It is easy to criticize U.S. policy toward the Middle East today: Washington's militaristic approach has contributed to the growth of fundamentalism and helped strengthen dictatorial regimes. Still, Iran's fundamentalist rulers often use such criticism as a way of disguising their own ineptitude and their responsibility for Iran's deplorable conditions— including the suppression of civil society, which is undergoing another severe crackdown as I write.
The mullahs' strategy is simple. To retain power, they need an enemy. They thus seek to keep their country on a perpetual war footing by playing up the notion that the Bush administration is conspiring to overthrow them, destroy the Islamic republic and undermine Islam itself. Nonviolent activists, human-rights defenders and intellectuals are labeled enemy agents. And Iran's deteriorating economic conditions are attributed to U.S. sanctions rather than to Tehran's chronic mismanagement.
Internationally, Iran calls on the great powers to practice benevolence, justice and brotherhood, yet it routinely violates these ideals itself. The Islamic republic has a deplorable human-rights record. In the summer of 1988, it executed thousands of political prisoners in disregard for even Iran's own legal procedures. In the 1990s, Intelligence Ministry agents assassinated dozens of Iranian dissidents at home and abroad under a project that later became known as "the serial killings." When this project was exposed during Mohammad Khatami's presidency, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei blamed a few rogue officers. Yet the people who had ordered the killings went unpunished, and many now serve in senior government posts.
Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the repression has intensified. Dozens of newspapers have been banned, Web sites blocked, proponents of greater rights for women and ethnic and religious minorities suppressed. Books are severely censored. In November, an academic journal, Madreseh, was banned for daring to publish the views of Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, a distinguished dissident cleric. In all, more than 100 such independent publications have been shut down in recent years. Meanwhile, religious scholars who question the government's line, such as Mohsen Kadivar, Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari and Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, have been jailed or placed under house arrest. So have workers, such as Mansour Osanloo, who have tried to form independent trade unions. Students who criticize government policy are taken to jail, where they are forced to confess to crimes they have not committed.
Beginning last summer, Ahmadinejad's government launched what it calls a "societal-security project." On the pretext of combating manifestations of immorality, police have beaten innocent women and youngsters in the streets for displays of "immodesty," such as holding hands or wearing tight-fitting or stylish clothing. They have detained many others. The "project" is having tragic consequences. On Oct. 13, for example, a physician named Zahra Bani Yacoub was seized for daring to walk unescorted alongside her fiancé; a few days later, police handed over her corpse to her family, with no explanation. Iran's rulers constantly speak about protecting women's dignity, yet they violently suppress Iranian women. The regime preaches religious, moral and spiritual values, yet it practices the antithesis of these values.
Meanwhile, thanks to Khamenei's nuclear ambitions, Iranians now face the possibility of new sanctions and an unwanted and ruinous war. Iran's reformists oppose the nuclear program, which they have criticized in open and confidential letters to the government, calling on Tehran to suspend the enrichment of nuclear fuel. Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi and other human-rights activists have insisted that the government hold a referendum on its nuclear policies so the public's real views can be established. But the government, unsurprisingly, has refused.
In this struggle, as in the general fight for democracy and human rights, Iranians need the support of the international community, including the American people. At this moment, the best thing Americans could do for us would be to prevent their own government from launching another war in the Middle East and to urge it to desist from threatening Iran with military strikes and regime change. Such rhetoric only strengthens the Iranian regime and makes our work more difficult.
Iran's pro-democracy movement is rooted in the country's moral, cultural and spiritual values. The fight for freedom is our own responsibility, not that of the Bush administration. Iranians need the American people to support us by lobbying their government to adopt policies that will help the forces of democracy and civil society. The Middle East desperately needs peace, not another war.