On May 13, 2010 Iranian journalist and dissident Akbar Ganji received the CATO Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. Upon accepting the award, he discussed his ideas about Iranian democracy, liberty, and U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Akbar Ganji / photo by Alan Klehr

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to start by thanking the CATO Institute for awarding me this prize, which I accept as a moral and ethical endorsement of Iran’s Green Movement. I very much hope that this award will facilitate our struggle for advancing democracy and human rights in Iran.

Human history has been interpreted in many ways. I read this history as a sustained course of struggle for liberty—the struggle of slaves, women, people of color, the poor, the disenfranchised, of religious minorities and dissidents of various sorts, to rid themselves of the tyranny they have endured. The history of emancipation movements in the United States is in fact a perfect example of such endeavors for liberty: the struggle against foreign domination, the revolt against slavery, the women’s rights movements, and the civil rights movement are all prime examples of such uprisings, which have in turn become inspirational for similar movements around the globe. The American tradition of struggling for freedom has been instrumental in spreading the culture of liberty and democracy throughout the world. Today the American people and their social institutions continue to help disseminating the same humane principles that inspired their own founding fathers.

Today one can see many societies that are reaping the benefits of these sustained struggles for liberty. There is no doubt that the relative freedom in these countries is the result of the institutionalization of a more-or-less acceptable degree of democracy; and needless to say, democracy is the result of a powerful civil society, and that is in turn contingent on the freedom to elect a representative government, which is itself predicated on freedom of expression, action, and organization. Good or bad, the fate of a people, however, is not entirely in their own hands. Appropriate international circumstances are also necessary preconditions for the empowerment of civil societies and a transition to a democratic system that is committed to popular sovereignty and human rights.

The misfortune of the people who live in the Middle East, the region from which I come, is that the international conditions have never been conducive to achieving democracy. Quite to the contrary, these conditions have always been to the benefit of the enemies of freedom. When we look at the history of the last century, we see that Western countries, led by the United States, have brought dictatorial regimes to power and have consistently supported them. What is noteworthy is that defending these dictatorial regimes, which has always been done under the assumption of protecting the security and the interests of the West, has never achieved its stated goals. In his famous speech in November 2003, President [George W.] Bush said:

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export.

Whatever the cause of such policies, their result was walking shoulder to shoulder with diabolical enemies of freedom, a policy that of course was not limited to the Middle East. In 1942 President Roosevelt, quoting a Balkan proverb, famously told Prime Minister Churchill, apropos their meeting with Stalin in Yalta, “It is permitted in time of grave danger to walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge.” The inevitable result of walking with the devil has been the ascendency of mostly military dictators around the globe. U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson once said about one of these dictators, Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, after he had parted ways with Stalin, that “he might be a son-of-a-bitch, but he is our son-of-a-bitch.” Thus, to prevent the spread of Communism, the West walked with dictators toward welcoming sons-of-bitches. Between 1962 and 1975, some 38 military coups were masterminded, one of the most famous of which was that of General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, who in collaboration with the American government toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973. This was not news for us in Iran, for two decades earlier we had experienced the military coup sponsored and engineered by the American and British government against the government of Mohammad Mossadeq.

People of the Middle East had been living under the tyranny of secular and corrupt governments, which were all supported by the United States and other Western countries. This context left them recourse to only one political alternative: religious fundamentalism. The United States and the Western world reaped the first fruit of their own deeds with the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and today they face fully grown and powerful trees of violent fundamentalism, and of course they must remember with shame their own share in planting these trees. The results of these prolonged policies endanger the possibility of democracy because if in countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia free elections were to be held today, these fundamentalists would most probably win. Iran is the only country in the region that if fair, free, and competitive elections were held today, democratic forces that believe in the separation of religion from the state would be victorious. This is because for 31 years Iranians have experienced extremist Islamic fundamentalism. The United States and the Western world must cease supporting secular dictators or following policies that will inadvertently keep religious dictatorships in power, instead they should, for reasons of self-interest, support democracy and human rights as principal pillars of their foreign policies.

The gushing wound of Palestine is the most appropriate site for the worsening infection of fundamentalism.

