Akbar Ganji is an Iranian journalist often referred to as Iran's "pre-eminent political dissident" after spending 6 years in jail for his human rights activities.
The nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 has provoked considerable debate. The proponents of diplomatic resolution of the standoff with Iran have praised the accord. Its opponents, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, have harshly criticized it. As a former Iranian political prisoner who spent six years in the Islamic Republic's jails and whose writings have been banned in Iran, I support the Geneva agreement. The question is, what is the goal of continuing the standoff with Iran, if not reaching an agreement with it?
If the goal is regime change in Iran, we must recall that 13 years of backbreaking sanctions did not topple Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq; the military invasion of 2003 did. The sanctions did kill at least half a million Iraqi children, and prompted the infamous statement by Madeleine Albright, President Bill Clinton's secretary of state, that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was worth the huge cost in terms of human suffering in Iraq.
If the Iranian regime's respect for human rights is made the necessary condition for a nuclear accord, there will be no agreement at all, because it will prove the claim by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the real goal of the United State is regime change, and that the nuclear program and claims about Iran wanting to "wipe Israel off the map" are only excuses. So long as there is an external threat that endangers its survival, no regime will agree to reform itself and become democratic.
National security and economic prosperity are prerequisites for the emergence of a democratic regime. Destroying the infrastructure of a nation through harsh economic sanctions and war will not bring about a transition to democracy. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria are prime examples of the failure of such thinking. In the first 11 months of 2013 alone, more than 8,000 people were killed in Iraq as a result of terrorism. Libya has been transformed into a lawless country controlled by various militia, with some having separatist tendencies. Syria has been completely destroyed, with an estimated 120,000 people killed. It has also become an operation center for some of the most extreme terrorist groups. In fact, as a result of the regime-change crusade of the past 12 years, jihadi groups of the Middle East have become stronger, not weaker.
A prosperous middle class is the agent for transition to democracy. Crippling economic sanctions only add millions of middle-class people to the ranks of the poor, denying the democratic movement of its most potent element. Under such conditions, everyone only struggles for survival, moral standards and trust decline, and democracy and human rights will be viewed as unaffordable luxury. Such conditions will kill and injure hundreds of thousands of people, and strengthen terrorism.
As an undemocratic regime, the Islamic Republic undoubtedly oppresses its people. The goal of the Iranian democratic forces is transitioning to a state committed to freedom and respect for human rights. Toward this goal, defenders of human rights and democratic forces cannot, and must not, ask Western powers to preserve or increase the current economic sanctions that are punishing only the common Iranian people, blocking the path to a nuclear accord and, hence, transforming Iran into another Iraq or Syria. The main issue in Iran is democracy and the elimination of all types of discrimination. Successful models for achieving such goals, as happened in South Africa, Brazil, Chile and Argentina, to name but a few, must be contrasted with a model based on crippling economic sanctions and even military action.
Step-by-step nuclear accords, the lifting of economic sanctions and the improvement of the relations between Iran and Western powers will gradually remove the warlike and securitized environment from Iran, save the people from their current harsh lives and strengthen the middle class. In fact, if there are friendly relations between Iran and Western powers, led by the United States, the West will be able to exert more positive influence on Iran to improve its state of human rights. Economic incentives, investment in Iran's oil industry, export of new technology and other encouragements are attractive enough to help open up the political system and improve human rights.
The release of all the political prisoners; freedom of the press, political parties and civic-society organizations; respect for human and citizens' rights; neutrality of the state with respect to religion; institutional separation of the state and religion; and the abolishment of capital punishment are the goals of all the Iranian democrats. But they can be achieved by the Iranian people themselves through nonviolent means, not with outside intervention and violence. Many Iranian intellectuals and academics and even Iran's political prisoners, both inside and outside Iran, advocate such a path. Western powers and international human rights organizations are morally obligated to condemn violations of human rights, but conditioning a nuclear accord with Iran on improving human rights will only destroy any prospect for the accord, and lead to war. Achieving respect for human rights and transitioning to democracy is possible only in a peaceful framework, not by constantly threatening the survival of the regime.
Releasing all the political prisoners, freedom of the press, political parties and civic-society organizations, respect for human and citizens' rights, neutrality of the state with respect to religion, institutional separation of the state and religion, and abolishing capital punishment are the goals of all the Iranian democrats. But, they can be achieved by the Iranian people themselves through non-violent means, not with outside intervention and violence. Many Iranian intellectuals and academics and even Iran's political prisoners, both inside and outside Iran, advocate such a path. Western powers and international human rights organizations are morally obligated to condemn violations of human rights, but conditioning a nuclear accord with Iran on improving human rights will only destroy any prospect for the accord, and lead to war. Achieving respect for human rights and transition to democracy is possible only in a peaceful framework, not through constantly threatening the regime for its survival.