EXCLUSIVE: Iranian Dissident Akbar Ganji on the Iranian Uprising and Obama

June 18, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

I’ve just conducted a phone interview with Akbar Ganji, one of the leading Iranian dissidents and most prominent voices in the international community for a more liberal Iran. He knows its brutality in a deeply personal way: the regime imprisoned Ganji for five years after he wrote a series of articles exposing its human rights abuses. Although the Bush administration sought to fund Ganji’s efforts in the hope of encouraging his fellow dissidents, Ganji took a high-profile stance against American support, arguing that even the suggestion of U.S. backing would set back the cause of human rights in Iran. We spoke through a translator. This is the first interview he’s given to an English-language news outlet since the Iranian uprising broke out last weekend.

Naturally, Ganji hailed the opposition movement, but was cautious about claiming that Iran was in a revolutionary situation, as some have contended. “So far, the people have stood their ground really well. I’m hopeful that with everyone’s support, they can actually keep this movement going forward,” Ganji said.

“It’s very difficult to predict where this is going to lead to right now. The main point is that the government is very powerful. The regime is very organized with its intelligence forces, and the entire military apparatus, including the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij are included in this. These guys are really well trained.

“[Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamanei is a massive dictator, whose first and foremost interest is to maintain power and stay in power. The other point is that the Iranian people 30 years ago had a major revolution, the 1979 revolution, and following that, were involved in an eight-year war [with Iraq] and after that was the reformist movement. In the past 10 years, we’ve had varying experiences. So in one way, they’re not really looking for a revolution because it’s very expensive and very costly at the end. But altogether, the people are extremely unhappy with the regime, and they have a lot of hate for the regime.

“So the current situation is dangerous. One outcome is the regime might use extreme violence, with all the powers at its means to suppress the movement. The other option is that the regime will not accept the people’s request and the people will continue demonstrating. And the people’s requests and their aspirations will get larger and larger, which will lead to a revolution, whose outcome is really unknown.

“But there is another solution, a middle ground where Khamanei will accept the people’s requests. Khamanei will not like to accept the people’s requests, and will feel that if he will give ground, that will leave to more requests from people, and having to give more ground.”

What does Ganji think of President Obama’s statements about Iran? “From my perspective, Obama has so far said he won’t meddle in Iran’s internal situation, and that’s a good, good approach,” Ganji said, but he added, “He cannot stay silent on human rights issues.” Clearly, Ganji thinks the Obama administration isn’t striking the right balance between non-intervention and humanitarian concerns. But that’s not to say that more active American support is welcome:

“Bush’s policies toward Iran and the Middle East were completely wrong. The result of Bush’s policy, it led to Iran gaining strength. Mr. Obama is trying to change the policy. If we can separate two points, we can actually drive to a good policy. First, Iran’s path to democracy and the people’s movement to democracy is for the people of Iran. No foreign country, either America or any other, should get involved in that process.

“Secondly, human rights is an international condition. When a country denies human rights for its own people, the entire world should punish that government. So the people of Iran will not want anyone to get involved in that. But what they expect from the world is to protest an Iranian regime from a human-rights perspective. This is a policy which I stand by.

“The Iranian people are saying the Ahmadinejad government is a coup d’etat government. They’re asking that no government accept the legitimacy of his government. This is what most people want, for no government to work with the Ahmadinejad government.”

Should the United States continue diplomatic outreach toward Iran, as the Obama administration is seeking?

“Not with the government of Ahmadinejad, a government that people consider a coup d’etat government.”

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