Letter to America

By Akbar Ganji
Thursday, September 21, 2006

My brief journey to your beautiful and amazing country began in New York City with a symbolic hunger strike in front of United Nations headquarters. Its purpose was to bring to the world's attention the plight of political prisoners in my country, Iran. We demand that all political prisoners in Iran be freed. I am certain that you appreciate our desire for freedom; it was, after all, the main principle upon which your country was founded.

My American journey commenced shortly after I was released from prison in Iran. I spent six years behind bars on the bogus charge of endangering national security. I came here bearing a message from a movement whose members are hard at work promoting the values of democracy, human rights, social justice and civil liberties. We want our country to play a positive role in promoting peace, security and cooperation in the region. To achieve our goals, we need the support of the entire world, particularly your vast and powerful country.

To end the tensions between our countries, we appeal to your natural sense of independence, liberty and fairness -- to your belief that the pursuit of happiness is not just the prerogative of some classes or nations. Happiness, peace and security can be achieved and sustained when we succeed in making these values universal. The sense of physical pain as well as injury to our sense of human dignity and self-esteem are common to us all. No less common is our shared sense of peace, security, joy and laughter.

The history of the United States as a nation begins with the establishment of a polity based upon a constitution. In modern Iran, that is still a relatively new idea. Although it dates to our Constitutional Revolution of 1906, we have in fact achieved only some of the goals of that revolution. We are, a century later, still struggling to create a polity based on a constitution and the rule of law.

Even the 1979 revolution could not turn this dream into reality. The political and ideological forces that came to dominate that revolution denied the people the right to exercise their free will. The official ideology of the ruling clerical regime considers all humans to be less than adult and says that without the supervision of the clergy, they will act like children, if not madmen. According to this clerical theory, the people are most virtuous when they are most docile.

This is similar to the concept of the ruler as shepherd and guardian, and the people as flock. The official ideology of the Islamic regime calls for fully implementing this idea in the political domain. The idea is not, of course, limited to the world of Islam. Religious fundamentalism, whether it appears in Islamic, Christian, Jewish or Buddhist hue, shares the desire to humiliate the people and deny them their rights.

In Iran, we hope to achieve our goal of a new polity and a new constitution not by violence but by following a peaceful and democratic path. And in this struggle we need moral support from all freedom-loving people around the world -- particularly the United States.

We want the world to know that our rulers do not represent the Iranian people and that their religion is not the religion of the entire nation. We ask that in shaping its policies toward the Iranian regime, the United States not overlook the interests of Iranian civil society. In particular, we hope that America listens to those in Iran who fear that policies intended to contain the current crisis might in fact lead to a greater crisis, and to war.

We are convinced that the outbreak of a new war in the Middle East, particularly against a large and populous country such as Iran, would destabilize the region and the world. And it would deprive us of the chance to found a peaceful and democratic political order. We are also against policies, such as economic sanctions, that bring extraordinary hardship to the lives of ordinary Iranians.

It is both possible and desirable to solve the problems between the United States and Iran through direct talks. Such diplomacy will best serve the interests of the American and Iranian people if it is conducted in a transparent fashion. This transparency would not only make it impossible for advocates of war to increase tensions but also would help isolate them. Iranian democrats are opposed to secret diplomacy.

If, in the 1980s, the United States had pursued a policy of never establishing ties with enemies of human rights, and if it had given priority to the interests of civil society, it could be reaping the benefits of a successful foreign policy today. And the danger of terrorism would have been less than it is now. In fighting nuclear proliferation, all countries must be treated equally. The Iranian people do not accept double standards in this matter.

We believe the government in Tehran is seeking a secret deal with the United States. It is willing to make any concession, provided that the United States promises to remain silent about the regime's repressive measures at home. We don't want war; nor do we favor such a deal. We hope that the regime will not be allowed to suppress its people, foment a crisis in the region or continue with its nuclear adventurism.

But the dangers of the Tehran regime are not limited to the nuclear question. The regime is dangerous mostly because it is willing to brutally trample on the democratic and human rights of the Iranian people. It is dangerous because it is willing to create gender apartheid in the name of religion and to suppress religious and ethnic minorities. Finally, it is dangerous because it considers all forms of dissent unforgivable sins. The real goal of the nuclear program is to make these policies permanent. In its negotiations with the Iranian regime, the West must not overlook this important fact.

Today I stand among a large number of Iranians who live in the United States. Most are now citizens of this country, educated and successful. They owe their success not just to their resourcefulness and hard work but also to the admirable ability of American society to accept strangers and immigrants on its shores, and to America's cultural tolerance. The large community of Iranians in America is imbued with affection for it. They, as well as the people of Iran, hope that political conflicts will be resolved and replaced by bonds of friendship and peaceful cooperation.

Akbar Ganji is an Iranian journalist and writer.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company