The foolish policy of supporting dictators was soon replaced with another misguided policy. Entirely oblivious to the complications of Middle Eastern politics, President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were under the impression that by invading a country and occupying it they could bring democracy to it. In Afghanistan and Iraq all such delusions went up in flames and burnt out in smoke. Even President Bush himself, during the last year of his presidency, kept repeating that the United States cannot be allowed to be defeated in Iraq. Today, which American politician can guarantee a clear vision for the future of Afghanistan and Iraq after foreign forces leave? Even President Obama, who came to office promising to withdraw from Iraq, is today entangled in the messy aftermath of the U.S. invasion of that country and cannot easily deliver on his promise. And yet, unfortunately, it seems that attacking Iran still seems to be an option that this administration is taking under consideration.

The fact that people in the Middle East feel threatened by the United States and the West, and are thus inclined towards its enemy—namely the fundamentalists—is not entirely because of this history of U.S. support for secular tyrannies or merely a reaction to the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The one-sided support of the United States for Israel has exacerbated this situation. The gushing wound of Palestine is the most appropriate site for the worsening of the infection of fundamentalism. A just solution to the Palestinian problem, and the formation of an independent Palestinian state, next to Israel, is essential to reconstructing the image of the United States in the Muslim world. Moreover, a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict will transform the region and move it away from the destabilizing decades of the past and help the development of democracy.

Please allow me now to turn to another American policy in the region, that pertaining to nuclear proliferation. U.S. strategy here is equally conducive to the growth of fundamentalism. American policies on this issue are predicated on double standards. Completely ignoring Israel’s massive stockpile of nuclear weapons, the United States is fixated on the Islamic Republic in preventing it from becoming a nuclear power. There is no doubt that the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear power while ruled by a religious-military dictatorship is not only detrimental to a better life for the people of Iran and possibly may even delay the transition to democracy, but it will also pose a grave danger to the world at large. But the double standard evident in American behavior, in not adopting the principle of a complete disarmament for all weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, will only exacerbate the cause of fundamentalism and strengthen regimes such as the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The point here is not merely that Iran should not be attacked militarily. The point is that even entertaining the possibility of a military strike, especially when predicated on the nuclear issue, is beneficial to the fundamentalists who rule Iran. As such, the idea itself is detrimental to the democratic movement in my country. Moreover, it is especially beneficial to those fundamentalist forces that thrive on the persistence of such double standards. Of course, this is not to blame the American military policies or double standards for every problem in Iran or the Middle East. I simply wish to insist on the following point:

The Iranian regime will abuse the current emergency conditions—brought on by the threat of a military strike—to push the democratic Green Movement away from the center of world attention. The Green Movement in Iran is the sign of the deep dissatisfaction of Iranians against those who rule over them. This is a pluralist movement that pursues its objectives through nonviolent means. The Iranian people, women and the youth in particular, are struggling for liberty—the freedom to choose the kind of life they want to lead, freedom to form voluntary associations, freedom for peaceful assembly to express their concerns, freedom of expression, freedom of opinion, of religion, of behavior, and above all freedom to choose a life worthy of their dignified humanity. But those who rule Iran have not only refused to grant these liberties, but in fact with their severe and brutal crackdown, they have responded in an entirely unjust way.

At this very moment, scores of those struggling for liberty and human rights are suffering under unbearable conditions in Iranian prisons. Those who have name recognition are treated better than others—though still under inhumane and despicable conditions. Scores of ordinary people, meanwhile, are suffering in these prisons under intolerable conditions. Because they are unknown and invisible, the regime has an open-ended license to do with them as it pleases.

During the post-electoral crisis in Iran, the Iranian security forces opened fire on ordinary people in the streets, killing many and arresting thousands more. As admitted by the officials of the Islamic Republic themselves, at least four people have been killed under torture. The deaths of these four people alone is a telling example of the condition in Iranian prisons, and how the Islamic Republic treats its own citizens. At the same time, the bodies of some other prisoners have been given to their relatives, who have been told that their loved ones committed suicide or else suffered a heart attack. It is the bitter truth that the Iranian regime has just resumed a new wave of political executions in order to convey to its opponents that it will tolerate no opposition.

