Another brave Iranian democrat


I first met Akbar Ganji, one of Iran’s most famous dissidents, two years ago at a vigil outside BBC World Service’s Bush House building in London. He had been recently released from prison in Iran after six years, during which he was often on hunger strike. Ganji made point of voicing his support for Ramin Jahanbegloo, the Iranian-Canadian professor then in an Iranian jail, while cautioning against singling out one man when “the entire Iranian nation is in a prison.” 

Ganji is a prolific writer. While in prison, he smuggled out a “Republican Manifesto” for a democratic Iran, and this April he published his first book in English. His essay in the current issue of Foreign Affairs argues that real power in Iran rests with the country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. It follows that our obsession with Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is misguided, as little will change when he is replaced: 

“Next June, Iran is expected to hold a presidential election. However, given the country’s structure of power and, especially, Khamenei’s hold on power, it is unlikely to significantly change either Iran’s domestic policy or its foreign policy. Real change will come later, and only when Iranians figure out how to move beyond the current sultanistic regime. In systems such as Iran’s, the transition to democracy depends on whether reformists can find enough room to maneuver among the ruler’s relationships with state bodies (especially the military), social elites, and foreign powers so as to create various social movements and then use those to inch the country toward democracy.”


Another brave Iranian democrat

  1. I think this highlights why engagement with awful regimes is almost always better than embargoes/isolation. Engaging with Iran provides one additional “space” within which moderates and reformers can move, be it ever so small.

  2. Maintaing relations with countries who use abhorrent practices is good, especially with its dissident citizens. Engaging in trade in a manner which enriches the groups perpetuating atrocities, however, lends strength and power to the perpetrators.

  3. Just reading a few comments on the reappointment of Gerry Ritz to his cabinet position – i don’t think this is much of a surprise, Ritz has been in politics a long time and has gained quite a strong reputation as the go to guy for Agriculture, even before he became Minister. It would be a shame not to see someone of his talents not in Cabinet…

  4. Mike – I think that limited embargos are good (ie no nuclear technology). The problem with a wholescale embargo is that (eg) Kim Jong Il is still going to get his 17 course dinners and expensive call-girls, but your average North Korean will starve.

    How does this circle get squred? That, I have no idea. I don’t want Canada to engage in trade with Sudan. But I do not think a world embargo would work either. So we are left with (best case) constructive engagement. Worst case, we are enabling repression.

  5. The problem is that Iran is already a democracy, in that public opinion (via elections) has a real effect on Iranian policy – though not on the theocratic Iranian constitution. If it were just a dictatorship, isolating it diplomatically and economically might encourage the people to overthrow the dictator; but since it’s a democracy it just drives the people to a more nationalist position, in support of the current constitution. The only way to end the power of the Ayatollahs is to help Iran liberalise; the way to help Iran liberalise is to help make the moderates popular; the way to make the moderates popular is to stop feeding the nationalists good xenophobic material, i.e. engagement.

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