For six long years, Akbar Ganji wasted away in an Iranian jail, suffering torture and solitary confinement for promoting democracy and criticizing leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. An 80-day hunger strike badly weakened him.
President Bush hailed his valiance and called for his release, authorizing $75 million in funding this year to support Iran’s democratic opposition.
But Ganji, a former member of the Revolutionary Guards who is now regarded as one of Iran’s leading journalists and dissidents, has come to California to deliver what may seem a counterintuitive message: Leave Iran alone.
In interviews, talks with scholars and an appearance last week at a celebrity-studded gathering sponsored by actor Sean Penn and producer Mike Medavoy, Ganji pressed his view that U.S. military intervention and funding of dissidents would only give the Iranian regime an excuse for further crackdowns. Already, he said, the regime is trying to marginalize the opposition as “foreign agents” and has dramatically increased censorship and other oppressive measures.
The most promising path to democracy in the Middle East, he said, is to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and eliminate the poverty, desperation and despotic governments that he said have allowed extremism to flourish.
“We have to change the regime through our own challenges and struggles,” said Ganji, 46, a short, slight man who was released from prison five months ago. “The U.S. cannot do it for us.”
He added, however, that Americans can help their cause by promoting greater contacts with Iran through technological, cultural and educational exchanges.
Now a worldwide symbol of free speech and human rights, Ganji has won several press freedom awards. He declined a White House invitation to meet with President Bush, saying the timing wasn’t right, but is set for audiences with Pope Benedict XVI and other global figures later in the tour. At the celebrity gathering last week, Penn -- who traveled to Iran last year to observe its national elections -- touted Ganji for “the courage and will to speak for people who didn’t have a voice.”
But in Los Angeles, where the largest population of Iranians outside Iran resides, Ganji is not universally embraced. The community here, known as “Irangeles,” includes some of the nation’s most vocal advocates of aggressive steps to topple the Islamic regime.
Some of them still view Ganji with suspicion for his early involvement with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards and question his reformist credentials.
Roozbeh Farahanipour, head of the Westwood-based MPG Party, or Iranians for a Secular Republic, questioned how a political prisoner could manage to issue writings from jail -- and after release, obtain a visa and embark on a global tour. Other critics accuse him of cooperating with the Islamic regime’s persecution of dissidents in the revolution’s early years.
“We are trying to show the international community that he is a fake figure trying to keep this regime safe,” Farahanipour said.
Ganji himself adamantly denies ever committing any human rights abuses. He said he was a member of the Revolutionary Guards for only a few years, initially supporting the revolution for the same reason millions of other Iranians did: as a populist uprising against the oppressive regime of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. He also supported the Iranian regime during its eight-year war against Iraq as a sign of patriotism, he said.
“I’m proud of my past and I can defend it morally,” Ganji said. Such questions were also put to Ganji at a UCLA meeting last week among mostly Iranian scholars and intellectuals, according to Hossein Hedjazi, a popular talk show host and program director for KIRN-AM (670), known as Radio Iran. Hedjazi said he concluded that there was no evidence to back up the suspicions, and he appealed to Iranian Americans to refrain from fighting with each other.
“We have been entangled in conspiracy theories for decades, even centuries, in Iran and we’ve suffered for it,” Hedjazi said, adding that Ganji was “very honest and reasonable” with a far better grasp of Iran’s current reality than expatriate opposition groups, which he said are out of touch with the homeland.
At the celebrity gathering in Beverly Hills, Ganji received both admiring support for his resistance to the Iranian regime and hard questions about his views on Israel. Ganji spoke through a translator before about 75 people, including actors Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Brad Pitt, Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo.
Ganji affirmed Israel’s right to statehood, condemned suicide bombings and castigated Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s vow to destroy the Jewish state. But he also called for nuclear disarmament of the entire region, a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem and resistance to Islamic, Christian and Jewish fundamentalism, which he said is stoking the regional conflicts.
That drew objections from Haim Saban, a media mogul and Egypt-born Jew who argued that Islamic fundamentalists who kill people with suicide bombings are not morally equivalent to Christian and Jewish extremists, who do not. He also said that Israel needed a nuclear deterrent because it was vastly outnumbered and surrounded by hostile Arabs.
But Ganji, never losing his composure or smile, told Saban that fair play required either everyone to have weapons or no one, and that disarmament was the best choice. “We are all the same and equal,” he said.
Ganji does not dwell on details of his life, telling friends that he plans to write an autobiography. A Tehran native, Ganji said only that he became disillusioned with the Islamic regime when he began to see it was no less despotic than the shah’s, featuring “executions, violence, injustice.”
“We had intended to create a paradise and rather we created a hell,” he said.
Ganji’s first public criticism of the Islamic regime came in a 1987 article asserting that it was headed toward fascism; he was jailed for six months for it. In the late 1990s, he wrote a series of articles alleging that high government officials were involved in the systematic killing of writers and intellectuals.
He was arrested again in 2000, following his participation in a pro-reform conference in Berlin. He was eventually accused of damaging national security and “spreading propaganda,” and given a six-year prison sentence. During his hunger strike, he lost more than 40 pounds and nearly died, according to published statements by his wife.
Nayereh Tohidi, a Cal State Northridge professor of women’s studies, said Ganji has distinguished himself with his straight talk and willingness to critique not only the government but also Islamic and Iranian traditions themselves in his advocacy of nonviolent regime change, a secular democratic republic, church-state separation and full civil rights for women and minorities. Last week, for instance, he delivered a speech at UC Berkeley on Iran’s “gender apartheid.”
“I fear for his safety,” Tohidi said, adding that she and others are urging him to delay his return to Tehran as long as possible.
Ganji himself shrugs off any worries about what awaits him back home.
“This is the price we have to pay to defend freedom and democracy,” he said, “and I’m ready to do it.”