Why Iran's Democrats Shun Aid

There has been a lot of misunderstanding as to why Iranian pro- democracy forces oppose the $75 million the U.S. government provides to aid civil society in their country [" A Lever of Change in Iran," op-ed, Oct. 19]. Allow me, as someone who spent six years in Tehran's Evin Prison on a bogus charge of endangering national security, to clarify what we oppose and what we favor.

The threat of war looms over us. But Iran and the West need to have friendly and peaceful relations.

Peace is a product of democracy. Despotic states are furtive and untrustworthy. The Iranian people want a secular, democratic state that is committed to respecting human rights. The West would not need to fear a democratic Iran.

As a fundamentalist state, Iran is dangerous, but it is dangerous for its own people, not the United States. The Iranian people, myself included, need freedom, democracy and peace -- not war conditions and constant worries about a potential barrage of U.S. missiles.

The seeds of democracy need fertile soil to take root and grow. In Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the soil is fertile for fostering fundamentalism. If fair elections were held in those countries, fundamentalists would win. Iran is the only country in the Middle East in which modern, democratic forces would win any free and fair elections. A peaceful transition to democracy is our goal. But the Iranian regime suppresses civil society on the pretext of a coming war and describes its opponents as U.S. stooges and mercenaries.

Governments provide foreign aid -- indeed, form their foreign policies -- based on their national interests; those who receive aid naturally have to align themselves with the donor's policies. We understand this with regard to Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and various Afghan groups. Not surprisingly, the Iranian people do not want their democratic movement to be dependent on or subservient to any foreign government.

Consider, also, that U.S. foreign policy in Asia and Africa is dictated by American political and economic interests, not by concern for democracy. Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and many other countries with friendly relations with the United States are major violators of human rights and have despotic regimes. In none of these cases has the U.S. administration attached much importance to human rights violations, nor does it prioritize funds to help make those governments democratic.

Over the past two centuries, many Iranian politicians were paid or influenced by foreign powers. As a result, most Iranian intellectuals and democratic forces are deeply critical of external support. Iranians are viewed as discredited when they receive money from foreign governments. The Bush administration may be striving to help Iranian democrats, but any Iranian who seeks American dollars will not be recognized as a democrat by his or her fellow citizens.

The Iranian regime uses American funding as an excuse to persecute opponents. Although its accusations are false, this has proved effective in poisoning the public against the regime's opponents. Fear of foreign meddling is one reason for the regime's staying power.

Of course, Iran's democratic movement and civil institutions need funding. But this must come from independent Iranian sources. Iranians themselves must support the transition to democracy; it cannot be presented like a gift. Expatriate Iranians can assist the transition. Many of the social prerequisites of democracy exist in Iran today, but dollars cannot produce the bravery or love of freedom that individuals need to make the transition possible.

So here is our request to Congress: To do away with any misunderstanding, we hope lawmakers will approve a bill that bans payment to individuals or groups opposing the Iranian government. Iran's democratic movement does not need foreign handouts; it needs the moral support of the international community and condemnation of the Iranian regime for its systematic violation of human rights.

What else does the pro-democracy movement in Iran want?

The Iranian government is using technology it has purchased from Western companies to block Web sites and otherwise keep Iranians from using the Internet. The West has profited at the Iranian people's expense by selling these technologies to Tehran. The regime's extensive censorship and media hegemony must be ended. We want the Iranian people to have access to the Internet and free television to be able to hear criticism of the regime's policies and learn about alternative models of government.

The support we need at this point has nothing to do with funding the regime's opposition but with aiding Iranians in the quest for independent media and accurate information.

Akbar Ganji, an Iranian journalist and dissident. He was in Evin Prison from 2000 to 2006. He received the 2007 John Humphrey Freedom Award, a Canadian human rights and pro-democracy prize. This column was translated from Farsi by Nilou Mobasser.