to face closure, fines, imprisonment, and worse. The Americans who were muddying these waters, Amir surmised, were naÃ¯ve--unschooled in the ways of the Iranian regime and the methods activists had carefully calibrated for resisting repression.
The activists, for their part, lived and breathed the problems they sought to ameliorate, and they had worked hard, at great personal risk, to come up with strategies that fit the context. This did not mean they favored Islamic government. "We have nothing against your ideology," Amir told me with some exasperation. "We hate this system ourselves. But we know how to do it."
Why do I register Amir's plea now, two and a half years after he made it, and at a time of nearly unparalleled tension between the United States and Iran? Because the temptation to ignore it could hardly be greater. Iran presents a tantalizing contradiction. The United States has no greater rival in the Middle East than its government, and no greater ally than its people. It seems nearly inconceivable that our government, with its vast wealth and democratic ideals, shouldn't be able to turn this situation to its advantage.
Moreover, Iran has something unique in the region: a democratic movement that is large, organized, intellectually sophisticated, and politically skilled. Inspired by liberal Shia thinkers but also by Western liberal philosophers, including JÃ¼rgen Habermas and Karl Popper, many Iranian liberals seek to enshrine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the foundation of their state. If this largely youthful movement prevails, the United States, the Iranian 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 of heroism. But that struggle and the associated heroics are not ours. They belong to the Iranians. Getting involved with the Iranian opposition might make us feel good, but it will only hurt the people we seek to help.
We have been told this repeatedly by the movement's protagonists--not just activists like Amir, but such moral authorities 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 years behind bars writing a radical manifesto calling for an end to what he called "sultanism" in Iran. These are some of the least compromised and most respected figures in the Iranian opposition. All three have risked their lives and served prison time in the struggle for human rights, government accountability, and democratic liberties in Iran.
And yet, writing on the American Enterprise Institute website in December, Michael Rubin declared that there were only two kinds of Iranian dissidents who rejected U.S. aid: those whose agenda for change was timid and blinkered and those who labored under misconceptions about American intentions. In other words, there is no need to take seriously the wisdom such figures have forged in struggle in their own country, let alone their concern for the personal safety of Iranian activists and the longevity of their movement. If only Ebadi, Baghi, and Ganji shared Rubin's purity of vision and properly grasped the extent of American benevolence, they would happily accept cash and other assistance that would mark them forever as tools of an enemy nation's foreign policy.
The impulse to write off the expressed wishes of Iranian activists is dangerous and ill-advised, but it is understandable. To stand back and watch Iranian history unfold--to imagine that we cannot, with our dollars and our weapons and our bully pulpit, materially assist a vulnerable democratic movement in need--is deeply unsatisfying, especially to those who imagine the United States as democracy's white knight. Alas, nearly all of our options in Iran are unsatisfying. But, if Iraq has taught us nothing else, we should know better than to scorn local knowledge and prudent measures in the pursuit of grand, self-pleasing gestures.
Of course, many Iranian dissidents will be smeared as American stooges whether or not they take U.S. money. But the United States only makes the situation worse by publicly thrusting financial and logistical support onto the democracy movement. That such tactics are harmful should be obvious; that the United States has had a hard time finding takers for the additional $75 million it allocated to Iranian dissidents last year should make it clearer still. As Amir wrote to me in a recent e-mail, "I think the strategy of the United States to allocate money is the most unhelpful, unnecessary, and damaging policy that a state could adopt to destroy or hinder the democratization process in Iran." Just the announcement of this strategy, Amir continued, even if not a cent of the money is distributed, has endangered Iranian dissidents. The women's rights activists who were imprisoned in March were interrogated almost entirely about U.S. money: How much did they receive, when, and from whom? Even more absurdly, when thousands of teachers demonstrated across Iran in March for higher wages, the hard-line government attempted to paint them, too, as tools of the CIA.
We need to rethink our country's policy toward the Iranian opposition, and we must do so not in isolation, but by listening respectfully to the requests of Iranian activists, whose fight this truly is. One thing they invariably advocate is for Washington to promote cultural and academic exchange between the United States and Iran. This will undoubtedly sound like a disappointing comedown to those who dream of fomenting revolution by remote control. But there is a deep and genuine thirst among Iranians for knowledge and experience of Western liberalism, and slaking that thirst can have a far-reaching influence not just on the events of today but on the democratic culture Iranian civil society activists seek to build for the future. The United States, rather than restricting visas to Iranian nationals, as it currently does, should greatly increase the number of student visas it issues; we should bring Iranian scholars and journalists to our shores; and we should offer to donate English language books to Iranian universities, whose libraries are currently starved for them. Amir even suggested holding workshops for Iranian clergymen outside of Iran--on issues "related to human rights, secularism, the relationship between state and religion, understanding democracy, and American history."
Although proclamations of solidarity with democracy activists are ill-advised, Washington can still apply some rhetorical pressure, provided its strategy is judicious and undertaken in cooperation with other countries or international organizations. The object of such pressure should be not democracy but human rights. The language of democracy, particularly in the shadow of the call for regime change, is ideological, but that of human rights is universal, unobjectionable, and much harder to resist. By calling attention to abuses and pressing Iran to release political prisoners and respect the freedoms of speech and association, the United States, other world powers, and the United Nations can appeal to widely shared ideals and human dignity, rather than ideology and threats of overthrow. The Islamic Republic has shown time and again that it is vulnerable to this kind of shaming. Political prisoners who become internationally renowned, such as Ganji and Hashem Aghajari, are far likelier to be released than those whose cases remain obscure.
"Democracy in Iran and the Middle East is not a commodity to be imported," Amir wrote to me two weeks ago, invoking the specter of Iraq. "It takes time and needs educated, knowledgeable people in the society. It's a long-term process, which needs people who understand the West and its values and are not hostile to it."
The United States has much to contribute to that process by way of ideas and information. In this, our own civil society, including media and academe, has a crucial role to play. But to truly act as a friend to the Iranian opposition, let alone the Iranian people, requires the U.S. government to exercise virtues that are not among America's strengths: restraint, subtlety, and a willingness to parse fine distinctions that can be matters of life and death. Fortunately, these are among the hard-won virtues of the Iranian opposition. If we are lucky, we will have friends from whom to learn.
Laura Secor is a staff editor of the op-ed page at The New York Times.
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