Interview: Akbar Ganji

Journalist and author Akbar Ganji talks about his six years as a political prisoner, Iran’s nuclear program, and the future of the country


Journalist Akbar Ganji spent six years imprisoned in Iran for revealing that Iranian intelligence officials murdered dissident intellectuals. He was tortured in jail but was released in 2006. Now living in exile, Ganji has continued the fight for democracy in Iran. Although he had been invited to the Bush White House, Ganji has refused to meet with, or accept funding, from the U.S. government. In this interview with Mother Jones, Ganji describes his situation in his country and why he thinks the U.S. should stay out of Iranian affairs.

Mother Jones: Tell me a little bit about when you were a younger man. What was it that drew you to supporting the Iranian Revolution and [its leader] Ayatollah Khomeini, specifically?

Akbar Ganji: The Shah’s regime was an incorrigible regime and after a while, when the revolution happened, the situation began to change, revolutionary conditions was created…we simply wanted to change the regime.

MJ: And what was it, specifically, about Ayatollah Khomeini that—there were many different opponents to the Shah…

AG: If you look at the discourse before the revolution, whether it is the left communist, whether it is the right secularist…the entirety of this discourse was such that it encouraged the kind of ascendancy for a man like Ayatollah Khomeini. This discourse had several characteristics. It was ideological, it was utopian, it was anti-Western, it emphasized necessity of returning to the self, and it was also against democracy and against freedom.

MJ: You joined the Revolutionary Guard. Did you become an officer?

AG: I did join the Revolutionary Guard, but I was simply a simple Revolutionary Guard, never a commander.

MJ: Did you fight in the Iraq war?

AG: I went to the front, but I never participated in the war itself.

MJ: What were your experiences in the Revolutionary Guard? Did it play out your beliefs in Khomeini at the time? In other words, were they confirmed?

AG: No, the Revolutionary Guard was created to help defend the revolution, but it soon was diverted from its initial path.

MJ: What were your first indications that the revolution was going bad?

AG: [In] every revolution, there is a great divergence between what the revolutionaries expect and what the revolution actually accomplishes. Revolutions invariably don’t solve the issue of justice, and in its place, suppression and limiting freedom replaces that idea.

MJ: Can you point to the year when you became disillusioned and the kinds of things you were observing more specifically?

AG: It began early in the revolution. It was a process that was unfolding on a daily basis. We expected the system to be dispensing justice, but every day that passed by, we recognized that the justice we expected and hoped for was not about to be achieved.

MJ: In terms of the current opposition…I was there last year during the elections and I saw demonstrations by the women in front of the Tehran University and demonstrations in front of the Iran prison. How would you characterize today the level of opposition? What kinds of activities can people engage in today?

AG: The number of the opposition has certainly increased. There is more disgruntlement, but because there is no media, the voice of this opposition is not heard outside Iran.

MJ: Are people having demonstrations like they did at the time of the elections last year? Are there open defiances of the government?

AG: There is no possibility of a public demonstration of such defiance, but these defiant acts are certainly going on. Last year, at least three of our provinces have seen mass uprisings. The three provinces are Khuzestan, Azerbaijan, and Kurdistan. Recently, we witnessed massive demonstration by Iranian woman in the 7th of Tir square, and it was brutally suppressed.

MJ: Are the demonstrations by the Azeris in reaction to the cartoon demanding greater rights and so on? How significant was that?

AG: That certainly was one of the instances I was referring to, but the cartoons, the pictures, were simply an excuse. The real cause is the profound prejudice and injustice that is exercised against these minorities.

MJ: And the Kurds face similar kinds of discrimination by the Iranian government?

AG: We have two kinds of oppression. Oppression that is universal—everyone in Iran is subject to it. But everyone has also their own, unique way of experiencing this oppression.

MJ: How significant was the bus driver strike in January of this year in Tehran?

AG: That, too, was an important incident. The workers have very legitimate concerns. One of the things that they were demanding was a minimum pay and the fact that they wanted—they were demanding—that they should be paid the several months back pay that the government had refused to pay them.

MJ: Were there any political demands during the bus driver strike in addition to the questions of wages?

AG: No. Their demand was primarily of a trade union type. But because there is such an extensive oppression in Iran, every trade union demand ultimately becomes political.

MJ: My observations in going to the [opposition presidential candidate Mostafa] Moeen rallies were they were almost exclusively upper-middle-class people, intellectuals. And when we went out into the working-class neighborhoods, there seemed to be more support for Ahmadinejad. To what extend do the reformist forces, the opposition forces, have support among poor people, among working people?