The most recent examples of these violent behaviors are the executions of five Kurdish Iranians early in the morning on May 9 of this year. The charge against these five political prisoners, as the Islamic Republic has said, was membership in political parties that the government considers illegal. Without due process of law these prisoners have been executed so that an example can be made of them for other opponents of the state.

Iranians who care for democracy in their homeland will support prosecuting those who rule over Iran. They believe that these ruthless leaders ought to be tried in international criminal courts and charged with crimes against humanity. They wish that those who have ordered or executed the suppressing of the Iranian people be arrested the instant they leave the country. In this context, the Iranian people want to prevent the sale of technologies of suppression to the ruling regime in Iran. For example, the Islamic Republic is denying people the right to learn the truth from autonomous media sources on the Internet, and from satellites. If the people of Iran are not allowed to have access to satellite television, why should the tyrannical regime of the Islamic Republic be able to use the facilities of the international satellite system? When in Iran the formation of independent labor unions, in the private or public sector, is disallowed, why is it that the international community does not make doing business with Iran contingent on the formation of such independent unions? Why is it that foreign investments in the Iranian economy, especially in the oil industry or the selling of technology, cannot be made contingent on respecting human rights? Why is it that the United Nations, through such organizations as the International Labor Organization and The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development does not exercise oversight over the process of signing economic contracts between Iran and foreign companies, to ascertain that these contracts are awarded legally and through a transparent bidding processes?

Careless sanctions will fail to alter the behavior of the Iranian government or its regime and weaken the groundwork for democracy by strengthening the state.

There are many ways to bring the rulers of the Islamic republic to justice. But the Iranian people do not deserve to be subjected to more hardship than what is already perpetrated on them by the Islamic Republic. Today, again there is much talk of economic sanctions against Iran. But we should not forget that unintelligent broad sanctions would weaken Iranian civil society and strengthen the power of suppression. In fact, the intensification of economic sanctions will be entirely useless in dismantling this regime. It will, ipso facto, add to the pain and suffering of the working and middle classes, and as such it will not only deprive the Green Movement of its strongest supporters but will in fact alter the political agenda of people altogether, as the struggle for daily sustenance, and to make ends meet, will replace the struggle for liberty.

The intensification of economic sanctions will also make the Iranian state-run economy even more contingent on the state and as a result will make the current conditions even more corrupt and repressive. Those who believe that the free-market economy is the mother of democracy then will have to oppose economic sanctions at least from this perspective. When we talk about democratization of Iran and a transition to democracy, we will have to pay attention to the historical processes that have resulted in democratic systems and their relationship to the free market. Historically, liberalism preceded democracy. In other words, democracy was a suit tailored to liberal societies. The economy of all the existing democracies has been a free-market economy. Although the shortcomings of the free market cannot be ignored, it is the best recognized system for the appropriation of resources, and politically will result in non-governmental centers of power that can pave the way towards democracy. And the reverse is also true. Careless sanctions will not only fail to alter the behavior of the Iranian government or its regime but will in fact weaken the groundwork for democracy by strengthening the state.

Finally, I would like to make a reference to Milton Friedman, in whose name I now receive an award. Defending Friedman is invariably considered a total defense of the free-market economy. My defense of the free-market economy and its consequences for creating or strengthening the conditions of democracy might also be interpreted as a total defense of the free-market economy and by extension of Milton Friedman. I am well aware of the shortcomings of the infrastructure of a free-market economy. Even Friedman himself, though he was among the most prominent libertarians, was equally aware of the limitations of the free-market economy. For this reason, he believed that the state should provide services for basic human needs through negative taxation and by paying cash to those under the poverty line, and through government vouchers providing for their education from elementary school to college. Governmental investment in education will not only have a positive role in the economy but will also advance more equal opportunities. Equal opportunity is ultimately what is denied people in undemocratic regimes. If we are dreaming of a free Iran, then we are after an Iran with equal opportunity for every citizen, something worthy of our humanity.

Thank you.