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Remember our real Iranian friends

Danny Postel

Platypus Review 1 | November 2007


During his visit to New York this week to address the UN General Assembly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to go to Columbia University to address faculty members and also to meet with a group of American religious leaders.

His arrival was preceded by weeks of commotion and dispute: should Ahmadinejad have been allowed to visit ground zero? Should Columbia have agreed to host him? Should he even have been granted a visa to enter at all? In a spasm of infantilism, Republican presidential hopefuls and the right-wing punditocracy have seized the occasion to demonstrate their toughness, decrying the Iranian leader's mere presence on US soil.

This cacophony, as cacophony so often does, produces confusion. In the face of this reactionary onslaught, a natural response of many on the left is to say, wait a minute - why shouldn't Ahmadinejad have been allowed to visit ground zero? Why shouldn't Columbia host him - aren't universities supposed to foster discussion, and why assume the encounter will be uncritical? (Indeed Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, has stated publicly that he intends to put several tough questions to the Iranian head of state.) Aren't American religious leaders promoting cross-cultural understanding by engaging in interfaith dialogue with the president of the Islamic Republic?

Watching Sunday evening's 60 Minutes interview with Ahmadinejad only highlighted the problem: not unlike a Pravda reporter, correspondent Scott Pelley brazenly assumed the role of a Bush administration mouthpiece, indeed at one point even acting as courier, conveying a toughly-worded message directly from the US president to his Iranian counterpart. At the interview's embarrassing low point, Pelley asked Ahmadinejad if there was anything he admired about Bush, and responded with indignant incredulity when his guest failed to produce the desired answer.

The combination of unabashed American nationalism and know-nothing belligerence was almost enough to make one sympathize with Ahmadinejad, at least situationally. And a lot of progressives did, as was evident from listserv exchanges and online discussions following the broadcast.

There's something very wrong with this picture. To untie this knot, it might be helpful to consider an episode from 30 years ago.

In June of 1977, the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev made an official visit to Paris, where he was received "with all the ceremony France reserves for her official guests," in the words of one historian. A group of French intellectuals, however - Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre among them - decided to hold an alternative or shadow reception. They invited Soviet dissidents living in Paris to gather at the same time that Brezhnev was being feted in the corridors of state power.

"We simply thought," as Foucault put it, "that, on the evening when M Brezhnev is being received with pomp by [French president] M Giscard d'Estang, other French people could receive certain other Russians who are their friends."

Those words have as much resonance today as they did when Foucault spoke them three decades ago.

As the headlines and the hubbub this week swirl around Ahmadinejad, maybe we on the left should reach out to certain other Iranians who are our friends.

Maybe our attention and sympathies should belong to the likes of Mansour Osanlou and Mahmoud Salehi, the trade union leaders currently languishing behind bars in Iran for their organizing; to Emaddedin Baghi, the prisoners' rights and anti-death penalty activist; to the Iranians involved with the Million Signatures Campaign, a courageous grassroots movement for women's rights; to the many student activists, writers, and intellectuals currently in prison for expressing the wrong views.

While Ahmadinejad occupies center stage, we would be well served to consider another Iranian, the dissident and former political prisoner Akbar Ganji, who has just issued an Open Letter to the UN secretary general that refuses what Slavoj Zizek calls the "double blackmail": Ganji describes the human rights crisis currently gripping Iran--the severe crackdown on dissent, the crushing of progressive voices; while at the same time he denounces the Bush administration's saber rattling and underscores that Iran's democratic struggle wants no financial assistance from the US (or any foreign government), and is in fact put in grave jeopardy by such maneuvers.

The letter is signed by some of the preeminent intellectuals and writers in the world (Jürgen Habermas, Orhan Pamuk, Noam Chomsky, JM Coetzee and, appropriately enough, Zizek).

It's dangerously easy to become distracted by the circus surrounding Ahmadinejad's visit, a disfigured drama in which rightwing political figures and their stenographers in the media feverishly attempt to whip up jingoistic feelings. That rightwing assault can run an interference pattern on our thinking, where we react by protesting Ahmadinejad's shabby treatment at the hands of a bellicose political and media establishment.

And - make no mistake about it - bellicose it most certainly is. But let's not allow the right-wing warmongers to do our thinking for us. What if we looked at Ahmadinejad not through the (inverted) prism of the American media, but through that of Iranian dissidents, trade unionists and women's rights activists?

If we did that, we might discover how certain other Iranians (including religious ones) feel about the meetings between American religious leaders and Ahmadinejad. (Their meeting this week follows one in New York last year, and another one in Tehran earlier this year. Some of those American religious leaders have had admiring things to say about the Iranian leader.)

"Given the current situation we're facing," Ganji says, "these meetings with Ahmadinejad do not help to promote democracy or human rights in Iran but rather contribute to the further subjugation and oppression of the Iranian people...Back in Iran," he continues, "the regime will exploit these meetings to enhance its legitimacy by claiming that Ahmadinejad was warmly received by American religious groups. These meeting are counterproductive and make our struggle more difficult."

Upon leaving New York, Ahmadinejad will go to Venezuela to meet with Hugo Chávez, who last year honored the Iranian president with the Collar of the Order of the Liberator (the country's highest distinction bestowed on foreign dignitaries). Chávez's strong affection for Ahmadinejad has been a major contributor to the widespread confusion among many of the Venezuelan leader's leftist admirers around the world. And it has infuriated many in Iran's democratic struggle.

Echoing Ganji, a group of Iranian leftists issued a statement lamenting that the Chávez-Ahmadinejad love fest would "weaken the mass movements in Iran." "To us," they wrote, "it is possible for the Venezuelan government to have close diplomatic and trade relations with the Iranian government without giving it political support - particularly where domestic policy is concerned."

As Chávez receives Ahmadinejad in Caracas and the two leaders deepen their ties, let's receive (or at least think and learn about) certain other Iranians: the trade unionists and student activists imprisoned by Ahmadinejad's government, the women's rights campaigners whose demonstrations are crushed by the Islamic Republic's security forces, and the human rights activists and democratic dissidents who are endeavoring, in the face of grave danger, to bring about a more free and just Iran.

These other Iranians are a lot less likely to be in the headlines. But their struggle is ours. Or should be. |P