AG: We can certainly be on the same side and the same front with the workers and with the oppressed people of Iran. We can certainly be on the same front with them. But the difference between us and the other side is that they use populist and…kind of slogans that are…they fool the people. They are the kind of dishonest and populist slogans that we are not willing to use. The solutions to the problems of the distraught lower strata of society are problems that can only be solved in the context of an overall political, cultural, economic development. The solution to their problem does not necessarily…cannot necessarily be found in the populist rhetoric that is used by the regime.

MJ: Do you think my observation is accurate, that a lot of the support for opposition to the regime comes from the middle-class and upper-middle-class sector? Not as much from poor people?

AG: Considering the places where this opposition has manifested itself, yes you are right. Look at it more deeply, the reverse is the case. The lower strata are suffering all kinds of oppression and the injustice that is inflicted upon them has many faces and many facets. Well-to-do classes are using all kinds of obvious and not-so-obvious benefits that this regime has created for it. As you know, there are varieties of theories of revolution. According to one of these theories, only one of these theories, revolutions occur when there is an explosion of rising expectation. And amongst the lower strata in Iranian society, we are witnessing an increasing rise of the expectation and it’s clear that the regime is incapable of satisfying these demands. Using misleading slogans, they promise that they will satisfy these needs, but as time passes, and as it becomes clear that the regime is incapable of solving these problems, then it becomes a source of disgruntlement. Admenijad promised that he would bring the oil money to every table, but he hasn’t. But he has created the expectation that the money should be distributed amongst them. Khomeini obviously had many problems, but he had one clever side to him. He never made economic promises to people and as a result, he never led to dissatisfaction in this perspective. Because they need to get votes, they use misleading slogans. And this leads to rising expectations. I had a personal experience.

When I was on my hunger strike, and I was in a hospital, the guards who inflicted all manner of injustice against me, and all manner of hardship…I could witness that as a result of Ahmadinejad, they lived in a dream. They believed that paradise is around the corner and that all their demands shall be met. Even when the guard and even the interrogators, they would come and ask me, “What is your analysis of the situation?” I would tell them that there is nothing that the regime can do. There is nothing that is going to come out of this. They were very surprised by my disposition. It’s very simple. Today, as a result of a miraculous set of circumstances, Iran is going to get between $50 to $55 billion in oil revenue, which is unheard of in the history of the revolution. But anyone can do the simple math. If you look at what needs to be done and the income, you can see that none of the promises that they have made is achievable.

MJ: Have any of his policies, for example, giving…I think he has given some more money to newly married couples. Have any of his policies had any impact, economically?

AG: No. The truth is, that when he was the mayor and he was getting ready for the election, they distributed all kinds of money amongst these people and it’s not clear where the money was coming from. And there’s all kind of evidence that there is enormous corruption in the distribution of that money. For example, they gave about $100 to $150 dollars to each of the teachers. They gave about $500 dollars to those who were getting married. Through this process, they obviously collected a lot of votes, but these monies could not solve the structural problems that these people face. But the only result, the only consequence, was that a big sum from the budget was wasted this way.

Let me give you an example. When Karbaschi was the mayor, one of the items against him in the—in his trial—was that when he was the mayor, he had taken from the mayoral budget and given some computers to a school district. And they raise all kinds of hell against him. Ahmadinejad on the other hand has given away billions of tuman, and nobody dares speak out against him.

MJ: What kind of a government would you like to see in Iran? Secular? Islamic republic? Get rid of the current constitution? Work within it?

AG: I am only speaking of my own behalf. When a pure and simple republic…it has 11 characteristics and you can see those in the manifesto, republican manifesto, that I have already published. This is a kind of regime in which state and civil society are completely separate. Religion is separate from the institution of the state. All manners of freedom, including freedom of expression, freedom of conscious, freedom of thought…it accepts tolerance. But it is not an atheist society. Religion is the private affair of an individual…be present in the public domain, but state has to be clearly separated from religion. When I’m speaking, I’m speaking only for myself. At the same time, I know that these ideas have wide support among the Iranian population.

MJ: Your description of a good society sounds in many ways like what existed under [1950s Iranian prime minister Mohammed] Mosaddeq without the Shah, with greater freedoms. But is your view that, in some ways, the government under Mosaddeq was a democratic government?

AG: These are two completely different phenomenons. Implicit in your proposition is that nothing has changed in Iran in the last 60 years. That was certainly a big character, but he certainly did not have these kinds of ideas in his mind. We’ve had 60 years of intellectual development in Iran. How can we have the same system? Even theories of secularism are constantly being revised and changed. When I talk about secularism, I’m talking about theories today. To give you for example, one example: Those who consider themselves followers of Mosaddeq today are adamantly against federalism.

