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.”
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