Money Can’t Buy Us Democracy
Tehran, Iran–In February, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Congress for $75 million to help Iran’s democratic opposition. In Iran , her request was widely discussed in the news media and in opposition circles. It became particularly controversial after an article in The New Yorker on March 6 suggested that this money might be used in an attempt to change the regime in Tehran with the help of Iranian democrats, particularly those living abroad.
I was freed from prison amid these discussions. For six years, I had been behind bars on account of investigative articles I had written about the assassinations of dissident intellectuals. On numerous occasions, my interrogators accused me, and the entire opposition to clerical rule, of being dependent on the United States . They even claimed that C.I.A. agents with suitcases full of dollars routinely came to Tehran to distribute cash to members of the opposition, including reformists who supported the former president, Mohammad Khatami. Some of the interrogators took these propaganda claims seriously and asked prisoners about the location of these dollar-filled suitcases.
While the pledge of American money may have added to the regime’s anxieties about its future, it has done nothing to help the democratic movement. The battle between freedom and despotism in Iran remains unresolved for deeply internal reasons. It is, I am convinced, a problem with profound historical and cultural roots.
We have learned from our history that despotism can be imported, and that despotic rulers can survive with the help of outsiders. But we have also learned that we have to gain our freedom ourselves, and that only we can nourish that freedom and create a political system that can sustain it. Ours is a difficult struggle; it could even be a long one. Anyone who claims to possess a golden formula for bringing freedom to Iran , and claims that all he needs is foreign cash and foreign help to put his plan into effect, is a swindler.
What we need in our fight for freedom is not foreign aid but conditions that would allow us to focus all of our energies on the domestic struggle and to rest assured that no one is encouraging the regime’s oppression. We need to know that no one is providing the regime with new technologies for filtering the Internet, and that no one is making deals with the regime that give it financial support or psychological succor.
Surely, we need the moral and spiritual support of all the world’s forces for peace and freedom. We hope these forces will be relentless in criticizing any policy that, under the guise of ending the crisis in the region, only fans its flames.
The United States could better spend its $75 million on developing centers for Iranian studies in American universities, thus advancing the world’s understanding of Iran and the Middle East , both in the past and in the present. Of course, American universities already have many first-class scholars on Iran , Islam and the Orient. The problem then lies in the vision that impedes the use of this knowledge and instead insists on immediate results.
That same vision, and the search for immediate results, led the United States to give large sums of money to the Islamic fundamentalists who converged from all over the world in Afghanistan in the 1980’s to fight the Soviet Union, America ‘s chief rival at the time. The rest is history.
Freedom-loving Iranians inside and outside the country are against American military intervention in Iran . Such a war would be of no help in our fight for freedom; in fact, it would only contribute to our further enslavement, as the regime would use war as an excuse to suppress any and all voices of opposition.
The American policy of confronting the Iranian regime’s nuclear adventurism is correct. But the rationale for opposing this adventurism should not be that the mullahs oppose the West and the United States. The West’s double standard on nonproliferation is not defensible. The entire Middle East must be declared a nuclear-free zone. Opposition to the dangerous process that has begun in the region — a process that the Islamic Republic has helped turn into a crisis — must be based on a more general call first for regional, then for global, nuclear disarmament.
In July I traveled to the United States to offer a view of Iran altogether different from the one presented by the mullahs. Many Iranians want freedom; we fight for it, and we do not fear prison and oppression. Our demand is for a secular, democratic political system in Iran . Many of the Iranian people, who are incidentally deeply devout, support this demand.
The best help the world can offer us is to listen to the different voices of our society, and when forming a policy toward Iran or an image of its people, do not reduce our country to the regime that rules it most brutally.