MJ: So the whole issue of Azeris and Kurdish and autonomy…they’re not interested in those issues?

AG: Supporters of the national front, Mosaddeq, believe that in Iran, we don’t have a nationalities problem, we don’t have an ethnic problem. It is like living with your wife, with whom you are in love and you are intensely involved in, but you also have tensions. And their position is that they want to deny that these tensions exist. And then your wife comes and says, “I want to keep the relationship, but just improve my condition.” But you deny that there is any problem. You deny that there is any rights that have been obliterated. You have even beaten up your wife, but you still deny that there’s any tensions. I don’t say these things to make fun of them. I find them to be very serious. They like their country. They fight for the country. They are afraid for the dismantlement of Iran. I, too, am against the dismantlement of Iran.

MJ: Let me ask you some questions about Bush’s policies. Bush says the government in Iran is just a short time away from developing nuclear weapons, and that they’re using the nuclear power as a means to do that. What’s your reaction?

AG: I don’t have any information on this. I have spent six years in prison, the last six years. Even if I was outside the prison, how much actual space was there for an investigative journalist to do his work in Iran? But I know one thing for sure: That we, the Iranian people, are much more in line of danger than the West. Whatever they have bought, they have bought in the black market. It is not clear what they have bought, how many secondhand materials they have bought. I am very worried that something like Chernobyl will happen to Iran. And what I’m worried about is that, in case that happens, then the Iranian people are the ones who are going to pay the heaviest price. But none of the Western countries have seriously talked about this.

MJ: So do I understand, then, that you would oppose Iran developing nuclear power because of safety concerns?

AG: In the West, when all of these reactors, nuclear reactors, are matters…part of the public domain, there are all kinds of supervision over them. We see that the ecological movement, environmentalist movement, organizes all kinds of demonstrations against these. They lie on railroads, they tie themselves to the gates. The ecological movement is concerned about this, and this is in here, where everything is public. In Iran, where everything is covert, we have no firsthand information. Obviously, I’m concerned.

MJ: What’s your view: Do you think Iran has the right to develop a nuclear weapon?

AG: The issue has two dimensions. One is the legal dimension and the other one is the issue at the realpolitik. [In the] legal realm, we believe in equal rights for all people in all nations. If Israel, the United States, Russia, Pakistan, other countries, China, have the right to have a nuclear program and nuclear bomb, Iran, too, must have that same right. Now, at the realm of realpolitik, because there is a global consensus against Iran, and because there are all manner of dangers facing Iran, I am opposed to this program. [We must] do several things. One is propose the slogan of universal disarmament. Weapons destroy both human beings and the environment. Secondly, we believe that the United States and Iran must enter into open, transparent negotiations. We must struggle for creating a democratic system that is dedicated to democracy and human rights.

MJ: I have another question about Bush’s policies. He’s allocated $75 million dollars to so-called support dissidents in Iran for television propaganda, etcetera. What’s your opinion?

AG: Let me begin by saying not only you can’t have democracy with $75 million. You can’t even have it with $750 billion. One argument, and we can have a lengthy discussion and I can elucidate why it is so…the point of this discussion is that this, after all, is intervention in the affairs of Iran. When I say that I am opposed to this budget, everyone says, “Well, what do you think the United States should do?” My response is, “Why should the United States do anything?” Would Americans accept if we decided to come here and decide who your rulers should be? So why do you expect us Iranians to accept the idea that the United States shall come in there and decide who shall govern us? What is the source of this right? Where has this right come for the United States? Is there another source other than the fact that it is a superpower and it is using its military power to force its will on the people? Of course, everyone knows that I’m also opposed to the Iranian regime and I have said that we must change the regime. But it is us, the Iranians, that must change the regime. The passing of this budget has made our work much more difficult and it has made the work of the democratic project much more cumbersome in Iran.

MJ: In what way has it made it more difficult?

AG: Before this event, the regime kept saying that all of my opponents are lackeys of the United States. We used to say that this is all lie, that we are lackeys of the United States. Now the regime comes and says, “Look! They have put a budget of $75 million!”

MJ: Why did the government let you out of jail?

AG: Why did the regime put me in prison in the first place? I was put in prison for six years and it has been all illegal. And now that I am free, you ask me why did they let me out? It was universal pressure on the regime to secure my release. International pressure was certainly helpful in my release.